Priorities and Options for SDSR 2015 – An Eastern and Northern Threat



A far more potentially challenging threat could come from a resurgent Russia.

How prepared and effective are British and European NATO forces to counter such a possibility?

In the north, Norway shares a land border with Russia and this area is the main home of the Russian Navy.

The UK could initially deploy the Royal Marines Commandos with the support of a naval amphibious group made up of two amphibious transport docks, three landing ships and three destroyers/frigates together with one Wildcat attack helicopter Squadron and two Merlin transport helicopter Squadrons to support Norwegian ground forces.

This could be further backed up with one Armoured Infantry Brigade from the Reaction Force including 56 Challenger 2 main battle tanks.  Finally, if the situation should deteriorate further an Infantry Brigade from the Adaptable Force could be deployed to form 2nd (UK) Division.  Air support would be provided by carrier based F-35Bs, locally based Apache and Wildcat attack/assault helicopter Squadrons and UK based ISTAR Squadrons.

UK Naval Defence

UK Naval Defence – the white area can be covered by Maritime Patrol Aircraft operating from RAF Aldergrove, the yellow area is covered by anti-shipping Typhoons also based at RAF Aldergrove, the blue is covered by two RN carrier groups, the green by a French naval carrier group and the orange by anti-submarine patrols made up of destroyers, frigates and patrol ships with helicopters.

At sea the Royal Navy would send one carrier group to the Norwegian Sea consisting of three F-35B Squadrons (one Naval Air Squadron in the fleet air defence/anti-shipping role and two RAF Squadrons primarily supporting land forces), maritime/AEW helicopters and three destroyers/frigates.  This group would work with the naval amphibious group and be joined by a French carrier group and amphibious group.  Patrolling between Norway and Greenland this NATO naval task force would provide air support to ground forces in Norway, plus surface vessels from other NATO countries.

In the Western Approaches the RN would deploy a second carrier group with one F-35B Naval Air Squadron supported by maritime/AEW helicopters and three destroyers/frigates.

All remaining destroyers, frigates and patrol vessels, their helicopters and attack submarines would patrol the areas not covered by the carrier groups with the highest priority going to the approaches to Faslane.

Air defence of the UK would be provided by two Typhoon Squadrons based at RAF Lossiemouth to defend the north and two Squadrons (including the majority of the OCU) based at RAF Coningsby to defend the east.  These would be backed up by AESA equipped and Meteor capable F-16 aggressors and Hawks plus Land Ceptor SAMs.

Even with the full deployment of NATO naval forces there would still be plenty of areas of the Atlantic not covered by maritime defences.  To cover these areas a Maritime Patrol Squadron supported by an anti-shipping Flight of Typhoons would operate from RAF Aldergrove.

To provide a minimum effective defence of the area around Norway and the UK would require:

  • 2nd (UK) Division consisting of 1 Royal Marines Commando Brigade, 1 Armoured Infantry Brigade including 56 Challenger 2 main battle tanks plus 1 Adaptable Force Infantry Brigade
  • 1 Apache AH Squadron
  • 1 Wildcat Marines AH Squadron
  • 2 Merlin HC Squadrons
  • 1 Chinook HC Squadron
  • 5 Typhoon units – 4 air defence Squadrons plus 1 anti-shipping Flight
  • 1 E-3 Sentry AWACS Squadron
  • elements of 5 ISTAR Squadrons
  • 1 A330 Voyager aerial tanker Squadron
  • 2 F-16 aggressor Squadrons
  • 2 Hawk Squadrons
  • Land Ceptor SAMs
  • 1 Maritime Patrol Squadron
  • 2 aircraft carriers
  • 4 F-35B Squadrons – 2 fleet air defence/anti-shipping and 2 CAS/SEAD/land strike
  • 7 attack submarines, 19 destroyers/frigates and 3 offshore patrol vessels
  • 4 Merlin HMA Squadrons and
  • 2 Wildcat HMA Squadrons.

Regular training with Norwegian forces and French aircraft carrier and amphibious groups to aid effectiveness, co-operation and inter-operability should be a high priority.

The main battlefield would, however, be in Eastern Europe.  In a period of heightened tension NATO would particularly want to be able to move forces quickly to the region.  It is vital that all local countries maintain surplus air bases in good quality condition where air and ground forces could be deployed.

For the UK, initial deployment would come from Special Forces and the Air Assault Brigade including four Apache and two Wildcat attack/assault helicopter Squadrons.  These would be backed up by two Armoured Infantry Brigades from the Reaction Force.  Together with a reserve tank Regiment this would form 3rd (UK) Division including 168 Challenger 2 main battle tanks.

Further support would come from the deployment of the majority of the Adaptable Force consisting of eventually three Armoured Infantry Brigades.  These would form 1st (UK) Division.

Additional combat capability would be found by assigning 156 Challenger 2 tanks, held in storage, to three regular Adaptable Force Light Cavalry Regiments in periods of heightened tension.  They would receive basic tank training during peacetime with additional training being supplied by armoured units of the Reaction Force should the international situation deteriorate.  The Challenger 2s would be held in storage at Monchengladbach in Germany with crews being flown there for deployment only when the need arose.  This would convert these units into three Armoured Regiments.

Javelin missile training in Jordan

European NATO countries need to make up for a numerical disadvantage in armour with large stocks of anti-armour guided missiles.

Air support would be provided by at least four swing-role fighter Squadrons, elements of five ISTAR Squadrons and five helicopter transport Squadrons.

To provide a minimum effective defence in Eastern Europe would require:

  • Special Forces
  • 3rd (UK) Division consisting of 1 Air Assault Brigade and 2 Armoured Infantry Brigades with 168 Challenger 2 main battle tanks
  • 1st (UK) Division consisting of 3 Armoured Infantry Brigades with a total of 156 Challenger 2s
  • 4 Apache AH Squadrons
  • 2 Wildcat AH Squadrons
  • 1 Lynx AH Squadron and 1 Dauphin LAH Squadron – dedicated to Special Forces
  • 3 Chinook HC Squadrons
  • 2 Puma HC Squadrons
  • 4 swing-role fighter Squadrons and
  • elements of 5 ISTAR Squadrons.

Regular training with local ground and air forces is absolutely essential to aid effectiveness, co-operation and inter-operability especially with newer NATO members.

As Poland still operates 30 Su-22 and 30 MiG-29 Soviet-era fighters we should work with the German government to provide them with a financing deal that would enable the Polish Air Force to replace these aircraft with Eurofighter Typhoons.

However, the major question is: are these forces really strong and capable enough to provide an adequate defence?

This can best be assessed by comparing the current armed balance between Russia and the European NATO members to see if there are any particular deficiencies which need to be addressed.

Similarly to the Cold War, Russia has a marked advantage in the number of main battle tanks.  At present they have 2,500 in active service, but over 12,500 in reserve!  This compares to only about 6,000 between the European NATO members even including reserves.  That gives Russia a 2.5:1 advantage.  However, most of their tanks are older and less effective.  This is why we need to retain all of our formidable and still serviceable Challenger 2 tanks.

Russia also has an advantage in the number of infantry fighting vehicles and armoured personnel carriers.  They have 6,000 in active service and 21,500 in reserve.  European NATO has a total of about 22,000 so the advantage is only 1.25:1.  Altogether Russia can field 45,000 armoured vehicles (including 2,500 units of self-propelled artillery).

An Apache helicopter from 4 Regiment, 656 Squadron Army Air Corps, during live firing training at Otterburn Raanges in Northumberland.
Photographer: Peter Davies from

European NATO countries have numerical air superiority and operate newer aircraft such as the Apache attack helicopter and F-35, Typhoon and Rafale.

The number of attack helicopters is very similar with both Russia and European NATO operating about 500.  However, Russia relies very heavily on the older Mi-25 whereas NATO has the more capable Apache and Eurocopter Tiger.

European NATO air forces are numerically superior to Russia’s with around 2,200 combat aircraft compared to about 1,700 Russian aircraft.  NATO also has an advantage with 320 stealth fighters currently on order compared to Russia’s 60 and 680 advanced Typhoons, Rafales and Gripens largely in service compared to just 380 of the latest Su-30/33/34/35s and MiG-35s mostly on order.

European NATO naval power is numerically superior to Russia’s.  NATO has five aircraft carriers either currently in service or on order compared to Russia’s one.  Russia is also considerably outnumbered in the rest of its surface fleet.  While it has five cruisers and NATO has none, it has only 17 destroyers/frigates and even if you add in the 74 smaller corvettes that only makes 96 surface warships.  In contrast European NATO countries have 121 destroyers and frigates.

Under the water Russia has six cruise missile and 33 attack submarines compared to NATO’s 58 attack submarines.

HMS Daring works with Carrier Strike Group

European NATO forces have a clear numerical advantage at sea.

In conclusion, European NATO members have a clear numerical advantage over Russia both at sea and in the air but Russia has the advantage on the ground.

The rest of the series

1 – Introduction

2 – Defence of the UK

3 – Other Sovereign Territories

4 – NATO

5 – A Southern or Middle Eastern Threat

6 – An Eastern and Northern Threat

7 – Global Intervention

8 – Land Command 2025; Appendix 1 – Army 2025

9 – Naval Command 2025; Appendix 2 – Royal Navy 2025

10 – Air Command 2025; Appendix 3 – RAF 2025

11 – Conclusion – The Options for Change; Appendix 4 – An Abundance of Riches: MoD Procurement 2015-25

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