Russia’s submarines are circling Britain’s entire coastline, the Defence Secretary has told The Telegraph as he named Moscow as the UK’s “number one adversary threat”.
Ben Wallace revealed a submarine was spotted in the Irish Sea late last year as he attacked Russia for “regularly” sending vessels to Britain. He said the UK’s waters were “regularly visited” by Russian ships and said Moscow had been carrying out “a number of operations, deliberately at Britain”.
Confirmed sightings are rare but at least seven Russian naval ships and a submarine were spotted off the UK last year, and a further 26 ships and one submarine in 2020.
Since 2013, there have been at least 150 instances of Russian naval assets detected by the UK, with Royal Navy fleets often sending a frigate or destroyer to intercept or monitor their movements.
Normally Russian vessels are spotted in the North Sea or English Channel. However, Mr Wallace said a Russian kilo class submarine was spotted in the Irish Sea at the end of last year, adding that the UK had not seen one there “for a very, very long time. It might have been for the first.”
It is the first time the Government has confirmed their presence in the Irish Sea.
He said: “We’re regularly visited by nosy Russian ships, and we are regularly visited now by a number of Russian warships.”
He added: “We have tried de-escalation, we have tried methods but at the moment until Russia changes its attitude, it’s quite hard to see where we’re going to go. This is a country that killed someone in Salisbury.”
Mr Wallace was speaking as the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth left Portsmouth on her 26,000 mile maiden voyage to the Far East.
In an interview with The Telegraph, he said this showed that Britain was “back” as a global military force able to project that power thousands of miles from home.
Free of the EU, we can firm up our old alliances, says Ben Wallace
“As a Remainer I am of course gutted by the result,” Ben Wallace said on the morning after the result of the 2016 Brexit referendum. “But it is now my duty to make sure the UK thrives in the world and stays together.”
Fast forward nearly five years and as Defence Secretary Mr Wallace is doing just that, as he starts to dust down old international alliances that had been somewhat overlooked when the UK was a member of the European Union.
At the centre of the UK’s re-engagement with old allies after Brexit are the Navy’s two new aircraft carriers, HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Queen Elizabeth.
When we met in his Ministry of Defence office last Friday, Mr Wallace had just bade adieu to the Queen Elizabeth, which departed on Saturday on its maiden 26,000-mile global tour.
Mr Wallace sees the carrier as a “convener” that will provide a focal point for the world’s powers to gather around and forge alliances. A visit by the Nato secretary general is planned during a voyage that will take in 40 countries on the way to Japan.
The carrier “is already showing that it’s not just an airfield. It is a convener, it is a projection”, he says.
“It is where hard and soft power meet, where the rubber hits the road. So, going to the Pacific shows that we can operate 8,000 miles away.
“It shows that our friends like Japan – with common values, democracy, open economies – that we have that common link and that we can operate together, because the biggest strength is people who share our values. We have alliances and we have friends.”
This year, for example, the UK will mark the 50th anniversary of the Five Power Defence Arrangements – the oldest military alliance in the Pacific between Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and the United Kingdom.
“The future foreign policy in the world is, apart from Nato and the G7, more and more quadrilaterals, trilaterals and bilaterals between countries on issues that they have common cause,” he says.
“Long before there was an emerging China and long before ‘we are where we are’, Britain had an alliance with countries that are strategically important. The thing about that alliance is its age, which gives us credibility. That’s not suddenly coming into fashion. It is an alliance that has just bubbled under the surface, done lots of things together. It gives us legitimacy.”
He adds: “Britain will always have a love and a link with the Middle East, it was always going to. And we will have strong links with Pakistan and India – sometimes just at a trade level, sometimes just at a cultural level. We’re not going to leave any of that behind.”
For Mr Wallace, the carriers demonstrate that Britain is “back” as a global military force able to project that power thousands of miles from home.
“This carrier represents hard power [as well as] British manufacturing, British skills. It represents Britain’s coalitions, with the United States and it represents Britain’s reach.
“This ship has not gone to Jersey, this ship has gone to Japan. That is what’s back. A sense that our future lies a bit further than just the Channel. We are going there in a confident manner, but not a confrontational manner.”
Mr Wallace pushes back at claims that the carrier’s voyage to the Far East will avoid travelling between China and Taiwan to avoid antagonising Beijing.
“We are going to the South China Sea, the East China Sea and the Philippine Sea,” he says. “The route there, and the route back is always subject to potential change. So, nothing is signed and sealed.”
This kind of military projection would not have been possible if the UK had remained in the EU, he says, adding: “Any country that wants to play to its strengths, historical strengths or common economical strengths, gets held back.”
Mr Wallace is wary about engaging in a game of “Top Trumps” about which country has the best piece of military kit. “Top Trumps got us these very expensive Type 45s [destroyers], that don’t work or didn’t work, and are tied up in Portsmouth,” he says candidly.
I ask if a new HMY Britannia forms part of his plans. The Telegraph disclosed this month that a new flagship named HMS Prince Philip is planned as a successor to the royal yacht, which was axed in 1997.
Mr Wallace says: “There’s definitely a need for a ship or a platform of any type, that bridges the gap between hard power and soft power.
“There is definitely a role in this world for soft power whether that is diplomatic power, economic power, scientific power, cultural power, there is absolutely a need for a showcase of that, of British values.”
The real audience for this hardware is of course the UK’s enemies. And for Mr Wallace, Russia is the UK’s “number one adversary threat”.
He says: “We have tried de-escalation, we have tried methods, but at the moment until Russia changes its attitude, it’s quite hard to see where we’re going to go. This is a country that killed someone in Salisbury.”
Russia has recently been carrying out “a number of operations, deliberately at Britain” notably late last year when nine vessels were spotted around the UK.
“We saw a Russian submarine in the Irish Sea, which I don’t think we have seen for a very, very long time,” he says.
Mr Wallace has a warning too for Scottish nationalists trying to break up the UK.
“The Union has been the canvas that has let Scots reach their full potential, both domestically and as part of the military and foreign service,” he says. “The United Kingdom’s security would be weaker by separation.”