MoD admits to gaps in sea defence

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  By Anne-Marie O’Donnell

The Ministry of Defence has admitted a lack of resources led to UK waters being left exposed on at least two occasions since 2011 for periods of almost three weeks.

In a letter to Westminster SNP leader and defence spokesman Angus Robertson MP, the minister of state for the armed forces, Mark Francois MP, admitted that there were two incidents in 2011 and 2012 in which the Royal Navy did not have a dedicated ‘Fleet Ready Escort’ (FRE) frigate or destroyer on patrol.  He went on to admit that the MoD couldn’t say for certain that those were the only incidents which left UK waters without proper protection.

“Ministers have been informed on two occasions that the FRE commitment would not be covered by a dedicated vessel, once in 2011 for a period of 19 days and once in 2012 for a period of 18 days,” Mr Francois wrote.  “A record of the ships assigned to FRE tasking in the last five years is not held centrally and could only be provided only at disproportionate cost.”

The news follows a recent scare when a Russian aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, strayed into waters off the Moray Firth coast just before Christmas.  The Navy was left red faced and vulnerable when its only option was to despatch a vessel from 600 miles away in Portsmouth to shadow the Russian ship, taking 24 hours to arrive.

It was the second such incident near Scottish waters in recent years. In December 2011, the 65,000 tonne Kuznetsov became the first vessel of its size to be deployed so close to UK water for 20 years. The SNP has been highly critical of the scrapping of the Nimrod fleet, which has left the UK without a dedicated maritime patrol aircraft.

In addition, in May 2007 two Russian aircraft were identified watching a Royal Navy exercise over the Western Isles and the UK was forced to scramble Tornado F3 jets to intercept and escort them. The incidents have raised serious concerns over the UK’s ability to adequately protect the region of the UK that houses its nuclear weapons.

“The MOD has now officially confirmed there have been gaps in designated vessel coverage for UK waters,” Mr Robertson commented.  During recent unexpected visits by the Russian navy the MOD has needed to despatch ships from the south coast of England to Scottish waters because there are no appropriate conventional naval vessels based in Scotland.

“It is purely down to chance that these unexpected visits didn’t happen during 37 days when there was not a designated ‘Fleet Ready Escort’ vessel available from the Royal Navy.

“Scotland needs much better maritime security arrangements than the MOD currently provides.  With dedicated Frigates and Maritime Patrol Aircraft permanently available and based in Scotland we can ensure proper security priorities after independence.”