European Union waters will be severely constrained following Brexit. The vessels of Baltic and Benelux countries will have to transit United Kingdom waters to reach the high seas; or go the long way via the waters of the Faroe Islands, Norway and Iceland. In peacetime, and with compliance of the rules of innocent passage, this should not be a problem. In a war scenario the situation will be very different. Assuming that NATO is not undermined by the new EU army and defence union, it can be anticipated that the only credible threat to the UK mainland would come from the air-force and navy of the Russian Federation. Because of treaty obligations the UK would be obliged to respond to aggression anywhere against a NATO partner. In reality the priority for the UK would be to stop the Russian Navy reaching the high seas of the North Atlantic through the Greenland Iceland United Kingdom (GIUK) gap, and the Russian Airforce coming down the coast of Norway in to the North Sea or via the west coast of Ireland. The next priority would be to deter or oppose an anticipated invasion by the Russian Army across its land border with Norway by the deployment of airborne and amphibious forces. Given the current state of the UK armed forces this is a big ask, especially for the Royal Navy that is being stretched like an elastic band and in danger of snapping.
This situation is not helped by current UK diplomacy that is going global and EU expansion to the East that antagonise Russia. Dialogue is a must to overcome distrust and establish a new equitable order in the Northern Hemisphere. However, UK armed forces must be alert at all times and ready for any eventuality, which requires them to be adequately and properly resourced.
Imagine a contrived situation where a RN carrier task force is drawn to a crisis in the South China Sea. China and Russia gift military resources to Argentina that require another RN carrier task force to deploy to the Falkland Islands. Incidents in Lapland, with Finland and Sweden neutral, prompt an excuse for Russian action across the Norway border. And a large Chinese fishing fleet arriving in the North Atlantic to provocatively infringe the neutral Irish Exclusive Economic Zone. Fanciful? Perhaps, but it would be a good plan of attack.
The aim would be to create distractions as part of a bigger plan. A few years ago (2013) Spain agreed to sell its surplus fleet of Mirage F1 fighters, spares and training simulator to Argentina at a give away price of £10m. Argentina and Spain are coordinating their claims on the Falklands and Gibraltar. Following UK pressure our ally cancelled the deal in 2014. With the dire state of the Argentine economy their armed forces are non-operational. That situation will not last for ever. There have been reports that Russia has offered to lease them some modern jets as a response to the UK imposing sanctions. China has offered them some fighter aircraft and has form for gifting vessels to other countries. Defending the Falklands would override any other priority, and as before we would be on our own as the operation would be south of the Tropic of Cancer.
The next distraction could be the Chinese fishing fleet in the North Atlantic. The Irish EEZ extends 200 nautical miles and in 2007 Ireland was the first coastal country to exercise its right to claim its continental shelf out to 350 nautical miles. This is a huge area to patrol and following Brexit it will be separated from other EU waters by UK waters to the north and south. Would China come that far to catch fish? Yes, if they copied Japan. In 2015 there was a standoff between the Irish Naval Service and a fleet of thirty Japanese trawlers. While the trawlers were careful to stay outside the limit, it was possible that their nets stretching for hundreds of miles were not. Irish Air Corps maritime patrol aircraft were deployed to determine the situation and collect evidence. This could easily have happened in UK waters to the north and south, but their were no reports to indicate that our stretched RN fishery protection patrol vessels were on alert. A Chinese fishing fleet is a completely different matter.
Based on the information in the above link China would start fishing in the North Atlantic as a cover for intelligence gathering. Then after several annual visits, and with two RN carrier task forces away from home, a provocative situation would be engineered in GIUK gap waters where they break international law but deny doing so and present themselves as victims – even inviting arrest or attacks on their trawlers. After sacrificing some pawns they appeal to Russia for help. Russia sends fighters and bombers to the west coast of Ireland [the undefended backdoor] and is faced by RAF Typhoons. The UK already provides air cover by agreement over the whole island of Ireland and in a tense situation accidents happen that can escalate out of control. If the Irish Naval Service required support it would be inconceivable for the RN not to respond positively. China has already ignored international law in the South China Sea and acted aggressively in the East China Sea, with Taiwan also being increasingly threatened. In this melee Norway attacks a Russian submarine encroaching in its territorial waters, which results in the excuse for the Russian Army to cross in to North Norway. Only a USN carrier fleet can come to the rescue, but as with Korea and Vietnam, they have all been deployed to the Pacific. What the French carrier force in the Mediterranean would do is anyones guess.
Rebuilding the RN is an absolute priority. The 2018 links below from the Save the Royal Navy website help to explain where we are. In the next posts we will set out where we need to be.