The Russian carrier Admiral Kuznetsov passed through the UK’s area of interest, en route to the Mediterranean, between 28 December 2013 and 10 January 2014. The carrier task group had openly declared its planned deployment on social media sites. Its progress was monitored from the point of its deployment from Russia, and it informed NATO before it commenced routine flying operations.
Once it became apparent that the task group was indeed likely to enter the UK’s area of interest, HMS Defender, as the fleet ready escort ship, was ordered to sail from Portsmouth to meet and escort the group through the UK’s area of interest. This was several days before the task group’s arrival to the north of Scotland. The Russian task group operated in international waters off the coast of Scotland and followed international protocols to arrange their flying exercises. Their contact with HMS Defender was highly professional and cordial throughout.
I am glad to be able to tell the House that the idea that we were caught unawares by this deployment is entirely false, as is any suggestion that there was some kind of stand-off between HMS Defender and the Russian vessels.
We are wholeheartedly relieved to hear that the episode passed off so peacefully and so cordially, and that the relations between the Kuznetsov and HMS Defender remain as strong as they are. Does the Secretary of State not agree in looking to the future—given that 48 ships have gone through the North sea shipping route to the far east this year, and that there is increasing fishing and increasing drilling for oil and minerals in the Arctic—that it is terribly important for our armed services to have first-class relations with those of Russia? I hope that this episode will be the beginning of such relations.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The fact is that we have very cordial relationships with the Russians and good working relationships with the Russian armed forces, but we should not lose sight of the fact that we cannot be confident that our strategic interests will always align with those of Russia. We should therefore engage and work together with them when we can, but, frankly, we should recognise that our strategic interests may differ at times.
The arrival of the Russian navy off the Scottish coast was the second time in two years that this has happened, yet the Royal Navy does not have a single frigate or destroyer based in Scotland for such eventualities. Last week, the Ministry of Defence confirmed that the fleet ready escort has been gapped for 37 days in recent years. Why has there been a gap to the fleet ready escort?
The hon. Gentleman is flogging a dead horse, frankly. We do not need a frigate stationed in Scottish waters; we need good intelligence about the intentions of vessels approaching the UK’s area of interest, and we have that good intelligence. He talks about the number of frigates and destroyers available. He might like to tell the House how many frigates and destroyers his Scottish navy would have available within its extremely limited budget.
The hon. Gentleman also talks about the gapping of the fleet ready escort, which has occurred for 37 days in the past five years. During that period, there was no specific vessel designated as the fleet ready escort, but that does not mean that there were no royal naval vessels available to respond in case of necessity. In addition to the fleet ready escort, royal naval vessels are usually available to be tasked, as necessary.
If it is safe to assume that these Russian warships were not planning to bombard Mr Salmond, may we assume that they were there to establish the unimpeded rights of Russia to exploit oil in the Arctic? If so, will we have reciprocal rights to look for oil in the Russian Arctic?
The clear stated intention, which was subsequently borne out by events, was that the Kuznetsov carrier task group would proceed from Russia to the eastern Mediterranean, where it currently is. In accordance with the pattern of its last deployment, it stopped in the relatively sheltered waters of the Moray firth to re-oil on its way to the eastern Mediterranean. This is all perfectly normal procedure, and it was notified to NATO in advance.
Does not the debate on this issue underline the importance of our combined—UK—Royal Navy, and also the potential in the strategic NATO alliance? Does the Secretary of State not agree that, in the words of another political figure, it would be “unpardonable folly” to put at risk that NATO alliance by disavowing the very strategic nuclear concept on which it is based?
The hon. Gentleman is right on all counts. NATO’s strategic nuclear concept of course provides protection for the whole of the United Kingdom. Our very close relationship with our NATO allies—in this case, specifically with Norway—ensures that we have good visibility and good intelligence about Russian vessels and, indeed, Russian aircraft approaching the UK’s area of interest.
I am sure that all Members are immensely grateful for the part played by social media in providing the United Kingdom with intelligence in advance of the Kuznetsov’s arrival in the UK’s area of interest. To put a serious point to my right hon. Friend, surely this incident underlines the need for this Government and this country to have a successor to the Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft, and shows that until we get such a successor aircraft, we will be at risk.
I do not disagree with my hon. Friend’s assertion that we need to look at how we provide maritime surveillance cover. That will be part of the strategic defence and security review in 2015. However, I am afraid that he cannot argue that this incident demonstrates that need. In fact, this incident shows that we are perfectly capable of maintaining an intelligence picture through imagery, signals intelligence and reports from our NATO allies of movements of Russian ships without having access to maritime patrol aircraft.
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not have time to amend his question following my last answer. We will review the provision of maritime patrol cover in the strategic defence and security review in 2015. We will look at the need for it and at how it could be provided, including the possibility that it could be provided through the use of unmanned aerial systems. It is a bit rich for him to say that the gap in maritime patrol cover was created by this Government. What this Government did was to recognise the reality that his Government had been investing in aircraft that would never fly, would never be certified and would never be able to deliver a capability.