British warships last year sortied to intercept Russian vessels sailing near U.K. waters at a rate twice what it was in 2013, U.K. Defense Journal reported.
Royal Navy ships on 31 occasions in 2018 intercepted Russian ships, up from 12 occasions in 2013.
The period of heightened Russian naval activity roughly coincided with Russia’s annexation of Ukraine in 2014, the Russian intervention in Syria in 2015 and escalating tensions between Russia and NATO along the North Atlantic alliance’s eastern flank.
U.K. Defense Journal published its full tally of British-Russian naval encounters, based on data the journal obtained from the Ministry of Defense. There were 11 encounters in 2014, 14 in 2015, 20 in 2016, 33 in 2017 and 31 in 2018.
The sharp increase in Russian activity through 2018 occurred as the Royal Navy struggled to maintain a viable fleet.
Periodic cuts since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 have shrunk the British military roughly by half. The most recent rounds of cuts starting in 2010 eliminated, among other forces, two aircraft carriers, two amphibious ships and four frigates, plus the Royal Air Force’s maritime patrol planes and carrier-compatible Harrier jump jets. Uniformed manpower dropped by 30,000.
As recently as late 2017, there were rumors that the United Kingdom might try to offset the cost of the country's exit from the European Union by further cutting the military. Amphibious ships appeared to be particularly vulnerable.
Fortunately for U.K. forces, funding stabilized at around $55 billion annually. In 2017 and 2018, the government allocated the armed forces an extra $2 billion, combined, above planned spending levels, enough to employ 196,000 active and reserve sailors, soldiers, airmen and civilian personnel.
The extra money in part came from a $13-billion reserve fund for four new Dreadnought-class ballistic-missile submarines that the Royal Navy is developing at a total cost of around $39 billion, which is nearly as much as the entire British military spends in a year.
Banking on the higher level of spending to continue, officials plan on building and maintaining a fleet including two Queen Elizabeth-class carriers, six Type 26 destroyers, eight Type 26 frigates, five low-cost Type 31 frigates, seven Astute-class attack submarine, 24 patrol vessels, 12 minehunters, five amphibious assault ships and nine logistics ships, together embarking six helicopter squadrons and 48 F-35 stealth fighters.
But that bigger fleet still mostly exists on paper.
Of course, Russia also has struggled to maintain its fleet. More large ships are decommissioning and smaller vessels are taking their place, reshaping what was once a major global force into a new kind of regional fleet.
In April 2019 the Kremlin decided to dismantle rather than revamp two Cold War-vintage Kirov-class battlecruisers. Moscow likewise is considering scrapping its sole aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov rather than pay for maintenance and upgrades.
The accidental sinking of the PD-50 drydock in October 2018 could weigh on the decision. PD-50 was the only drydock in northern Russia that could accommodate Kuznetsov.
The fleet’s transformation has been controversial in Russia. Paul Goble at the Jamestown Foundation in late April 2019 summarized the debate. “Capt. Konstantin Sivkov, the president of the Academy of Geopolitical Issues and a frequent critic of the government, for example, has argued that the Russian military maritime fleet today is in a horrific condition,” Goble wrote.
“The [surface] vessels that are really able to go to sea can be counted on one’s fingers,” Goble quoted Sivkov as saying.
Perhaps not coincidentally, there was just one U.K.-Russian naval encounter between January and March 2019. The destroyer HMS Defender shadowed the Russian frigate Admiral Gorshkov and three auxiliary ships. “Defender continued to track the group until they had left what the MoD described as the U.K.’s ‘area of national interest,’” U.K. Defense Journal explained.
It’s unclear whether the comparatively low number of interceptions so far in 2019 signals an overall slowdown in the pace of Russian deployments.