The Russo-Ukraine war: Implications for UK Defence

Excellent analysis of the implications of the Russo-Ukraine War for British defence policy by Geraint Hughes of the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London.

Defence-In-Depth

Geraint Hughes, Defence Studies Department, King’s College London

Over a month has passed since Vladimir Putin launched his ‘special military operation’ to subjugate Ukraine. Russia’s blatant and unprovoked invasion of its neighbour has caused amajor international crisis, with Britain and other NATO powers being presented with the hard task of helping the Ukrainians to defend their homeland while simultaneously avoiding escalation with its nuclear-armed aggressor. The aim of this post is to summarise the key implications of this war for Britain’s defence policy, and also for its armed forces in particular.

The 2021Integrated Reviewand the ensuingDefence White Paperemphasised the ‘sub-threshold’ threat that Russia and other potential adversaries posed to the UK and its allies, arguing that Britain’s enemies would utilise tools of statecraft short of overt warfare (propaganda, military sabre-rattling, covert action etc) to achieve their objectives. This thinking reflected current conceptions of‘political…

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SMS Seeadler: A First World War Sailing Warship

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/wreck-sheds-light-on-the-downfall-of-one-of-the-last-sail-raiders-0mppjwbw0?shareToken=87b75d3ec84295b899a2ccce31ce0225

The wreck of the German First World War commerce raider Seeadler was recently discovered strewn across the Mopelia atoll, almost 300 miles west of Tahiti in French Polynesia. The link below from The Times above includes pictures of the wreck

SMS Seeadler was one of the last sail powered warships. She was built in Glasgow as the merchantmen Pass of Belhama and was US owned and registered by August 1915, when she was captured by the U-boat U36. She was flying British colours at the time of her capture as a British cruiser had stopped her on suspicion of carrying contrabrand and put aboard a prize crew to take her to a British port.

U36 was later sunk by the British Q-ship Prince Charles, making her the first U-boat to be sunk by a Q-ship, an apparently innocuous merchant ship that carried a concealed armament.

The Germans also gave merchant ships hidden weapons, in their case to act as commerce raiders. Pass of Belhama was chosen to be one such ship. She was renamed SMS Seeadler and given a concealed armament of two 105mm guns, two machines guns and two torpedo tubes.

She was also fitted with accommodation for prisoners, including a library of English and French books, an auxiliary engine that meant that she was not dependent solely on the wind for propulsion, oil tanks holding 40 tons of oil and large fresh water tanks.[1]

Kapitänleutnant Felix Graf von Luckner was appointed her captain. He had refused to follow his father into the cavalry and served on a number of sailing merchant ships before joining the German navy. One of them was Norwegian and he spoke fluent Norwegian.[2]

Seeadler was disguised as the Norwegian ship Irma. Her deck machinery, thermometers, barometers and compasses bore the names of Norwegian companies. Her crew included  another 23 Norwegian speakers. They were given cover stories that included love letters in Norwegian and family photos stamped with the names of Norwegian photographers. They were required them to become experts on their alleged home towns by reading about them in Bäedeker’s tourist guide.[3]

Seeadler sailed on 21 December 1916 and on Christmas Day she was stopped between by a British armed merchant cruiser between the Faeroes and Iceland. All of the crew except the Norwegian speakers stayed below, heavily armed. The boarding officers were satisfied that the Seeadler was the Norwegian Irma but their boat had problems getting clear and they almost saw the screw of the auxiliary engine, which was not mentioned in her papers. Von Luckner, however, avoided this be distracting them with a rope.[4]

Seeadler’s sails gave her a wide radius of action. She headed into the Atlantic and captured two steamers off the Azores before heading to the South Atlantic, where her mission was to attack the sailing trade.[5]

On 28 July 1917, Seeadler anchored outside the narrow entrance to a lagoon at the uninhabited island of Mopeha. The crew were showing signs of scurvy and plenty of coconuts and turtles were available there. The crew camped ashore. On 2 August a sea storm started suddenly, wrecking Seeadler.[6]

According to The Times, von Luckner blamed this on a tsunami but Seeadler’s logbook and the position of her anchor and other parts of the ship show that she had been poorly anchored when the crew went ashore.

Two boats, provisions, firearms and enough canvas and spars to construct shelters for the crew were saved. Von Luckner then set off with three officers and two seaman with the intention of capturing a schooner and returning for the rest of his crew.

Von Luckner managed to persuade the British Chief Resident on Atiu in the Cook Islands that he and his men were Dutch Americans and obtained fresh fruit and provisions. They then sailed westwards. At their next stop, Aituaki, the inhabitants saw through them, but were unarmed so the Germans continued to Wakaya, where they were arrested by the police.[7]

Von Luckner was first imprisoned at Suva, then transferred to New Zealand, where he was held with interned Germans from Samoa on the island of Motuihi. He led an escape, initially using the commandant’s launch before capturing a schooner and reaching the Kermadec Islands, where they were recaptured by the cable steamer Iris. He was then held more securely but continued to plot escape attempts.[8]

The remainder of the crew, led by Leutnant Kling,  managed to capture a small French schooner, which they sailed to Easter Island. They were captured by a Chilean cruiser and interned as belligerents who had taken refuge in neutral territory.[9]

Seeadler  captured or sank three British and one French steamers with an aggregate tonnage of 12,000 tons gross and 12 sailing ships, four of them British, with a tonnage totalling just under 18,000 tons. This includes the schooner captured by Kling and his men. The British official history of the trade war at sea says that this ‘was a creditable record for a ship of her class but had little significance in relation to the volume of Allied trade.’[10]

According to The Times, Seeadler was responsible for the death of only one enemy sailor, a 16 year old member of the crew of the French barque Horngarth, who was accidentally struck by a warning shot.= fired by Seeadler,

There was also only one death amongst Seeadler’s crew: a dachshund called Schnäutchen who apparently had a heart attack after meeting a hermit crab. Schnäutchen probably combined the roles of ship’s mascot and rodent controller.

Bibliography

Bridgland, Tony. Sea Killers in Disguise. Barnsley: Leo Cooper, 1999.

Fayle, G. Ernest. Seaborne Trade. London: HMSO, 1920.

Newbolt, Henry. Naval Operations. Vol. iv. v vols. London: HMSO, 1928.


[1] Henry Newbolt. Naval Operations. Vol. iv. v vols. London: HMSO, 1928, p.195.

 [2] Tony Bridgland. Sea Killers in Disguise. Barnsley: Leo Cooper, 1999, pp. 246-47.

[3] Newbolt, p. 196.

[4] Newbolt. p 204.

[5] G. Ernest Fayle. Seaborne Trade. London: HMSO, 1920, p. 29.

[6] Newbolt, p. 204.

[7]  Newbolt, p. 204.

[8] Newbolt, p. 204-5.

[9] Newbolt, p. 205.

[10] Fayle, p. 144.

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WWII GI’s Letter Home Delivered in 2021

On December 6 1945, Sergeant John Gonsalves, a US soldier stationed at Bad Orb in occupied Germany, posted a letter to his mother. In it, he asked her to stop sending him packages, as he expected to be home in January or February. He complained about the ‘lousy weather’ and inquired about his pals and Jim.

A typical letter home by a soldier then, but what makes it remarkable is that it was found undelivered in a US Postal Service distribution facility in Pittsburgh in December 2021. John’s mother is dead and he died in 2015 but USPS employees managed to trace his widow, Angelina, who is still alive, and delivered the letter to her home in Woburn, MA on 9 December 2021. They married in 1953 and had five sons.

“I love it. I love it. When I think it’s all his words, I can’t believe it. It’s wonderful. And I feel like I have him here with me, you know?” Angelina told CBS Boston, adding that she had ‘a funny feeling, he was around us at Christmas time. One of his favorite times of the year.’

She also told Boston 25 News that ‘It’s like he came back to me, you know? Really. That was amazing. He was a good man. He really was. Everybody loved him.’

See also The Times.

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/soldiers-letter-from-germany-finally-arrives-76-years-late-0sqfpq2mz?shareToken=e1a95a78e1761b38bf7bc10b4c209b7d

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New defence chief warns of Russian threat at sea | The Times

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/admiral-sir-tony-radakin-warns-of-russian-threat-at-sea-kx7vf5sxv?shareToken=ae07419410e6acf0c7d0c7f4d79253bc

Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, Chief of the British Defence Staff has told  The Times that Russia is a major threat to the UK and its allies at sea. Russian submarines are very active and they could cut undersea cables in a war, which would severely damage the economies of the affected countries by severing their overseas communication links.

Radakin has, however, had a recent telephone call with General Valery Gerasimov, his Russian counterpart., the first such call since 2019.

In 1914, Britain cut Germany’s trans Atlantic cables, but cable communications were not then as vital to commerce as they now are.

See this previous post for more details

Radakin also warns of the threat from Russia’s 3,850 mph hypersonic missiles. It test fired 10 from a frigate and two from a submarine last month. China has also tested such missiles and North Korea claims to have done so.

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AUKUS

As has been well publicised, Australia, the UK and the USA have signed an agreement that will make Australia the seventh country in the world to possess nuclear powered submarines. The others are the China, France, India, Russia, the UK and the USA. Unsurprisingly, the USA has the largest fleet.

Australia will build eight hunter killer submarines [SSNs] based on either the British Astute class or the US Virginia class. These will be nuclear powered but armed with conventional torpedoes and missiles, not the intercontinental ballistic missiles carried by SSBN submarines.

Eight SSNs is a substantial force. The UK has 11 nuclear powered submarines but four are SSBNs, meaning that it has only seven comparable to the Australian ones. Australia will be the only country to operates SSNs without having any SSBNs. India has only SSBNs at sea or under construction and the other five operators all have a mix of SSNs and SSBNs.

As well as the Australian boats, British SSNs may be based in Australia as part of an alliances that is clearly aimed at containing China.

The three countries involved are all part of the Five Eyes intelligence sharing network, along with Canada and New Zealand. The absence of New Zealand is unsurprising since it is a nuclear free country. For an excellent analysis of the pact in general and its impact on Canada in particular, see this post from Canadian blogger Mark Collins’s blog. The link is to part 2 but it links back to part 1.

The most controversial part of the agreement is the exclusion of France, a NATO ally that possesses nuclear submarines, has substantial interests in the Pacific and had a contract to supply Australia with 12 conventionally powered submarines, which the Australians have now torn up. France has recalled its ambassadors to Canberra and Washington, but not London, which is probably intended to suggest that the British are the junior partners in the pact.

A likely reason for the French exclusion is that President Macron stated in February 2021 that the ‘EU shouldn’t gang up on China with US.’ See this report from the Politico website.

British defence commentator Julian Lindley-French argues in his Speaking Truth Unto Power blog LINK that the French are responsible for problems with the Australian submarines contract and that their intelligence services should have got wind of the pact

Another British defence blog, The Thin Pinstriped Line, written by a former UK Ministry of Defence civil servant and Reserve officer points out that the France and the UK compete across the globe for defence contracts, which involve transfers of technology and materiel as does AUKUS. There does not appear to be anything in the treaty to commit the partners to go to war together or to joint military operations.

The most likely reason why the French were not asked to join was probably an expectation that they would have declined to do so.

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China’s Magic Weapon

The BBC recently broadcast a documentary made by Jane Corbin about a Chinese Communist Party [CCP] organisation that is officially called The United Front Work Department [UFWD] but is often referred to as China’s Magic Weapon.

Chairman Mao said that the success of the CCP was thanks to the magic weapon of the united front of the people, the armed struggle and the party. Now, President Xi is using the UFWD to spread Chinese influence round the world. It expects Chinese expatriates to work on it behalf.

The main objectives are to spread Chinese power and influence and to obtain technology, especially military technology. The documentary concentrated on Australia, the USA and the UK.

Attempts by the UFWD to subvert the democratic process in Australia were described by Clive Hamilton, Professor of Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University and Senator James Paterson, a member of the Australian Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security.

A Chinese businessman whose visa was later revoked on national security grounds made a substantial donation to the Australian Labor Party. At Queensland University, a peaceful protest against the Chinese government by 10-15 students was broken up by 2-300 Chinese students. The university took action against only the leader pf the peaceful protest. The local Chinese Consul General is an Honorary Professor at the University.

A law has now been passed with cross party support in order to combat Chinese subversion in Australia.

China attempts to influence students in many countries via its global network of Confucius Institiutes

In the USA, a fire at the Chinese Consulate in Houston soon after the US government had ordered it to close appeared to be caused by paper and plastic being burnt. John Demers, formerly Assistant Attorney-General for National Security described the consulate as being a ‘den of spies.’ He stated that China is conducting industrial espionage on a major scale. Its aim is to steal a company’s research and then its market.

The point about Chinese attempts to steal intellectual property from Western companies was also made by Greg Levesque of Strider, a company specialising in helping companies to prevent theft of their intellectual property by nation-states.

China is also alleged to be recruiting Chinese academics. Charles Lieber, Professor of Chemistry at Harvard, has been arrested and accused of working for China. Many other academics have, however, come to his defence. His case has not yet gone to trial, but he has requested that it be expedited as he has incurable cancer.

According to Tom Tugendhat, Chairman of the British Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee and Dr Radomir Tylecote of the Civitas Defence and Security for Democracy Unit, most of the top two dozen British universities have some sort of research or sponsorship relationship with organisations linked to the Chinese military. Students from China’s university of defence technology are at Oxford University.

The United Kingdom tried to build closer links with China when Xi visited in 2015. As a result, China now has significant involvement in British infrastructure, including nuclear power stations, airports and water utility companies.

A fascinating but worrying programme.

See the link below for a 2017 Financial Times articles on the UFWD. This newspaper’s website is mostly pay but this article should be freely available.

https://www.ft.com/content/fb2b3934-b004-11e7-beba-5521c713abf4?shareType=nongift

The documentary can be watched by UK viewers from the BBC iPlayer at the link below:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000z2yt/chinas-magic-weapon

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Russians Harrass British Destroyer in the Black Sea

There has been a confrontation between the British destroyer HMS Defender and Russian forces in the Black Sea. According to the Russians, they fired warning shots and a Sukhoi Su-24 aircraft dropped four l8v3 bombs nearby. The British claim that the Russians had told them that they would be conducting live firing exercises in the Black Sea and that Defender was three miles from the firing and bombing,

Defender was heading from Odessa in southern Ukraine to Georgia by what the UK considers to be an international transit route. Russia regards it as being part of its territorial waters since its annexation of Crimea in 2014, which many countries, including the members of the EU and NATO consider to be illegal.

Joanathan Beale, a BBC correspodent, was on board Defender. He says that two Russian coastguard ships came within 100 yards of Defender and that she detected over 20 Russian military aircraft. He heard firing but thought that it was three miles away. According to The Times, the coastguard ships are operated by the FSB, Russia’s domestic intelligence service.

Defender had been detached from the HMS Queen Elizabeth carrier strike group, which is currently in the Mediterranean on her way to the Indian Ocean and then theSouth China Sea. She was accompanied by the Dutch frigate HNLMS Evertsen and the guided missile destroyer USS Laboon for part of her freedom of navigation operation in the Black Sea but was on her own when the Russians intervened. The Economist says that there was an American intelligence gathering aircraft above Defender during the confrontation,

In another Western attempt to assert the right to freedom of the seas the guided missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur this week sailed through the Taiwan Straits, claimed by China.

BBC News – Russian jets and ships target British warship

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-57583363

Russian and British forces square off in the Black Sea from The Economist

https://www.economist.com/europe/2021/06/24/russian-and-british-forces-square-off-in-the-black-sea

You won’t stop our ships, defiant Britain tells Putin | The Times

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/you-wont-stop-our-ships-defiant-britain-tells-putin-hr3jcn7c5?shareToken=1d6a3550df514dd6eb4051f32b9e4578

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NATO Allies Agree to Defend Each Other if There’s a War in Space

The London Times has reported that NATO members have agreed to defend each other if a war spreads to space. China and Russia are developing anti-satellite weapons that could cripple communications, surveillance or navigation technology.

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/325754f8-cd46-11eb-979e-6eddfcb6b6ef?shareToken=590ed777df124ad34c87aa10dd7b88cb

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DNA analysis helps America identify its unknown soldiers | The Times

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/dna-analysis-helps-america-identify-its-unknown-soldiers-q5pcs8vhn?shareToken=ff2a6e1d3c513897dc7ea94b8d07ca5b

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Space gets the recognition it deserves in the Integrated Review

Reblog of a comment by King’s College London’s Defence Studies Department on the first significant discussion of space in a British government policy review.

Defence-In-Depth

Dr Mark Hilborne and Dr Mark Presley, Defence Studies Department

The government’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, along with its accompanying Defence Command Paper, has made the first significant inclusion of space in such a UK policy document.[1] This is a welcome development, indicating the growing importance of space in reaching a number of key policy objectives, such as prosperity, diplomacy and security, and putting it alongside land, air, maritime and cyber as a key domain of operations.

The government’s vision for space is given some scope in the section entitled “An Integrated space policy: making the UK a meaningful player in space”. “Integrated” here refers both to the cross-governmental approach, incorporating the civil, commercial and military sectors, but also with regards to the UK’s allies and partners. The recognition that a cross-government strategy is required is an important step, and it will be critical…

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