LONDON — Britain is beefing up its commitment to defense of the Arctic and the High North regions, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson told the ruling Conservative Party’s annual conference on Sept. 30.
Strengthening Royal Marine training commitments in Norway will be among the measures included in a new Defence Arctic Strategy currently under development, Williamson said at the Birmingham, England, event.
“Currently, the Royal Marines conduct cold weather training in Norway on an annual basis, with around 800 due to deploy in 2019. As part of the new Arctic strategy, the Marines' training will become joint with Norway on a long-term basis and integrated into Norway’s defense plan, providing U.K. troops a unique opportunity to train alongside a key ally,” he said.
Cold weather training of Royal Marines had largely lapsed due to Britain’s focus on operations in Afghanistan. Those capabilities are only now being rebuilt, analysts say.
In written evidence to the parliamentary Defence Committee, the Royal United Services Institute called British policy regarding the Arctic as one of “benign neglect.”
The RUSI submission contributed to a Defence Committee report, “On Thin Ice: UK Defence in the Arctic,” which warned the government did not have the resources to mount a credible presence in the region
“The willingness of the UK to play a greater role in the security of the Arctic and the High North is tempered by the concern that defence does not have sufficient resources to establish a meaningful presence in the region. Platforms and capabilities which might have a role in the High North are heavily committed elsewhere,” the committee warned.
RUSI analysts said British military strategy in the Arctic and High North region suffered “because there are few economic reasons for governments to become involved, and prosperity appears to be the single prism through which policy decisions have been based since the end of the Cold War. However, if security as a concept is viewed as more than a financial calculation, the Arctic represents a region where a small British contribution could have significant impact.”
Williamson said as the ice melts and Russia militarizes the region with increased submarine and other activities, the new strategy will make the Arctic and High North central to British security.
The move to strengthen Royal Marine training ties is part of widening cooperation between British and Norwegian forces operating in the north Atlantic and High North.
Earlier this year the two nations announced they were considering cooperation in the support and use of their respective Boeing P-8 maritime patrol aircraft fleets to counter the fast-growing Russian submarine presence in the region.
Between the two nations, Britain and Norway are buying 14 P-8s, with the first British aircraft entering service around 2020.
The Royal Navy announced in April that one of its nuclear submarines, HMS Trenchant, had run exercises in the region and broken through the Arctic ice cap for the first time in a decade.
Aside from the Arctic and High North initiative, Britain’s defense secretary also used his speech to confirm that two Royal Navy amphibious landing ships, HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, had been reprieved.
The possible axing of the warships first arose last year as part of threatened cuts to help stem a growing budget shortfall at the Ministry of Defence over the next few years.
Britain’s defense sector has been waiting for months to see the outcome of a defense review, called the Modernising Defence Programme, which could see changes to strategy, capabilities and new programs.
The MoD says the defense review is scheduled for an Autumn unveiling. Some analysts believe Oct. 29, the date for the government’s budget announcement, is the most likely time for an announcement on the outcome of the review and the revealing of whether Williamson has secured additional money for defense from a largely hostile Treasury.
In his speech to Conservative Party delegates, Williamson also said the MoD opted against completely closing British Army bases in Germany, instead deciding to keep a small number of personnel and facilities in place.
About 185 British Army personnel and 60 MoD civilians will now remain in Germany, once the withdrawal of British Army units to the U.K. has been completed.
“We will not be closing our facilities in Germany, and instead use them to forward base the Army," Williamson said.
Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.