Defence special: tension hotspots; Russian submariners get rescue lessons with the Norwegians.
It is proving a long, hot summer in the global village. Irked by US plans for a European missile shield, Moscow is threatening Nato’s Poland and the Czech Republic. Russia is also increasing tension with Nato-bound Ukraine by threatening to increase the number of warships at its contested Sevastopol Black Sea Fleet HQ.
On 9 July, Iran launched missiles capable of hitting Israel and which could one day be nuclear-tipped. This has led Israel to prepare a strike on Iran. On 15 July, the Taliban launched an attack that killed nine US soldiers. This is a critical phase for Afghanistan with no success in sight. What links such seemingly disparate developments?
Those challenging the West perceive disunity and distraction on both sides of the Atlantic. They have a point. The US is engaged in its seemingly permanent election campaign. Europe, as ever, remains on strategic vacation. It is a long, hot summer in the global village… and it’s only going to get hotter.
This May, units from more than a dozen navies assembled off southern Norway to practise rescuing sailors from a disabled submarine stranded on the seabed. One of the participants in this two-week exercise – codenamed Bold Monarch – was the Russian Navy.
The fact Russia joined this Nato-sponsored event maay appear surprising given the current icy relations between Moscow and the alliance. What’s more, submarines have traditionally been veiled in secrecy; witness Russia’s reluctance to accept Western assistance when the nuclear-powered Kursk sank to the bottom of the Barents Sea in August 2000.
All 118 on board the Kursk perished, although it later emerged more than 20 of her crew had survived the initial blast in a rear compartment, only to succumb to asphyxia as the air on board ran out. Russia’s rescue efforts failed, and Moscow was widely castigated for refusing British and Norwegian offers of help.
However, the past eight years have seen a remarkable shift in attitudes. The Russians and their Nato counterparts have established a dialogue to share information and build up trust and confidence.
“The loss of the Kursk was the catalyst to bring [Bold Monarch] together,” says Bill Orr, a retired US naval commander who heads up the International Submarine Escape and Rescue Liaison Office, a facilitation organisation set up in 2002 under Nato. Perhaps the other reason for this landmark co-operation is the bond submariners enjoy – they are all aware the hull of their craft could become a steel coffin in the event of disaster.
“There is a brotherhood of submariners,” says Captain David Dittmer, Bold Monarch exercise director and once the commanding officer of a US Navy submarine. “If something goes wrong down there, you want to give them a chance of surviving. The dolphins you wear on your chest transcend national interests.”
Despite Qatar’s relatively small size and defence budget, it has been the largest buyer of new military aircraft over the past few months, placing orders for a new fleet of transport aircraft and helicopters in mid-July. The workhorses of the new fleet will be four new C-130J Hercules transports and 18 AW139 helicopters, but, intriguingly, Qatar has also signed up for two huge C-17 Globemasters, with an option to buy two more later. Qatar professes to have no expeditionary military pretensions, but plans to use the C-17s to bolster its humanitarian and regional peacekeeping contributions.
India kills Arjun
India finally saw sense and killed off its programme to build its own MBT (main battle tank) in July, after 30 years in the making. The army originally ordered 124 Arjun MBTs in 1972, but only half have been built so far. Instead, India may take up the offer from Russia’s Uralvagonzavod to jointly develop a new MBT, which is expected to draw heavily on a new tank being developed for Russian service.
Rising casualties from HMMWVs (High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle) and Land Rovers hit by roadside bombs, and ambushes in Iraq and Afghanistan, have prompted western forces to develop and buy mine-protected vehicles over the past three years. The US has led the way with its enormous MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush-Protected) programme of vehicles. The most recent order is for 440 South African RG-31 and RG-32 vehicles, which is believed to be the US’s largest foreign armoured vehicle order ever. That is just a drop in the ocean, however: as of July, the US spent €5.9bn on 15,599 MRAPs.
Bulgaria’s navy has ordered two Gowind corvettes from French shipbuilder DCNS as part of its drive towards interoperability and common standards with Nato. The first ship is to be built at Lorient. Bulgaria’s parliament has also approved a deal to buy two aged Wielingen-class frigates from Belgium.