Defence Secretary Philip Hammond has said it is ‘entirely false’ to suggest the UK was caught unawares by the Russians after a Portsmouth ship was sent to meet them off Scotland.
Mr Hammond was challenged in the House of Commons to explain the UK’s plans to monitor its coast from outside threats, aside from ‘relying on Twitter’ for intelligence.
He told MPs the UK had not been surprised by Russian vessels passing off the Scottish coast, adding they had declared their deployment on social media sites.
As reported in The News, HMS Defender was ordered to sail from Portsmouth to waters north of Scotland to escort a Russian warship, Admiral Kuznetsov, and the rest of a task group, the Commons heard.
Mr Hammond claimed it was wrong to suggest the UK had been caught unawares by the Russians or there was a stand-off when the vessels passed through the UK’s area of interest between December 28, 2013, and January 10.
Conservative MP Sir Gerald Howarth joked he was ‘immensely grateful’ for the role played by social media in providing intelligence to the UK, as he pressed for a replacement to the Nimrod aircraft.
Shadow defence minister Kevan Jones also asked Mr Hammond how the UK would plug the gap in maritime surveillance ‘apart from relying on Twitter’.
Mr Hammond insisted the issue would be examined in the 2015 strategic defence and security review and unmanned aircraft could be one option.
Speaking during defence questions, Mr Hammond told the Commons: ‘The Russian carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, passed through the UK’s area of interest en route to the Mediterranean between December 28 and January 10.
‘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 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.
‘And I’m glad to be able to tell the House that the idea we were caught unawares by this deployment is entirely false as is any suggestion there was some kind of stand-off between HMS Defender and the Russian vessels.’
Tory Sir Gerald told Mr Hammond: ‘I’m immensely grateful for the part played by social media in providing the United Kingdom with the intelligence in advance of the Kuznetsov’s arrival in the UK’s area of interest.
‘But can I put a serious point of view to you that surely this really does underline the need for this government, this country to have a successor to the Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft and that until we get such a successor aircraft we are going to be at risk.’
Mr Hammond replied: ‘I wouldn’t disagree with your assertion that we need to look at how we provide maritime surveillance cover and that will be part of the 2015 strategic defence and security review.
‘But I’m afraid you can’t argue that this incident demonstrates that need. In fact, this incident shows we are perfectly capable of maintaining an intelligence picture through imagery, through signals intelligence, through reports from our Nato-allies of movements of Russian ships without having access to maritime patrol aircraft.’
Mr Jones added to the Defence Secretary: ‘In light of this incident, could you tell the House what you are going to do plug the capability gap in maritime surveillance created by your own government, apart from relying on Twitter?’
Mr Hammond replied: ‘Well, I’m sorry you clearly didn’t have time to amend your question following my last answer. We are going to review the future provision of maritime patrol cover in the 2015 strategic defence and security review – looking at the need for it, looking at how it could be provided, including the possibility that it could be provided through the use of unmanned aerial systems.
‘But it’s a bit rich for you to talk about the gap in maritime patrol cover having been created by this government. What this government did was recognise the reality that your government had been investing in aircraft that were never going to fly, never going to get certified and never going to be able to deliver a capability.’