The Ministry of Defence has again been forced to call for US military assistance to help track a suspected Russian submarine spotted off the Scottish coast.
Critics claimed the US deployment raised questions about the UK’s ability to protect its nuclear submarines following the scrapping of the RAF’s £4bn fleet of Nimrod surveillance aircraft in 2010.
Peter Roberts, a senior fellow of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, told The Independent : “It has left a gaping chasm in the UK’s capabilities and left us highly dependent on cooperation from our allies.”
It is thought the Russian presence could be linked to the reported departure of one of the Royal Navy’s Vanguard-class nuclear submarines from Faslane naval base at Gare Loch on the River Clyde. The Vanguards carry Trident ballistic missiles.
Such “visits” from Russian subs have reportedly been “happening quite often” off the north and west coasts of Scotland.
The operation follows a deployment in November of two US Navy Orions, a Royal Canadian Air Force Aurora and a French Dassault Atlantique.
It was suggested at the time that a suspected Russian submarine may have been trying to track one of Britain’s four Vanguard-class boats after a fishing trawler spotted an “unknown submarine periscope” close to Faslane.
The search came a month after another suspected Russian submarine was spotted off Sweden’s Stockholm archipelago and as relations with the Kremlin are at their worst since the Cold War.
This week, US crews coordinated with the anti-submarine frigate HMS Somerset, which has been operating off Scotland for a month.
A source at RAF Lossiemouth is reported to have disclosed that the US aircraft, known as Skinny Dragons and usually based in Hawaii, have been flying up to two missions a day since New Year’s Eve.
Mr Roberts, added: “HMS Somerset is a capable platform and I have no doubt that her deployment alongside these US Navy aircraft is related to the reported departure of a Royal Navy Vanguard ballistic missile submarine from Faslane, and the countering of any Russian deployment from over the horizon.”
Angus Robertson MP, SNP defence spokesman, whose constituency contains RAF Lossiemouth, said the deployment showed that Britain had resorted to going to its allies with a “begging bowl”.
An MoD spokesman said: “We can confirm that the UK recently requested assistance from allied forces for basing of maritime patrol aircraft at RAF Lossiemouth for a limited period. The aircraft have been conducting maritime patrol activity with the Royal Navy; we do not discuss the detail of maritime operations.”
The search for the unidentified foreign vessel was likened to the script from Sean Connery’s 1990 film The Hunt for Red October, in which the actor played a Soviet commander who defects to the US in a submarine equipped with ballistic missiles