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Could Britain really defend itself if conflict broke out?

A British marine training in Norway Credit: ITV / Tonight

In the dead of winter, Bardufoss in Northern Norway has to be one of the most beautiful places on earth. With its ethereal light and snow covered woods and plains, it is the archetypal winter wonderland. But, as we discovered whilst filming ‘Could We Defend Ourselves?’ for the Tonight programme, you sure as hell wouldn’t want to fight a war there.

It was a mere minus seven or so on the weekend we flew in with the Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson to talk to a group of marines on winter warfare training. And for a while, as we filmed, it was inspiring to be in one of the world’s most pristine winter landscapes. But stand around for a moment too long in that environment and your fingers and toes start to go, even with plenty of high tech cold weather equipment. And if you don’t do something about that straight away, the marines told us, you are in real trouble very quickly.

ITV News anchor Tom Bradby tries to stay warm in the minus temperatures. Credit: ITV / Tonight

For them, it is all about learning not just to fight but survive in temperatures down to minus thirty or below. They learn to build shelters for warmth, catch and cook fish and animals to eat, and operate their weapons without having to take their gloves off. Touch naked metal with flesh at those kind of temperatures and you might not be able to separate them again. The Marines even have to fall into a frozen lake, fully clothed. The Secretary of State tried that too, though he was too nervous to let us film it and only released pictures of the ordeal after he was certain he’d survived it without undue panic.

In short, it is an unbelievably brutal environment in which to contemplate having to fight a war.

The Marines were tested in a frozen lake. Credit: ITV / Tonight

The Ministry of Defence has just drastically upped the number of marines training here. A thousand will come to complete the course every year for the next ten years, so that more or less the entire marine corps will be able to fight through a landscape like this. And it is not hard to see why; they want to send a clear message to the Kremlin that the West will set limits on Russia’s new ambitions.

But the purpose of exercises like this is also to prepare for the possibility that we might one day actually have to fight in these conditions. For decades after the fall of the Berlin War, we lived in a world where the prospect of a war against a major equivalent power was so remote as to be irrelevant. But with the rise of Russia and China, most experts worry we can no longer take this kind of peace for granted. Already the British Armed Forces are having to keep on their toes and alert to potential military adventurism that is emanating from the east.

Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson meeting Marines in Norway. Credit: ITV / Tonight

As we discovered in a series of Freedom of Information requests to the Ministry of Defence, our naval forces have been scrambled to intercept Russian ships approaching British territorial waters 31 times in the last year alone. That is up from 12 in 2013. Gavin Williamson told us in Norway that it is a sign of the political climate in today's world.

What we’ve been seeing is actually a massive increase in the amount of Russian activity in the North Atlantic... and it goes to show that we are entering a new type of era, great power competition, nations like Russia starting to assert their will, be more active and it shows that we have to be ready to respond.

– Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson
Another test for the Marines walking through the bitterly cold temperatures in Norway. Credit: ITV / Tonight
An updated Apache helicopter. Credit: ITV / Tonight

Elsewhere in the documentary we also explore how new defence procurements like the Royal Navy's flagship aircraft carrier - the HMS Queen Elizabeth - will stack up in a world in which military advancements and new technology is changing all the time. The challenge for the British Armed Forces is to keep pace and ahead of the threats that are changing with incredible rapidity.

The Ministry of Defence is said to be looking at a £7 billion black hole in its future funding and expensive new purchases like the F35 fighter jets, the updated Apaches and bomb disposal robots - described as the best in the world by the army - perhaps go some way towards explaining the concern that we might run out of money.

So the purpose then of this Tonight documentary is to ask; if it came to it, could we really defend ourselves? In a very fast changing world, it has been an interesting question to try and answer…

  • Can We Defend Ourselves? Tonight is broadcast on Thursday 7th March at 7.30pm on ITV