Navy chiefs were forced to deploy a minehunter to intercept two submarines and a Russian support ship sailing close to Britain because the fleet was so overstretched.
The mission, carried out last year, was kept secret amid fears it would expose Britain’s vulnerabilities and lack of ships, it can be revealed.
Normally a frigate armed with a 4.5in gun and a weapons system that can destroy missiles travelling at supersonic speeds is dispatched to escort Vladimir Putin’s warships.
Navy chiefs were forced to deploy minehunter HMS Cattistock (pictured) to intercept two submarines and a Russian support ship sailing close to Britain because the fleet was so overstretched
If the frigate is tied up, on rarer occasions one of two patrol ships tasked with safeguarding the UK’s fish stocks are used to escort the Russians.
But in August last year, HMS Cattistock was secretly sent to shadow a Sliva-class support tug and two Kilo-class submarines as they passed through the English Channel.
Defence sources said it was the first time the navy had been forced to rely upon a minehunter – a lightly-armed vessel with a plastic hull that is normally used to find and destroy naval mines.
Navy sources downplayed the deployment and stressed they were on ‘delivery voyages’ and were not operational at the time.
But plans to publicise the mission were blocked within the Ministry of Defence amid fears it risked highlighting the lack of ships in the naval fleet.
The department would normally publish details of Royal Navy ships escorting the Russians near the UK.
HMS Westminster, the frigate on short notice to react, was said to be on another task at the time, as were the patrol vessels. It is not known what the task was.
Details of the secret mission came amid growing fury over the state of Britain’s Armed Forces after years of drastic cuts.
Last week, the head of the Army, General Sir Nick Carter, gave a speech at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) warning Britain risked being outmatched by Russia’s military might.
HMS Cattistock was secretly sent to shadow a Sliva-class support tug and two Kilo-class submarines (file photo) as they passed through the English Channel.
The Chief of the General Staff said the Kremlin was a ‘clear and present danger’ and warned of Russia’s ‘eye-watering’ military capabilities.
In the last few years, as part of cuts to the Armed Forces, the role of the Fleet Ready Escort and Towed Array Patrol Ship was merged into one.
Now just one frigate – out of a total of 13 – is on task at any point at short notice to react to any maritime threat to the UK including terrorism and smuggling of arms or narcotics.
This means there is only one warship left to patrol British waters and keep an eye on both submarines and warships.
The Russian submarines and support ship were first watched by Nato units as they passed through the North Sea in August.
Then HMS Cattistock took over the responsibility of escorting them through the English Channel because there were no other ships available.She was said to be in the area at the time.
A defence source said of the deployment: ‘We were so short on ships we had to send a mine-hunter.’
Last night Admiral Lord West, former head of the navy said: ‘The Russians could easily outrun something like this.
‘This hardly shows we have the capability to counter what we could have against us.’
He said the Russians would assume Britain is in a ‘right state’, adding: ‘It is quite worrying and shows just how short we are of assets.’
It follows an increase in Russian activity around Britain’s coastline in recent months.
General Sir Nick Carter, the Chief of the General Staff, said the Kremlin was a ‘clear and present danger’ and warned of Russia’s ‘eye-watering’ military capabilities, during a speech last week
The number of Russian submarines close to British waters is at its highest since the Cold War.
Earlier this month Britain deployed a warship to the English Channel to escort four Russian naval vessels through the Strait of Dover.
The Portsmouth-based frigate HMS Westminster was sent out to shadow the Russian ships RFS Soobraziltenyy and RFS Boikiy and two support vessels off the south coast.
The Russian vessels were thought to be returning to the Baltic after operations in the Middle East.
On Christmas Day, the frigate HMS St Albans was dispatched to track the Russian vessel Admiral Gorshkov as it made its way through the North Sea close to Britain.
A navy source said of the deployment: ‘It was the right unit, in the right place to escort the Russians through the waters.
A Royal Navy Spokesperson said: ‘HMS Cattistock was the most appropriate vessel for this particular task at that time.
‘There is always one Royal Navy ship that is designated as the Fleet Ready Escort (FRE), although there are always a number of Royal Navy units available in UK waters that could conduct this role depending on the tasking.’