Cuts to language skills are "fatally undermining" Britain's defences , the SNP has claimed.

New figures have revealed that there are now fewer than 500 "military linguists" in UK armed forces and as few as 15 specialists in Russian and 23 in German.

The Ministry of Defence insists it has far more soldiers, sailors, airmen and civilians with one level of language skill or another and could quickly train up more if needed.

But the SNP's Douglas Chapman said declining numbers of military linguists "pointed to a long-standing neglect of the MoD’s most basic tasks in assuring the Defence of the Realm".

Mr Chapman, who is on the Commons Defence Committee, said he was particularly concerned in falling numbers in Russian specialists.

He said: "The years following the end of the Cold War have seen a readjustment in UK Military Spending which has seen the MoD quietly cutting training programmes and incentives that allowed serving personnel to gain vital foreign language skills.

"The consequences for our ability to understand the world that we live in have been stark.

"During the Defence Committee’s current investigation into Russia, it has become increasingly clear that for many Whitehall bean-counters, the end of the Cold War meant the end of the need for serving personnel to learn about Russian language and culture: as a result, we are now taken by surprise by increased Russian assertiveness, and scrambling to find the vital expertise that was deemed superfluous after 1991."

He added: The UK used to be proud of its ability to understand the world: but these figures, alongside a cut in the Foreign Office budget, are fatally undermining that ability.

"The result is that the UK has to increasingly rely on allies who don’t share our values, such as in the case of Saudi Arabia; or to take a back seat entirely, as we have seen in the Ukraine crisis."

The total number of military linguists in all three services was 464, including 179 with the three main languages spoken in Afghanistan, reflecting recent combat priorities. There were another 51 with Arabic and 149 with French, a key ally. This accounted for less than half a percent of Britain's armed forces.

The Mod said this did not tell the whole story and stressed that nearly 1000 of its officers had language degrees or were native speakers of different languages. There have been previous attempts to capture total numbers of people "proficient" in key languages.

A parliamentary answer last year found there were 25 servicemen and women and 146 civilians in the MOD with Russian and another 175 military personnel and 145 civilians with Arabic.

The MoD stressed that its military in the field had the support of other agencies, including the Foreign Office. There has been some criticism of Britain's diplomats and their language skills even from government supporters.

Conservative MP Rory Stewart, now a junior minister, last year said: "We should be investing in knowledge in the Foreign Office, which means ensuring that there are proper language allowances and that we dismantle the grisly core competency framework for promotion, and that we get out of the situation of there being only three out of 15 ambassadors in the middle east who can speak Arabic."

Jenny Carr of the Scotland-Russian Forum - whose president is former Tory cabinet minister Sir Malcolm Rifkind - said: "It is clear from these and other sources that the UK is allowing numbers of Russian linguists to drop to dangerous levels – not just for defence but also for diplomacy and commerce."

But Scotland, she stressed, isn't pulling its weight. She said: "Scotland is producing only around 50 graduates in Russian a year, and at school level there are now just two schools offering Russian – in both cases small beginner-level classes – and no possibility of any more now that the SQA has dropped Russian from national courses."

A spokesman for the Foreign Office said: "The FCO budget has been protected in real terms to maintain our global network and expand our influence internationally.

"This includes significant investment to increase language skills in our diplomatic service, training up to 500 members of staff per year in our Language Centre."

A Ministry of Defence spokeswoman, asked about the low numbers of military linguists, said: "This figure does not reflect the overall picture in the UK Armed Forces as, in addition to these specialists, many others are fluent in these languages."