The article below was published in three parts on the Think Defence website. Humphrey wrote the article for Think Defence in support of their excellent summer of strategy season. Readers who are not familiar with TD are strongly recommended to pay it a visit, it provides excellent analysis on a wide range of military issues.
The purpose of the article is to function as the first in a series about the UKs current military commitments around the world. If all goes to plan, the follow up part will look at Africa, and in time other regions. It is designed to put across a strictly personal opinion about the level of UK engagement in this region, and seek to inform about why commitments are what they are.
The articles have been merged from three into one, and so appear ‘as is’ albeit minus the linking paragraphs.
East of East of Suez – the UK commitment to the Asia / Pacific Rim.
The Far East is an area which has long held a fascination for many in the UK – both as a tourist destination, a source of economic prosperity, an emerging powerhouse of influence and dynamism, and a location where over many years the MOD has been engaged in one form or another. The region conjures up images of UK forces fighting in the jungles and seas of the Pacific, of the fall of Singapore, of great national humiliation, and immense pride, in wars such as Korea in the 1950s. Even today the UK contribution in Malaysia and the ‘Confrontation’Campaign are seen as good examples of how to successfully handle low level insurgencies or military clashes.
The phrase ‘East of Suez’ seems to sum up a generational policy shift in the 1960s, when the UK began the process of recalling the legions, and withdrawing the tens of thousands of troops from the Asia Pacific region, and the drawing down of the great naval fortress of Singapore. In the public eye, the UK ceased to be a military power in the region in the 1970s, and to many our final withdrawal was completed in 1997 with the handover of Hong Kong. Yet, against all odds, and despite the expectations of many, the UK retains a small military presence in the region, and continues to enjoy strong relations with many of the nations present in this fascinating and immensely complex part of the world.
The purpose of this short series of articles is to review the UKs military commitments to the region, to gain an understanding of where UK defence interests lie, and review what it is that the UK is being expected to deliver, and my own personal view as to why it benefits the taxpayer to retain an influence in this region. It will be structured over three parts, and should be seen in the context of the wider TD series of Strategy Posts. It does not represent any official viewpoint, and should not be read or construed as being anything other than a personal interpretation of the current UK level of military commitment to the Asia Pacific region.
For the purposes of this article, the Asia pacific region is deemed to be those nations east of the Indian Ocean, from Singapore through to the pacific coastlines of the Americas. It does not look at the roles played by UK forces in the Indian Ocean itself. Since 1997, the two main physical locations for UK forces in the region have been Brunei and Singapore.
Brunei: The role of the garrison in Brunei has been, at the request of his Majesty the Sultan of Brunei, to provide security for the country as a whole. The UK has had a military presence in Brunei since 1962, when troops landed to provide additional security. Today the garrison comprises some 900 personnel, predominantly drawn from the Ghurkhas’, for whom one battalion of light infantry is usually based in the Kingdom. Additionally, a small flight of helicopters and the UKs primary jungle warfare school (the other being in Belize, which has been downsized in the last year), as well as assorted other staff.
The Sultan meets the costs of the provision of the battalion, and also much of the infrastructure costs associated with their presence. The garrison arrangement is renewed on a five yearly basis between Brunei and the UK. At present the UK presence is scheduled to continue until at least 2015. An excellent summary of the UK defence commitment can be found at the FCO website, click here
Singapore: The UK presence in Singapore is not known to many in the MOD, let alone outside it. Until 1971 Singapore was home to a not inconsiderable number of UK warships and support vessels, using the dockyard facilities and support networks to provide the Far East Fleet. This organisation continued in a much reduced tri-national (Australia, New Zealand, UK) format until 1976, when the UK then withdrew its final contingents as economic problems forced a final withdrawal from the region.
Despite this, the UK retains to this day the ownership of a large fuel depot, and berthing wharves in Sembewang dockyard. Having been to the site a few years ago, the author can personally attest to its size, which provides berthing access for up to three escorts at a time, plus access to fuel and spare parts. Reportedly the fuel depot is the second largest in the Asia-Pacific region, and provides useful access for UK and allied warships to fuel. The FCO website has a good description of current UK military assets in Singapore, click here
These two facilities constitute the only permanent UK military presence in the region in terms of formed units or military installations. There is a wider set of individual exchange posts, particularly in Australia and New Zealand, where a plethora of UK personnel work as integrated members of these nations militaries.
Defence Attaches: One of the most significant UK military contributions in the region in terms of influence is the Defence Attaché network. Although many people are often sceptical of the value of defence attaches (a recent Daily Mail article referred to them as the so-called ‘Ferrero Roche’ network’), there is a strong argument to be made for the retention of these posts.
Attaches provide the UK with the opportunity to put military personnel into the region, to meet with and understand the military issues facing a country, and to get a better feel for strategic developments in a region. Many countries genuinely appreciate a UK Defence Attaché presence – it is seen as a sign that the UK takes their nation seriously from a military perspective, and this presence can often be invaluable in opening doors in an emergency.
In a region like the Far East, the Defence Attaché network represents one of the best means of the MOD to engage with local military forces and continue a relationship, particularly in nations which may rarely see a UK visit. As of November 2010, there were DA’s located in Australia, New Zealand, Brunei, China, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, and Singapore. (Source). Additionally, since 1998, posts have closed in the Philippines and Thailand.
Some of these posts are of particular interest, and worthy of note. The two posts in Korea and Japan owe much to the Korean War for their continued existence. As one of the main participants in the war, the UK continues to have a place on the UN Military Armistice Commission, and the position of a 1* helps ensure the UK is engaged in this particular diplomatic issue. Additionally, the presence of military personnel in Japan, where the DA holds the position of UK Liaison Officer to the United Nations Command (Rear) helps ensure that the UK can invoke access to Japanese ports and airfields at short notice under UN resolutions dating back to the war – and as seen during the North Korean nuclear tests some years ago, where the UK sent a radiation sampling VC10 to the region, this is a useful access right to be able to invoke (and also a means of demonstrating continued interest and influence in the region). For further information on the role both sections play, see these links – http://ukinjapan.fco.gov.uk/en/about-us/our-embassy/how-we-can-help/defence-sectionand http://ukinrok.fco.gov.uk/en/about-us/working-with-korea/defence-relations/
For the relatively small outlay of two defence sections, the UK is able to remain not only engaged in, and kept abreast of developments in the Korean peninsula, but also is able to safeguard access into the region. This helps the UK play a small, but influential role, and when coupled with the wider diplomatic presence in both Seoul and Pyongyang, means that the UK can help punch above its weight when it comes to influencing both these nations, and others involved in the delicate diplomatic situation in the region. While this may only be a small example, it does show that often a deft touch with the presence of a military attaché can have significantly wider ramifications for the UK as a whole.
Wider Exercises / Deployments: Although the UK has not had a major permanent military presence in the region for some time, until late in the last decade, regular task group deployments to the region ensured that there was a routine RN presence at least once per year, often in substantial numbers. The Ocean Wave 97 and Taurus 09 deployments are both good examples of the UK deploying substantial forces into the region, using enablers such as amphibious assault capabilities, and also wider surface ship capabilities, to visit a range of nations, conduct exercises under the auspices of regional alliances (such as the Five Power Defence Arrangement), and generally show the UK flag in an area which rarely sees a substantial UK military presence.
The combination of a smaller RN and a busyoperational tasking schedule means that deployments such as these have been less frequent for some time. Although there has been a limited RN surface presence – such as HMS RICHMOND in 2011, the reality is that for the time being, there is likely to be only a limited engagement in the area. The RN is very busy at present, and with a smaller escort fleet and reduced amphibious capability, all of which are in demand for real world operations, it is likely that future deployments to the region will see physically fewer, but materially vastly more capable, vessels operating there. Sadly the days of 10 – 15 vessel deployments such as OCEAN WAVE 97 are likely to have gone forever.
The RAF is also unlikely to see significant non-operational deployments into the region for the time being. The RAF operational fleet remains committed for operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and for as long as support to operations in Afghanistan remains the Defence Main Effort, then this is the priority for resources. That said, it is likely that exercises or small deployments, for instance to showcase Typhoon, will continue. As ever, it is important to remember that numbers of aircraft does not directly equate to capability, as both Typhoon and Tornado are immensely capable aircraft.
The Army is the service least likely to deploy in any substantial numbers to the region, although this is in keeping with the wider reality that since the 1960s and the end of Confrontation, the Far East region was far more an RN / RAF operational environment than an Army one. At the same time, the Army has the largest laydown of personnel of any UK service in the region, through the Brunei garrison.
Therefore, at any one time the UK military presence in the Asia Pacific region is just under 1000 permanently based military personnel, including Singapore, Brunei and the Defence Attache network. There are reasonably regular visits by RAF aircraft, and RN vessels, and although vastly smaller than the 1960s, there still remains a relatively substantial UK military presence to the East of East of Suez.
Having considered what the current UK military capabilities and commitments are in the region, the article will now consider what possible challenges and threats exist in the region. This will also focus on the role of the FPDA, and wider UK engagement.
Military Alliances: Given the reduced UK military commitment to the region, the main mechanism for justifying a UK physical presence now should be seen through the auspices of the Five Power Defence Arrangement (FPDA). This loose alliance was initially brought together in the aftermath of the 1971 UK withdrawal from the region, transferring responsibility for security – particularly for Malaysia and Singapore from a resurgent Indonesia onto the UK, and also Australia & New Zealand.
As an alliance, the FPDA is now over 40 years old, and has managed to remain an active and valuable grouping of nations. It works well on two levels – from the UK perspective it has served as a rationale for continued engagement in the region beyond the end of Hong Kong, and the maintenance of the Brunei Garrison. The other nations have benefited as it has kept the UK engaged physically in the region to provide high end military capability – in previous years this was arguably a higher priority than it is now, particularly as nations such as Malaysia and Singapore have developed capable military forces capable of deterring aggression. However, there is arguably still value to be had in maintaining a relationship which ties in a permanent member of the UN Security Council to the region, and one which can still deploy sufficient military capability in the area if required, particularly including assets which may not be readily held by some of the other nations – such as helicopter carriers, tankers, Air to Air Refuelling, and other high end military hardware.
FPDA is still a valuable arrangement – it provides a rationale for the UK to be in the region, it provides reassurance to nations that the UK is still interested in the region, and perhaps most crucially, it provides no legal obligation other than to consult – no nation is committed to military action against another as part of this treaty. A useful primer on the UK engagement with FPDA can be seen at the following website – http://ukinmalaysia.fco.gov.uk/en/about-us/working-with-malaysia/defence-new/five-power-defence-arrangements
From the UKs view, the cost of maintaining FPDA membership is normally relatively small – a smattering of staff officers deployed in the integrated air defence system HQ in Malaysia and the deployment of Staff or HQ elements to exercises when appropriate. However, the challenge for the UK is to continue to deploy sufficient assets to show that it takes the relationship seriously –which is not always easy in the resource constrained, and operationally busy world of the MOD. Some could argue that the UK is going to have to strike a real balance over the next few years and show that it remains committed to the FPDA through more than just words; otherwise the UK relevance to the agreement could become questionable.
One crucial point to note is that there is a clear value associated in many countries in the region with being able to operate with high end, high capability platforms such as the UK Type 45 class. One reason why the UK is able to enjoy strong relationships is its ability to deploy advanced military hardware, much of which often sets the stage for similar procurement by other nations. Many countries value the opportunity to train with the UK and get exposure to working with military capabilities that they would not otherwise encounter (e.g. carriers, SSNs, complex amphibious forces, ISTAR etc). There is a value associated with this that is not the same as with operating a low end OPV or similar (as seen by some European nations which retain a permanent presence in the area). While it is always tempting to see suggestions of putting low level capability into Singapore (for instance an OPV or something similar), the author personally feels it would arguably have less effect than an occasional deployment of a high end capability such as Type 45 on an irregular basis.
What this means is that the role of the UK military in the region feels less to do with actual combat or military operations as it is to do with capacity building through access gained by deploying high capability platforms to the region. This in turn provides leverage to support UK influence in a manner which paradoxically may not be achieved were the UK to try and maintain a small low level maritime or other presence in the area
What is the Threat?
Having reviewed the presence and potential wider UK commitments to the region, it is now appropriate to begin to consider the threat, and wider policy drivers that justify this current force level, and also the UK goals in the area.
At its most simple, a fairly generic sweeping statement could be made to say that there is no current military or existential threat to the UK from any nation in the region. A bold statement, but in reality, an examination of the military powers in the area does not show any one nation which poses a direct military threat to the UK at present.
Similarly, it is hard to see any nation in the region posing a direct military or existential threat to our partners and allies within the area in the scope of a conflict into which the UK could become embroiled. This is not to say that there are not territorial disputes in the area, for there indisputably are – for instance the situation off the Spratly Islands is an incredibly complicated territorial dispute, however, it is highly unlikely that the UK would find itself directly sucked into any of them as part of a wider conflict. It is this author’s strictly personal opinion that the Asia Pacific region does not pose any direct military threat to the UK in any conventional sense.
In this era of maritime dependence, we as a nation are reliant on many of our resources, imports and goods being shipped in from around the world. As a nation there are huge economic interests in the Asia Pacific market– a cursory glance at the UKTI website for the area shows a hugely interdependent region where the UK has vast business and financial interests at stake – http://www.businessinasia.co.uk/asiapacific/market-information.
But do these large business interests necessarily equate to military interests though? The argument could be made that the UK has a need to protect its interests in the region, but equally the sort of threat that is posed to the UKs interests would appear to be from more indirect challenges, such as piracy, economic instability, and other non-traditional threats, rather than the likelihood of another nation directly taking over UK interests.
The challenge therefore in the region is far more complex than that of just a straightforward preparation for military conflict with a hypothetical power. The region has a hugely complex and intertwined series of non-traditional security challenges, including piracy, terrorism, organised crime (particularly drugs), energy security, managing the challenge of climate change and so on. While the military do have a role to play in some areas of this, it could be argued that there is little that can easily be dealt with through a large scale conventional military presence. To that end, this author would suggest that there is no direct threat in the region that warrants or necessitates a significantly larger military presence than that which already exists.
The UK’s military interests in the region would therefore seem to stem more from a desire for wider stability to protect its investments, and capacity building – for instance working more closely on counter terrorism issues, or providing support to tackling piracy, as well as enhanced training, as part of efforts to increase stability, and to encourage other nations to play a wider role on the world stage. For instance, the FPDA serves as an excellent model of a regional security mechanism, where although the original threat has long since changed, the organisation provides an excellent framework for training and security co-operation. One example of this is with Indonesia, where the UK is now actively re-engaging with the Indonesian military, and seeking to build closer links, and for whom participation in multi-national exercises could be of real value.
One area where capacity building may occur is not actually in the region itself, but is being seen in the operations off the coast of Somalia, where a large number of military vessels from the Far Eastern nations, including Korea and China, are engaged in counter piracy operations. This area of work is a superb means of building low level contacts between navies who may have rarely worked together before. This author would argue that while the UK may not have a significant military presence in the Far East, the contacts and joint work being conducted off the coast of Africa probably represent a more valuable training opportunity than multiple training deployments by the RN into the region
In the final part of this article, we will focus on the future level of UK engagement in the region, and what form this could take.
What level of engagement is likely to occur in the near future?
So far this article has focused on the level of UK interest in the region, which it is clear is an area in which HM Government has very significant political and economic interests, but which is not a region that presents a direct military threat to the UK. A good primer on the wider UK level of interest in the region can be seen in the transcript of a speech by the UK Foreign Secretary (William Hague), made in April 2012, which summarises the overall level of engagement by the UK in this region. A copy of the speech can be found HERE.
In terms of the level of future presence and engagement, this author would suggest that the current pattern of activity would seem to be about right – there is a regular flow of staff talks, and international discussions on all manner of issues between the MOD, wider Govt and other nations with whom the UK can work. These are in many ways the main forum for co-operation – by keeping dialogue alive, even at a relatively infrequent or low level, channels of communication are maintained, and make it easier to ramp up relationships in due course, when resources and international interests permit.
A good example of where defence relationships are likely to improve through lower level talks, and potentially exchanges of information in future, is the recent UK/Japan defence co-operation memorandum, signed in April 2012 (link HERE).
Similarly, the current exercise programme, primarily focused on occasional deployments of RN vessels, backed up by the odd wider deployment of an RAF fighter element to support exercises with the FPDA, seems to be a roughly appropriate level of engagement.
While it is fun to consider the world of ‘what ifs’ the reality is that HM Govt has a limited amount of funds to spend, and Defence is even more limited. With no genuinely credible threat to our interests in the region, it is hard to see the justification for a massive upsizing of purely military resources out there. Instead, this is an area where ‘soft power’ should be used to maximum effect to ensure that UK interests are protected.
This authors strictly personal predictions for the next few years (based on nothing more than a spot of thinking) would be though:
- The UK defence footprint in the region will remain relatively static, albeit with the occasional opening or closing of a Defence section.
- The UK will continue to see FPDA as the main focus of military engagement, and deployments to the region will be designed to coincide with major exercises.
- Task Group deployments and solo escort deployments will occur, but not necessarily on as frequent a basis as has previously occurred. Future deployments are likely to showcase specific high end capabilities for training rather than perhaps a fully balanced task force.
- The UK will continue to engage in staff talks and international engagement with most countries in the region, but this will not necessarily translate into any form of meaningful and substantive military engagement in the region.
- Continued operations against piracy will see engagement with some nations that the UK would not normally operate with (for instance Korea and China), and valuable multi-national operational experience will be gained in this manner, even if there are limited exercises in the region itself.
The reality is that in an age where an overstretched defence budget has to cope with many demands, the ability of the forces to sustain a commitment to a region with negligible threats is limited. Although it is currently unlikely that there would be a permanent withdrawal of UK assets from the region, it will almost certainly remain an area where the UK will seek to influence and engage by means other than the military in nature.
The Far East is the region that most ‘internet fantasy fleet’ discussions get most excited about when talking on ideal future structures of the RN, or how they’d use the existing network of relationships and alliances to put UK troops in the area on a permanent basis.
The reality is that the UK doesn’t need this sort of permanent presence – the threat to justify it doesn’t exist, and the costs associated with permanently basing a large proportion of the armed forces in the region simply can’t be justified by the level of concerns associated with the area.
The current situation, where a primarily diplomatic network, merged with some small exercises and ship visits, works to remind nations of the UK interest, but then exercises, training or co-operation on operations occurs elsewhere, seems to work well and provides for an appropriate level of engagement.
It remains highly unlikely on current international trends that there would be a major shift in UK presence or posture within the region within the next 2-3 years. Therefore, this author would suggest that the current UK military presence in the Far East is entirely appropriate, and in line with the nature of the challenges posed by a vastly complex region.
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