In a week when news seemed focused on whether the UK is, or is not, a serious player on the world stage, or if it is retreating away from the global limelight, an interesting little story emerged on the Navy News website which perhaps speaks volumes. In itself it’s a bit of a non-story, the RN creating a new ‘squadron’ but it actually is quite an important signal. The story can be found here - https://www.facebook.com/pages/Thin-Pinstriped-Line-blog/201503350017062?ref=hl
The story is very simple – the Royal Navy has decided that the vessels assigned to Bahrain, which comprise four MCMVs and a ‘mother ship’ (in this class a Bay class LSDA) will from now on wear the badge of the 9th MCMV squadron. This small gesture is important for it was the squadron previously based in the Gulf until 1971 when the UK temporarily withdrew from the region.
Although the UK has spent many years in these waters, the clear signal has been that it was always on a deployment, not an enduring basis. Since the middle of the last decade there has been a steadily growing ‘permanent’ presence in the form of MCMVs, RFAs, a Lynx Flight and a 1* Battlestaff to oversee this, all based in Bahrain.
The news that the RN will now assign a permanent squadron title to vessels in the region helps reinforce a message that the UK sees itself as being in the region for the long haul. Remember this is an area where small gestures count for a lot, and people hold onto memories for a long time. There is a genuine affection for the UK among the ruling elites of many of these nations, and they have long sought a permanent UK return to the region (not just a deployment).
The gesture of the 9th MCMV squadron standing up is a clear signal that the UK is prepared to formally administer its presence for the long haul – although in many ways an honorific title (it comes with no uplift in staff or posts), it does help remind Gulf rulers that the UK is back in town. Coming on the back of a huge increase in tempo of exercises, such as near permanent RAF deployments to Minhad Air Base with Tornado and Typhoon aircraft, plus the increasing opportunities of deploying British Army troops to exercise with partner nations, there is arguably more UK defence engagement with the region now than there has been for many decades.
While you shouldn't read too much into this particular news, it does help serve as a reminder that the UK is quietly solidifying its ‘East of Suez’ laydown as we move away from HERRICK and into the post HERRICK world. Although nothing has materially changed, the message it will send to our friends and allies in the region is simple – the UK intends to be here for the long haul.
Given time, when Humphrey returns from his honeymoon, a more detailed look at what the UK is doing in the region will hopefully follow!