The tragic news from the Philippines over Typhoon Haiyan has highlighted the wide range of international responses to this awful event. In addition to the usual commitments of international aid, rescue teams and other assets, there has been a large military commitment from both the US and the UK in responding to the crisis. For the UK the response has once again shown the flexibility of the armed forces, and their capability to respond at short notice to major problems around the globe. But it also highlights a few other salient issues as well.
At the time of writing the current UK commitment is one C17 aircraft, the presence of HMS DARING and the announced deployment of HMS ILLUSTRIOUS to relieve HMS DARING. In addition there are suggestions on the MOD announcement that the UK is going to deploy heavy airfield clearance equipment to help free space on runways to make room for aid flights.
The relatively quick UK response is in marked contrast to many other nations military capabilities, and once again suggests that for all the ‘doom and gloom’ about the general state of the UK military, it is still remarkably quick to respond to global challenges and provide assets if required. There are very few nations out there which are able to respond as quickly and effectively as the UK to this sort of challenge.
The deployment of the C17 highlights the value of this strategic airlift capability, and why it remains one of the single most sensible and valuable defence procurement decisions of the last 20 years. The fleet has been worked hard, but in acquiring the C17, the RAF is able to operate a truly strategic airlift capability, which is easily able to respond to problems. One only has to look at where the C17 force has been deployed in recent years to see that it is quickly becoming the aircraft of choice in enabling the UK to participate in, or respond to a global crisis. The biggest concern for the RAF and other operators is likely to be the news that the production line will be shutting down in the near future, with no equivalent successor on the horizon. Given how hard the fleet has been worked (look at the way HERRICK and TELIC have effectively forced the retirement of the C130J fleet much earlier than planned due to fatigue issues), and there is a worry that the longer term outlook is less rosy for replacing a like for like capability.
The deployment of the C17 also highlights the value of the UKs global network of defence attaches. While they are often derided by those who don’t work with them, the fact that the DA network will doubtless be working hard to facilitate overflight clearances, landing authority, diversion options and the like helps ensure that the C17 can deploy safely and effectively. Its often forgotten that a lot of work goes into ensuring an aircraft can fly from A-B via C. Getting permission to overfly nations with military aircraft isn’t always straightforward, and it’s a quiet testimony to the value of the global DA network that they are able to help facilitate this access at short notice. When people call for an end to the old boys attaché network, they perhaps don’t realise how much damage would be done to the UKs ability to deploy at short notice as a result.
The deployment of HMS DARING highlights firstly the value of the RN facility in Sembewang, Singapore, which to this day remains a very useful asset for the UK. Its ability to provide a wharf for repairs and support meant that DARING was able to undergo a maintenance period whilst deployed, thus extending her time on station during what has already been a busy deployment. So, it is a useful reminder that although low profile and low cost, retaining Sembewang helps give the UK the ability to sustain warships for far longer than would otherwise be the case.
It is equally important to note the value of being able to deploy a warship – RN crews routinely deploy having trained in disaster relief skills, and it is something which is often put to the test across the world – particularly in the West Indies. The deployment of DARING helps show why this training is so important, as it helps save lives. Her presence will directly be able to provide command and control, aid, power generation and also overflights by the helicopter. While the relatively small crew will be limited in what they can achieve ashore, simply due to the sheer size of the problem, it is still a vital contribution that not many other nations can do. Once again the sheer value of RN training is brought into sharp focus.
The deployment of HMS ILLUSTRIOUS highlights the value of the COUGAR series of deployments and the Response Force Task Group concept. The ability to deploy a relatively capable force east of suz to loiter and conduct Defence Engagement has helped give the UK an ability to respond with a more capable platform, albeit in slower time. The air group of seven helicopters, backed up by a more substantial crew and supplies will also play a real part in making a difference to rescuing people. But, we should be realistic about the limitations of the deployment.
It appears that only seven aircraft are available (3 Lynx, 1 Merlin, 3 Seaking) which is a far smaller airgroup than seen on carriers in the past. In itself this highlights the pressure on FAA platform numbers and size and shows that even with new carriers coming online, much of the supporting force is far smaller than it used to be. Additionally ILLUSTRIOUS appears to be deploying without an attendant RFA, meaning her ability to sustain supplies on station is limited. This also shows just how stretched that the RFA has become, now that there will be two RN platforms in the region, but no RFA to support them. It is also arguably pure chance that the Typhoon occurred at a point when the RN had a vessel in the Asia Pacific region, having not really deployed there at all for several years. Had it occurred 6 months previously or in a few months time, then not only would there be no vessel in region, but the RFTG would be in home waters and unable to intervene in sufficient time. While this incident again highlights the sheer flexibility of maritime power, we should be cautious of making out that it will always be this straightforward to ‘send in the Navy’.
Additionally, the incident highlights how valuable the LPH role is to the RN – given that HMS OCEAN is due to pay off within the next few years, probably without replacement, and that no decision has been taken on running a second carrier on, it is not certain that the RN would always be able to do this again. A carrier operating with a fixed airgroup (as opposed to an LPH) would not be stored or equipped to intervene in the same way. So while it is tempting to think of a CVF steaming to the rescue in the future, the reality is that it would be more difficult than perhaps realised. It is also a pertinent reminder of the slow speed of amphibious shipping – even at full speed it will take nearly a week for ILLUSTRIOUS to reach the Philippines – and she is still a relatively fast vessel. The other amphibious vessels in the RN are much slower, and would struggle to deploy in a similar time frame.
There is a wider value to the operation beyond the humanitarian aspects. Some may see this sort of deployment as ‘soft power’ and not something which suits the UK military. But Humphrey would argue that the UK has long had vast economic, political and security related interests in the region, but has played barely any military role in the area since the 1970s beyond the occasional exercise or group deployment. This sort of deployment of military assets is a useful reminder of the UKs interest in the area (valuable for the other FPDA members as a sign that the UK hasn't forgotten about the region). It sends a useful symbol that the UK remains a global military power, able to deploy at short notice in to trouble spots and provide assistance. This will not be forgotten by many of the powers in the region, many of whom are looking for dialogues on security and defence matters. That the UK came to the assistance of the Philippines is good, but it is perhaps more useful to flag up that the UK isn't just a bit player, talking a good game but not really playing it. By deploying assets, the UK is showing that Asia Pacific region isn't too far away not to care about, and that it is prepared to take an interest. This gesture will not be forgotten and could be a useful primer to discussions elsewhere in the region about possible future defence & security relationships with the UK.
In summary, the utter tragedy in the Philippines is heart rending. The fact that the UK has been able to stand up and deploy assets to help try and save lives and assist with rebuilding is to be applauded. It highlights not only the capabilities of the UK, but also perhaps where some of the risks lie in the next few years. After all, after the paying off of HMS ILLUSTRIOUS next year, it will be 2-3 years until an equally fast carrier would be available to assist. Similarly, the lack of regular deployments into the region make the UKs response valuable, but we should not be blinded into thinking that it is something that could always be done.
For more information on the UK military interests in the Asia Pacific region, readers should look at the article from 2012, East of East of Suez, hosted here- http://thinpinstripedline.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/east-of-east-of-suez-uk-commitment-to.html