Sunday, 26 January 2014

A corner of a foreign field that is forever England...

Browsing the as always excellent ‘Think Defence’ website, Humphrey was struck by a number of articles picked up from around the news on overseas basing, particularly about how the French are looking to expand their network of basing facilities in Africa to help meet the challenges of instability. The specific article can be found HERE, but in summary it says that in future, the French plan to maintain similar troop numbers in the Sahel region, but spread them out into more austere locations and have specific roles for each base.

Foreign basing is one of those subjects which seems to crop up a lot on many internet ‘fantasy fleet’ discussions, with posters on forums creating wishlists of the sort of UK military structure they’d like to see, and most of the time it has some kind of permanent basing facility in all manner of odd locations, usually with some kind of grandiose title attached to it (e.g .15th Imperial Army HQ in Timbuktu).

There is a strong association with the concept of possession of overseas facilities, as if the sheer act of having a smaller part of territory abroad that is forever (England) somehow makes a nation more potent or powerful. Yet despite this, overseas basing is one of those areas which relatively few nations still do. For this article, Humphrey would define an overseas facility as something sustained to support the permanent stationing of troops and/or military hardware in a foreign nation, and not the presence of a liaison officer or small admin hub linked to things like NATO HQs.

If you look beyond a couple of military operations like HERRICK, where there are obviously operational facilities for many nations, then outside of the US, France and the UK, and to a much more limited extent Australia & the Netherlands (which operate logistics facilities in the Middle East and West Indies), there are no real western powers operating from overseas locations. The Russians still maintain a facility in Syria, and in the immensely complicated world of South East Asian politics, a number of nations maintain small facilities in disputed island territories, although these owe more to complex political situations (and an insistence that the facilities themselves are in territorial waters)

It is interesting to consider then that despite the perception of the UK as a nation in decline militarily, it still retains a significant overseas footprint of permanent basing facilities, and a much wider footprint of temporary detachments which over the years have gained a certain permanency about them. Today the UK operates permanent bases in Gibraltar, Cyprus, Ascension Island, the Falklands, with access to facilities in Diego Garcia, Brunei and Singapore. This is backed up by training facilities in Canada, Kenya and Belize, and there is also a series of operational detachments operating out of Bahrain, the UAE and Oman. This list does not consider Germany (due to close), nor the multitude of support facilities and HQs where UK staff participate both in NATO and more broadly.

Anglo French co-operation in Mali

This footprint remains significantly larger than some may think, but the list also raises a variety of observations about the realities of overseas basing and how challenging it is to sustain an overseas presence. The first thing to note is  that when looking at UK overseas facilities, the majority of the ‘operational’ ones (e.g. those owned by PJHQ and run as Permanent Joint Operating Bases or PJOBs) are located on UK sovereign territory. Humphrey is lucky enough to have visited and worked at every single UK PJOB (including Diego Garcia). While they may be considered overseas in some ways, they are able to be used in a manner which doesn’t allow other nations control over their function or role. The result is a collection of fairly substantial sites with considerable permanency (e.g. married quarters, garrison units or permanent lodger detachments and a sense that the site exists for the long haul).

Where the UK chooses to sustain a more expeditionary presence (primarily in the Gulf) it relies on the presence of temporary units, and a more expeditionary posture. It is rare to find many permanent buildings in these sites, and the majority of accommodation remains austere and designed to be lived in for a short period of time. Why though, especially when the UK has been in the region on a permanent basis for a long time, has it stepped away from having large permanent facilities outside of sovereign territory?

Part of the answer is that a permanent presence implies a permanent dependency on the host nation. In running a permanent facility overseas, you rely very much on the goodwill of the host nation to support you, accommodate you and make life as straight forward as possible – ranging from visa issues at the point of entry, through to ensuring that the routine life support of food and power is delivered without any problems. When relationships with a country go well, then this isn’t an issue, but when countries seek to link support for the bases, or their continued access to adopting certain policies or helping endorse their views, then things get more challenging. Permanent bases on foreign soil tie you implicitly into maintaining a long standing relationship with that nation, no matter how challenging it may become.

In Africa, one would argue that French foreign policy has been as much driven by doing what is required to keep a motley assortment of despots, presidents and Emperors on side as it is about what is in the long term interests of the French. When you have a large expat community settling in the vicinity of the bases, and when you have married quarters, schools and all the other gentle signs of permanence, you have to consider how the base is run in a very different way. Sustaining the base on your terms becomes almost a foreign policy objective of its own.

The other challenge associated with permanency is that when the host nation does something you do not necessarily agree with, then as a nation you face a difficult challenge. Do you acquiesce, knowing that it is vital to keep the military facilities open, or do you speak out, knowing it places your long term presence at risk? The problem with permanent facilities is that they imply permanence of thinking. You cannot risk your relationship in the short term, knowing that in the medium term you will still have to deal with the same people, who may harbour grudges over how you acted, and in turn, could make the presence of the bases and the limits on what you can do with them a focal part of the relationship.

Finally, the problem with permanency is that your forces assigned to the base become permanent in themselves, and perhaps become in the eyes of the host nation ‘their’ forces. When you see a facility like the French ones in the UAE or Africa, you see a substantial military presence. But, by running sites with declared orders of battle, and declared roles – such as hosting specific squadrons of jet fighters, or supporting land units, you are declaring your permanent commitment to that nation or region. As such, when the time comes to reduce a presence, change it around or send it off to do other jobs, there is a danger that the host nation sees it as being a weakening of the commitment to them personally. After all, if you host a French air force base with Rafales, you have a reasonable expectation that those Rafales are there to defend you. Permanency of presence brings a state where amending it can become a major challenge in bilateral relations, and reduce your own freedom of action in a crisis.

Tornado GR4 - Great aircraft, but it still needs somewhere to land!

Additionally, it becomes a major millstone when the relationship is not as smooth – arguably both the French and US who base aircraft overseas would like to see defence sales of similar equipment flow as a result of their presence in some countries. When this doesn’t result in a sale (e.g. the French trying and so far failing to sell Rafale to the UAE), then it either leads to challenging questions, or results in a sense that assets shouldn’t be used to defend countries not willing to buy them. Currently the French find themselves in the UAE with a substantial fast jet presence, an implied assumption that this would be used to defend the UAE in a crisis, but absolutely no signal nor interest from the UAE in purchasing similar jets to work with the French. Having secured a permanent presence, they cannot withdraw the jets without it being seen as an implied snub, and they now arguably find themselves fixed with a nation expecting them to defend their interests, but not reward them for doing so.

Of course ultimately, there is the danger that having a permanent military presence can result in your being sucked into a war, not necessarily of your choice. One would argue that many French interventions in West Africa owe as much to protecting their status quo as they were about protecting French allies. When your permanent bases become a millstone requiring military action to protect, you realise that they are perhaps more hassle than they are worth. In the same way, withdrawal, closure or shutting down a base can have a far greater impact on the bilateral relationship than it would were it seen as a purely temporary measure. Arguably the withdrawal of the UK helicopter flights from Belize and the drawing down of BATSUB have had a huge impact on Anglo-Belizean relations, particularly as the media coverage seems to portray the provision of 25 Flight as effectively the SAR cover for the whole country, implying that the UK decision is puitting Belizean lives at risk. A similar problem may be faced in Kenya, where if BATUK is drawn down in the post HERRICK environment, linking any change to posture may become part of the challenges in managing the bilateral relationship.

The beauty of the UK approach of relying primarily on temporary facilities on foreign soil is that you can ebb and flow presence with far more ease and far less disturbance. By this, it is much easier to maintain a small ground detachment of RAF personnel to service aircraft and run a bare bones facility, then augment them as required than it is to keep a permanent presence on one station. In an RAF of ever fewer aircraft, and one built around the concept of expeditionary operations, having the ability to move quickly around a region, exercising in various countries as you go is perhaps far more useful than having one tied squadron. In regions where complex international relationships exist, it would perhaps be more difficult to send ‘their’ Typhoons or Tornados to exercise in a third party nation, for fear of causing offence or difficulties. Instead, by maintaining a broad and austere presence which can quickly be stood up, the UK gets the best of both worlds – the ability to operate from a diverse range of countries and locations, but at the same time a much lower problem of challenging diplomatic problems.

This policy does come at a cost though – it relies heavily on a ‘detachment mentality’ which requires troops to deploy on an expeditionary basis and without families. Fine for the odd training detachment, but after four or five multi-month detachments, then things can get a bit more wearing. Similarly, the cost associated with being able to deploy on an expeditionary footing is far more expensive than having a couple of airbases and permanent facilities. It requires heavier investment in airlift, sealift and logistics than would otherwise be the case, and means scarce procurement funds are diverted away from teeth capability like munitions and into the less glamorous world of logistics.

But, despite this, the UK seems set to have an ever greater austere overseas presence. As HERRICK draws to a close, and assets become available for regional training, its likely that we will see further such deployments into regions of national interest. It is hard to see the Gulf facilities being reduced in number, and there is a near permanent demand from across the globe by nations to work with UK military personnel on training exercises. If anything, as HERRICK ends and global defence engagement steps up to fore, then sites which have perhaps seen relatively little use in recent years like Belize, Singapore and Brunei may find themselves becoming far more prominent in UK defence engagement. 


  1. "Permanent bases on foreign soil tie you implicitly into maintaining a long standing relationship with that nation, no matter how challenging it may become."

    Like Russia in Syria perhaps... Did we care enough about shifting Russia away from Syrian dependence for access to the Med to tip them the nod over Cyprus?

  2. ""A corner of a foreign field that is forever England...""

    A lot of countries thought that - but look what happened.

  3. Singapore and Brunei are under used. The logistics hub in Singapore is more US-Aussie manned than RN, despite what you've been harping about. Only if there's another humanitarian disaster or Daring tour will they be used.

    1. Brunei has been used as a jungle warfare school as well as hosting a Gurkha battalion and Army Air Corps flight all at a cost to the Sultan pretty consistently since the early 1960s.

      The facilities in Singapore are used more frequently by allied nations because the RAN and USN have more vessels in the immediate area for obvious reasons. The important thing is that the refueling depot and wharf's are still officially in the hands of a small RN naval party and the whole set-up is MOD owned, giving the RN instant access and all the support they can provide if/when it's required.

      I'm not an advocate of setting up bases here, there and everywhere all over the globe, but that doesn't mean the many overseas facilities we do still maintain aren't worth hanging onto.

    2. Brunei has been the same for years and nothing much out of it. The troops there just sit for the Sultan's pleasure and only because of Afghanistan were they put into battle.

      I never said not hanging on to. I said not all facilities are greatly utilised as the article suggest. And despite global basing, the UK armed forces to others like that Gabriele guy isnt that well armed

    3. Gabriele has an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the UK Armed Forces, but he does go on at length about the negatives, yet ignore or only give a brief mention to any positive developments for the UK military.
      If he was as critical of other armed forces, especially other European nations, there would be plenty of examples to hi-light their shortcomings and capability gaps.

  4. Belize--training there has already been reduced in favour of elsewhere.