Of all the continents on Earth, Africa represents perhaps the one with the greatest potential, resources and pool of talent of any. But this is counterbalanced by a hugely complex, often chaotic collection of nation states, intertwined with incredibly complex social, political and economic problems, which often pose a wider challenge to regional and global stability.
For the UK Africa remains a continent which has traditionally occupied a relatively low priority in terms of manpower and resource allocation. Yet in the 21st Century, the UK model of commitment to Africa offers a good insight into how the MOD can help support wider UK goals in the region, on a relatively low commitment of resource, but achieve effects significantly greater than the sum of its parts. There is no doubt that Africa is an immensely complex and challenging region to understand. From a purely military perspective, the continent has everything from barely functioning defence forces struggling to achieve basic military tasks through to those with relatively advanced capabilities, and able to deploy at a distance across the continent or beyond.
The UK has long maintained a somewhat discrete approach to engagement in Africa. Unlike the French, who still maintain a fairly substantial network of post-colonial era bases in former colonies, the UK never sought to maintain any fixed garrisons or sovereign bases after the Colonial era came to an end. Instead the only area where the UK has maintained a consistent presence is in Kenya, where the British Army has maintained a small training team since the 1960s, which has managed access to a substantial training estate. Beyond this, the UK approach can best be characterised as defence attaches, training teams and maritime presence.
Africa is one continent where the presence of a Defence Attaché can make an enormous difference to maintaining effective defence relationships. The UK has a relatively modest presence, fluctuating from nation to nation over time, but currently around 15 posts in total (although this regularly changes depending on politics and budgets). The role of the DA is fairly straightforward –act as the liaison point between the UK and host nation (and wider accredited nations) military forces, and try to foster strong links. In practical terms this can range from ensuring overflight access, support for adventure training, helping secure local training and keeping abreast of military developments. More broadly, much of what they do is around ensuring that the UK can engage with senior military figures in a country, and help build effective working relationships. Some such relationships can be essential – for instance ensuring that RN warships are able to transit the Suez Canal without any difficulty.
Why does this matter though? At its simplest, the ability to gain access to senior officers provides a useful insight into how a nation is thinking on issues. It helps the UK gently offer advice on their views about how issues could be overcome (for instance procurement requirements or training problems). It enables a dialogue to go on with officers who can be exceptionally influential in determining the direction of events in a country. By getting to understand and build strong relationships, the DA can help steer a bilateral military relationship – one thing that has often impressed the author is the depth of attachment and esteem in which many nations genuinely value their relationship with the UK armed forces. The presence of a DA can often help improve these relationships, enabling better liaison, access for training and helping show UK solutions to capability requirements. Finally, a DA can often provide situational awareness and advise on developing crises with professional military judgement – this can be invaluable in determining the nature of an HMG response to a problem.
In addition to the DA network, there is also a small number of training teams designed to provide a permanent presence in the region to help bolster regional stability (British Army webpage links are HERE). At present, these are based in Kenya, Sierra Leone and South Africa. The role of each team subtly varies depending on the host nation, but each has a similar model – provide training, guidance and experience to help address gaps in regional military capability, and enable them to meet the demanding challenges of modern operations. The location of these teams has changed over time - in the immediate post Colonial era, there were a number in the continent designed to build capability up for local military forces (for instance the original UK mission in Ghana was nearly 250 strong in the early 1960s). Similarly others have shut due to budget cuts or changes in regime (for instance the BMATT in Zimbabwe), although speaking to officers from nations where there has been a BMATT, it is clear that many lament their passing and the loss of training, experience and value they offer. Although small, a well placed training team can often generate far more influence and access for the UK than a dozen armoured regiments based back in the UK... One paper the author came across while researching this article can be found HERE - its an ISS Africa paper dating back to the early 1990s and talks about the UK training team experiences. Obviously the paper should be read in line with the standards and experiences of the time, but it does provide an interesting insight into the experiences and value that the BMATT can bring.
Capacity building is absolutely crucial to this – a well placed training team, able to energise, inspire and train a cadre of students can make a large difference to an often small military (a good recent example being the deployment in the short term to Mali of training teams to help improve capacity). It is worth remembering that many African armed forces are short on resources and capability, and cannot always do basic things that other military forces take for granted. For example, in Kenya the Army is able to run a training team on mine clearance – a major problem in that part of the world, and one which can have debilitating effects on local stability (e.g. loss of life, long term injuries and the loss of grazing or economically viable areas). By providing this training, the BMATT/ Peace Support Team is able to help increase capacity of local forces and indirectly improve the quality of life, and hopefully stability, of their nations.
Similarly, a great deal of work has gone into Sierra Leone to help improve the capability of its armed forces to help them secure the country again. This work is long and time consuming – you cannot rebuild a shattered military overnight, but it is something which goes a long way to providing a credible security capability for a nation recovering from a brutal civil war. The message is also extremely powerful – namely that the UK is able to provide training and support for its friends, and hopefully at the same time instil a strong sense of discipline and standards in their armed forces which will continue. This may not be high profile or attention grabbing, but the deployment of a small team of trainers is often far cheaper and more practical in the long term, than a short notice crisis intervention like OP PALLISER in 2000, where the UK essentially had to take over running of Sierra Leone for a short period to help restore order. While such an operation may make people feel good about UK military prowess, surely it is far better to try and prevent the situation occurring in the first place through well placed training?
There is also a regular series of training detachments for a short period of time into various countries – for instance, in Uganda in 2011 there were almost 60 short training exercises to help improve the capability of the Ugandan armed forces as part of their preparation for UN peacekeeping operations in Somalia (link is HERE). This, coupled with other similar deployments means that a small platoon sized deployment can often achieve a very positive impact in training a military which would otherwise be deploying on operations without sufficient preparation. This sort of exercise can make a real difference in helping secure stability for the region, as local peacekeeping forces are better able to handle some of the more challenging aspects of peacekeeping, and in turn this reduces the reliance on Western forces to deploy or shoulder a greater burden. A similar example occurs in Morocco, where the JEBEL SAHARA series of exercises provide an excellent opportunity for the RAF, Army (including Gibraltar Regiment) and other units to exercise in the region and work with the Moroccans.
The final land part of the UK commitment comes from the long term presence in Kenya of the British Army training areas there. This exercise area has grown increasingly important to the Army, particularly during Operation HERRICK where it was used for a large amount of pre-deployment training for units deploying to theatre. There is a very substantial and regular throughput of UK troops in Kenya, and a great deal of investment has gone into the training areas out there to make them as capable as possible. While there are no permanent garrison type forces attached to Kenya as such, it is a useful reminder that there is a routine and regular presence in the country which gains significantly from the training opportunities on offer.
More widely, the UK has a regular maritime presence in the region, with Royal Navy ships regularly calling into West African ports on their way down to the Falkland Islands, helping participate in a series of capability building exercises, working with local nations to better improve their coastguard and naval training, and also reduce the risk of piracy. In recent years there have been very regular visits by RN vessels along the whole of the West coast, although the RN has long since scrapped the short lived ‘West Africa Guardship’ which appeared to be a short lived standing commitment in the pre-SDR days of deploying a frigate into the region. Similarly on the East coast the RN is an active participant in counter-piracy operations, with vessels conducting operations from the Red Sea all the way through to the Gulf, and also down the Indian Ocean coast. Although piracy attacks are reduced from what they once were, there is still a clear risk, which the RN plays a part in tackling. Additionally the RNR Maritime Trade Operations branch has played a hugely import, but little recognised role in helping provide guidance to merchant shipping both in the Red Sea and also off the West Coast of Africa, where this small but essential capability is helping make a real difference to merchant ships safety.
So, as we draw to the end of part one, the view on UK commitment to Africa is that it is dispersed, often full of individuals in isolated locations and often doing work which is a long way removed from the traditional glamour of what some like to see as a classic military role. There is no real permanent basing footprint beyond the exercise facilities in Kenya, but there is a surprising level of low level defence engagement. It’s a long way removed from the ORBATS and fantasy fleet exercises often associated with the Internet, but it does play a crucial part in ensuring UK national security.
In part two of the article, it will explore what the value is from defence engagement in Africa, why it matters to the UK, what sort of things can make a difference and will consider the wider long term options for commitment to the continent and what the next few years may hold for UK commitment to the region and what model could potentially work best. It will in particular consider the lessons of Mali, for which the author has deliberately not mentioned in this part of the article.