Sunday, 11 May 2014

Into Africa - Part Two

In the first part of this article, Humphrey took a look at the current laydown and commitment of UK forces in Africa, and what sort of engagement is currently undertaken. In this part, he intends to focus more on what future engagement could look like, and some thoughts on what is, or is not, a likely model of future UK interest in the continent.

Stand Off?
As noted originally, the UK has long since moved out of its permanent bases in Africa – while a small training footprint remains in Kenya, this is very much a training location, optimised for supporting pre-deployment exercises and not operations. When there is a presence, it is very much built around a temporary deployment and not permanent basing. The UK as a whole has also tried to avoid significant intervention in the continent, with only two substantial military interventions involving kinetic operations (Sierra Leone and Libya) occurring since the end of UK colonial rule, plus the deployment of a variety of training teams. So any future presence in Africa should be set against the expectation that there is little if any real appetite for major commitment which sees UK troops setting up on a permanent footing in the continent. Unlike France, which has retained a number of bases, particularly in West Africa, the UK has never sought any meaningful operational footprint.

Therefore, the model for future UK engagement in Africa is likely to be one of expeditionary operations and not one of long term sustained presence. When UK troops deploy, they will do so using short term facilities, and the infrastructure of the host nation and not their own sovereign bases. While such a move means UK presence is going to be more fleeting in nature, it does reduce the need to be dependent on a host nation for sustaining a long term base. Arguably, much of what has driven French interests in Africa for many years is as much setting the conditions for a supportive local government to see through the continuation of French bases as it is about anything else. Additionally the longer term the base, the more likely it is that it acquires an expatriate population to match. There are over 250,000 French nationals living in Africa, often near to where current French military bases exist (particularly retired personnel) – this in turn places a significant burden on any NEO planning – the more permanent and long term the base, the more people you’ll need to evacuate in an emergency.

It is worth remembering though that even if the UK is exceptionally unlikely to set up a long term permanent presence in the region, it still possess two Permanent Joint Operating Bases (PJOB) of value nearby – in Gibraltar, where the air and naval base provide useful mounting facilities for onwards operations, and in Ascension where the airbase can carry out a range of support to airlift into West Africa. Both bases do not have the same challenging political relationship with the host nation, and also remove the possibility of having bases tied to policy – e.g. operating a base in Africa means a long term basing commitment which in turn aligns you closely to the host nations foreign and security policy. While the UK has a close relationship with many African countries, an unexpected change of Government, or decline in interstate relationships makes the land base vulnerable to pressure. Far better to avoid any such entanglements and ensure presence is handled via short term detachments, not long term commitments. The ongoing UK mission in Mali is an excellent example of where UK presence is likely to be seen in future – short term small teams working out of shared basing.

UK and French troops in Mali

Why go there at all?
So, assuming there will be no permanent presence in Africa, what is the likely sort of work that the UK will do? Looking back at international engagement in Africa over the last 40 years or so, particularly UK involvement, and looking forward, the likely range of work seems to be fairly similar:

a.       High intensity conflict against a nation state (OP ELLAMY)
b.      Intervention to support failing state Government (OP PALLISER)
c.       Intervention to evacuate foreign nationals (Ivory Coast)
d.      Support to Counter Terrorism / Counter Insurgency campaign (Mali)
e.      Training to support capacity building and stability (South Africa/ Zimbabwe / Kenya)
f.        Other training / defence engagement (Continent Wide)

For the UK this means a requirement to be prepared to engage across the full spectrum of military operations as laid down in the SDSR. Ironically, one could argue that for a continent in which the UK has long avoided any permanent basing, it is perhaps notable that the UK has involved itself in a broader range of military operations in Africa than in any other continent since the end of the Cold War.  It is very difficult to predict where specific engagements will occur, however looking to the future would suggest that a combination of resource conflict, border clashes, internal tensions and other simmering issues will continue to present a real risk to wider stability.

At one end of the spectrum then the UK needs to be prepared to commit to ongoing and sustained military operations in a variety of areas for the first three challenges (a-c). These may occur at very short notice, and often in areas where UK understanding and presence is limited – for instance Mali occurred at a very short warning period, and quickly committed a substantial UK presence to a region where there has long been next to no UK presence of any kind. This in turn means the UK needs to invest time and resource in enhancing its diplomatic, aid and other forms of engagement across the country in order to invest in the best possible indicators and warnings of future problems which could impact us. More than any other part of the world, the lack of a ‘on the ground’ HMG presence (as opposed to a purely military presence) could reduce the ability to have real understanding and planning about a looming crisis.Additionally a lot of investment is required to support development and governance to help create the skills to keep African governments working effectively and not collapsing in on themselves - while a military intervention is far more impressive on the pages of the worlds media, its a lot more expensive to do than deploy some governance and stabilisation advisor's who could have helped avoid it in the first place. It is essential we understand that now more than ever, defence and security engagement is not just about what the military bring to the party.

This in turn also needs to the logical deduction that the UK needs to invest heavily in logistics, airlift, sealift and other enablers to ensure that it has the ability to deploy a meaningful force when required. There is no point investing heavily in hundreds of tanks and APCs if there is no means of moving them quickly to the crisis. One senses that Africa highlights that the real challenge of the future is going to be equipping the UK armed forces to be simultaneously light and agile enough to move at speed to a crisis, but resilient enough to defend themselves robustly against a variety of threats and sustain themselves for an indeterminate time-frame. Tanks would seem to have little place in the UK commitment to Africa, but the ability to counter an armoured threat from legacy forces remains essential.

Is there any call for the Desert Rats in Africa in future?

For the last three areas (d-f) there is a need to provide niche capabilities and small assets to intervene as appropriate. What is often needed is not a ship visit or impressive combined arms exercise demonstration, but the deployment of a couple of training NCOs to increase the capability of a host nations armed forces in a specific area. Where the UK needs to focus is on its ability to do as it did in Mali, merging both world class ISTAR assets like Sentinel with the provision of a limited training team to up skill the armed forces. By intervening in a small way now, this has hopefully prevented a longer term need for a major deployment to the region to intervene more kinetically.

Additionally capacity building calls for the UK to add value by providing assets and capabilities that African nations may not possess. For instance, when seeking contributions to UN missions, the ability of the UK to deploy A330 or C17s to move an African forces troops, equipment and vehicles may make the difference between that nation contributing or not. This is a continent where there are significant capability shortfalls for the military, which impact on their ability to work effectively. A limited UK commitment (such as in Mali where C17s were used to enormous effect) can often prevent a need to deploy UK troops on the ground to participate in a peacekeeping mission. Therefore UK engagement should be seen in terms of not just what the British Armed Forces can do in terms of offensive missions, but also as enablers to allow others to carry the burden instead. Until a truly capable regional power emerges in Africa the UK and other powers will need to invest to carry the burden.

It is increasingly clear that the presence of training missions, liaison officers and defence attaches can make a real and valuable difference in improving stability. Future engagement will almost certainly focus on uplifting resources in this area, seeing an increased number of UK staff officers (particularly now HERRICK is almost over) deploy into singleton positions to work with the plethora of international missions in Africa. It is likely that over the next 5-10 years, the numbers of UK personnel deployed in these roles will increase, providing a commensurate increase in UK awareness about the region as a whole. Additionally, it is likely that the UK will take on a far more comprehensive approach than perhaps previously seen – seeking to better integrate the work of the multitude of UK interests in the region – DFID, FCO, UKTI, MOD and others, and ensuring that they work to a much better combined effect to get the best out of this sort of engagement.

Finally the provision of training, both in the UK and in Africa will become increasingly important. The offer of places at institutions like Sandhurst and RCDS will remain the crown jewel in the UK training package, providing a chance to influence future leaders and strengthen African militaries. But these places are limited and often come at huge cost, so in turn expect to see much more of the pocket deployment in small numbers where trainers uplift skills in one specific area (e.g. NCOs teaching drill or tactics) and slowly work over many years to bolster an effective relationship.

Training courses though are two way affairs – it is easy to fall into a perhaps patronising assumption that the UK cannot learn much from African militaries. But, as Humphrey found some years ago when talking on a course once, their people often have enormous experience – for instance the African participant in question spoke of his background, explaining that on leaving university he had joined an insurgency against the despotic ruler, fought in the jungle for years and that his last job (in a more normal stable environment) had been containing an outbreak of the Ebola virus.

To sail again under the Angolan Flag?

Why does this matter to the UK?
It is a reasonable question to ask what the UK gains from continuing to maintain the ability to intervene in Africa if required, and why is it in the national interest? Stability in Africa arguably matters more now than ever before – the collapse of a nation state like Mali or the CAR threatens regional stability – in turn a cycle of war, human disaster and anarchy can create instability, refugees, economic problems and lead to a fertile recruiting ground for insurgents and terrorists. By being able to intervene to limit problems before they become too great, or spending time training local military forces now, the UK is helping prevent problems emerging downstream.

Africa has enormous potential too – a region with a rapidly growing middle class, and with huge resource wealth. A more assertive Africa, home to countries willing to take a proactive step onto the world stage through UN missions and support benefits us all. By training them, supporting them and engaging in a genuinely meaningful relationship, and not one seen purely through the prism of commercial sales, the UK has an opportunity to create influence which can be to our long term foreign policy benefit. A credible set of African military forces, able to support and uphold the rule of law, and help bring about regional stability is a good thing, and helps the UK achieve its own defence and security aims. The worry is that inaction leads to vacuums which in turn creates conflict and strife. It is very easy to say that West Africa is a long way from home and that it is no concern of ours – but one can only imagine the demand to intervene in the event of another humanitarian catastrophe akin to Rwanda in the mid 1990s happening. Far better to engage at a low but meaningful level now and try to avert this before it happens.  

To some, it is perhaps tempting to link Africa to arms sales and see UK training as a means of securing UK economic success. In reality it is hard to see UK influence directly having a major impact on economic exports – the bulk of African countries need cheap and easy to maintain equipment which can get spares easily sourced – e.g. T55s or AK47s. The UK has a world leading defence and security industry, but much of what is offered now is probably too capable for a continent where the requirement is about equipping large numbers of soldiers on a very small budget – instead nations like China or Russia are far better placed to capitalise on this. But, as time passes and budgets increase and improve, a more discerning customer may well emerge. One only has to look at reports of Angola seeking to acquire an aircraft carrier to realise that when money is no object (and many of these nations sit on potentially vast oil or other reserves), then acquisition of high capability equipment is possible. Longer term engagement by the UK, building local capability helps build relationships where the countries may well in due course want to turn to UK companies for help and support – playing for the long haul could be a very sensible move indeed.

So, Africa remains a continent where the UK has huge interests, a long history of low level engagement and a regular military presence. It is somewhere with enormous potential, and where an investment of time money and equipment now could make a huge difference to the long term interests of the UK as a whole. It is in short a region where the UK and Defence have a tremendous vested interest in engaging with and getting the most out of it, because failure in Africa can have a direct impact on security and way of life at home in the UK.


  1. Savetheroyalnavy would disagree with you.

  2. We are not the world's policeman anymore!

    They wanted their independence!
    They fought the Europeans for their independence!
    They got their independence!
    They should be allowed to run their own countries/lives.
    We should keep out!
    I sometimes wonder what Africa would be like now if it was still being run by European countries.
    Somehow I think the average "man in the street" would be better off under the benign dictatorship of civilised Europeans!

    We do not have the military capability to support anyone long term, and as Philip Hammond has now decided that the Royal Navy must find the extra £60/100 million per year to pay for having both aircraft carriers operational at the same time I would say that the Navy is "stuffed".

    On a commercial note it is obvious that the Chinese have replaced the Europeans in extracting the maximum economical advantage out of the African continent with the minimum of effort - perhaps we could learn something from them?

    1. In a way Western aid and development has failed Africa but do you think they will stop? Bono and Geldof and others will make sure the West will stay there.

  3. Sir Humphrey - as always, a fascinating post and great analysis - I agree that our ISTAR capabilities will remain vital should we wish to engage in conflict in Africa. But at least on a first reading, I feel you may be in danger of making the assumption that the character of conflict within Africa will remain the same as it has done over the past 50 years. However Africa is increasingly becoming both urbanised and cyber-savvy, which is likely to change the sources of instability and the style in which conflict manifests. It is also likely to suffer increased droughts and other disasters as a result of climate change, affecting human security - will we see more water conflicts e.g. Darfur? And more experienced commenters than I are increasingly citing the Sahel region as a rising threat for religious extremism and potential terrorism, e.g. Boko Haram - in our increasingly globalized world, might this be a source of insecurity in the UK? So if the UK decides it is in our interests to offer intervention in parts of Africa, are our hard military enablers the right tools for the job? Or should we also think more in terms of working towards security sector reform, urban security and policing, assisting with disaster relief, and engaging in defence diplomacy?

  4. I agree we definately do need to engange with Africa at all levels, diplomatic, trade, humanitarian and militarily. If we do not the Chinese most certainly have and will continue to do so. How long before they start claiming international waters right up to the coast of East Africa because they built the adjacent ports (not to mention the railway lines and roads inland and exploiting the natural resources). OK a bit over the top, but ask the Phillippines how they feel about that red line China has drawn just off their coast! We may not be the worlds policeman but in coperation with our allies we need to go out in the world an engage with it as we always have. We cannot just stick our heads in the sand, otherwise the world may soon become a place we do not like at all!

  5. At least in decades to come when UK servicemen touch down in the Dark Continent it will be comforting to know they will have access to good Chinese food and the railways will be nice, clean, and modern. :)

  6. I am continually amazed at the parallels between corporate thinking and military strategy, the latter more influenced by politicians than generals, probably.
    It is nowhere better illustrated than in Dr. Mike Martin's tome of a book, 'An Intimate War', about the massive ignorance, about Afghanistan, of the Allied forces when they poured into Helmand Province. Likewise British Mercantile management when attempting to unravel the niceties of Indian personnel management when their new ex-English public school boys found themselves out of their depth amid byzantine Indian Civil Law.
    Upon getting a job in India, I was given a book on Hindustani and my local management expected me to be fluent in 6 weeks! Or be sent home. One was thrown in at the deep end in the warehouses, godowns and quays of downtown Bombay and I am eternally grateful to all those Indians who patiently put up with my early attempts to learn the language and customs.
    How many Brits are learning the more useful bits of Swahili or Kiswahili before polishing the bar stools.
    We have not only pulled down the edifice, we've burnt the drawbridge.

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