There has been significant media coverage of the dreadful impact of Hurricane Irma in the West Indies, which has caused immense damage across a wide swathe of the region. The hurricane, at Category 5 is the single worst one ever recorded in the regions history and has done enormous damage. Islands have been devastated, with widespread destruction and loss of life likely.
Three European nations still retain territory in this region – the UK, France and the Netherlands, while the US maintains sovereignty over other islands as well in its peculiar ‘empire that is not an empire’ approach to the world.For France and the Netherlands, the island groups form a integral part of their homeland – with parliamentary representation and enjoy a very different constitutional relationship to those islands still associated with the UK. The French West Indies have a population of almost 850,000 people across 7 main islands, all located relatively close to each other. The Dutch Antilles have a population of just over 300,000 people, again spread over a small number of islands in very close proximity to each other.
The UK is responsible for governing five island groups in the West Indies itself – Anguilla, Montserrat, Cayman Islands, Turks and Caicos Islands and the British Virgin Islands (plus Bermuda out in the atlantic), with a total population of roughly 100,000 people across all five islands. The islands are governed by the UK, who is responsible for defence and external affairs, and which provides additional assistance in some areas – for instance legal support or other bespoke issues.
The key difference is that these islands are not located close to each other – they are spread across the entirety of the Caribbean, and represent the history of decolonisation as different islands broke off from other colonies during the independence process in order to remain affiliated to the UK – for instance Anguilla. While UK policy is that all islands that wish to have independence will get it, for some islands, they are just too small or poor to be able to cope as a fully fledged power – Montserrat has barely 4500 people on it and an enormous volcano that did immense damage in its most recent eruption.
|HMS OCEAN is on her way|
What is the Defence posture?
Both the French and Netherlands armed forces maintain permanent garrisons in their territory – the French have an infantry regiment (size unknown) based in Martinique, coupled with a small naval base facility to support some ships. The Dutch maintain a small naval presence (a support ship and an occasional guard ship deployment) plus a detachment at one of the airfields, which also doubles up as a US Air Force forward operating base. There is a small ground presence too, but again its hard to get exact numbers. In very rough terms, there are roughly 1000 people from each nation in their respective territories doing military work or internal security at any one time.
By contrast the UK defence presence in the West Indies is not land based, and has not been for decades. The usual presence is built around an RFA tanker or Landing Ship, supported by deployments from escorts or OPVS – with the aim being to have a ship loaded with disaster relief supplies in region and available to sail as required during the hurricane season. For the rest of the time the presence involves both regional security visits, capacity building and counter narcotics work.
The UK does not maintain a land presence in the West Indies – although there have been regular training exercises in places like Jamaica. The nearest land presence is in Belize, where there remains a significant real estate footprint, supported by regular exercises in country. The small Army Air Corps detachment (25 Flt with Bell 212 helicopters) closed in 2010 following defence cuts, but the British Army Training Support Unit Belize (BATSUB) has been preserved and was growing in size again as one of two locations where the Army can do jungle warfare training (the other being Brunei).
The other land presence is the Bermuda Regiment, which exists for the security and defence of Bermuda, and has the curious anomaly of being the last part of those armed forces linked to the UK (e.g. such as the Gibraltar Regiment) to practise conscription. But this organisation is not part of the British Army and is realistically not able to be used.
Beyond this there is a small number of paramilitary forces on these islands, ranging from police forces to tiny units, perhaps platoon strength at best. The lack of any credible external threat, coupled with the fact that the UK is responsible for their defence means no island has invested meaningfully in a military capability.
Has the UK failed?
Much of the criticism levelled at the UK in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane hitting was that it had not done as much to provide assistance as both France and the Netherlands, and that more could have been done. Is this a reasonable criticism to make?
Firstly, its important to note that the French and Netherlands armed forces are operated in a totally different manner to the British ones in region. They have much smaller areas to cover, and much higher populations and land to protect. Therefore it makes a lot of sense to have permanent military forces in region in this way – if you only have a couple of islands which need support, you can keep your troops in one place. This also reflect the fact that both French and Netherlands forces are used for internal security, which UK military do not do.
The UK approach though by contrast seems entirely appropriate for the UK situation. We have multiple island groups spread out over thousands of miles of ocean with tiny islands with miniscule populations. There is not the security requirement for a major military presence on these islands, nor much space.
Some seem to think the UK could have sent more troops out to the islands ahead of time – the problem with this idea is that there firstly wasn’t that much warning of the storm. Secondly, where would the troops have gone and why? Many of these islands don’t have international airports, and some probably can’t take C17s or Voyagers, so how do you get to them without access to a ship? The time required to set this up would have been longer than the warning received as to how bad the hurricane was actually going to be – its entirely realistic to assume that they’d have been arriving right in time for the hurricane to hit.
The next issue is that guessing where to put resources when your interests are dispersed isn’t easy. The hurricane skipped some islands unexpectedly, but hit others harder – had forward deployment occurred, then its entirely possible that the troops would have been in the wrong place at the wrong point, and extracting them would have been really hard. There are very few major airports or airfields in the region, and those that are there have been damaged or destroyed (look at St Maarten airfield in the Antilles). Just because you have troops on the ground doesn’t mean they’d have been able to get out again to go where required, and potentially you would have troops and equipment/plant trapped on an island unable to get off to go where it needed to be more urgently.
|The C17 is an ideal airlifter for disaster relief (RCAF version here)|
The assumption a lot of people make is that the armed forces are flush with disaster relief equipment and machinery to solve issues like this. Sadly that’s not really the case at all. The old MOD publication JDP2-02, which focused on UK resilience operations rightly makes the point that even 10 years ago the total UK military engineering capability for this sort of major operation was akin to that of a small town at best, and this is thinly spread across the whole world.
There are not vast halls of equipment sitting idle and waiting to be unloaded, nor many troops specially trained in disaster relief. Much of this equipment is not easily airportable, and the locations where it has to go will likely not be able to land these aircraft at the best of times, let alone post hurricane.
The UK solution is absolutely the right one – send a Landing Ship Dock for half the year as the ‘on call’ ship to respond to this kind of emergency. You could, quite literally, not hope for a better ship to respond to this sort of crisis. The Bay class landing ships are probably the most versatile ships in the RN today in terms of adapting to new roles. MOUNTS BAY has a hospital on board, she has enormous amounts of spare bunk spaces to embark extra personnel as required to move them around, she has a big well deck full of space to embark hurricane relief stores and people specially trained to do this. Don’t forget all deploying ships do disaster relief as part of their FOST training – the only bit of the armed forces to do this.
Given the scale of the disaster, she is well equipped to sail to offer help and support where needed and be self sustaining in islands where power is lost. With landing craft onboard she’ll be able to get ashore on beaches where ports are blocked, and carries the equipment needed to make a lifesaving difference. Of all the ship types in the fleet, MOUNTS BAY is the one that really is the best possible solution right now to this crisis.
Was the UK slow to respond?
Much of the criticism has centred on the speed of the response, with suggestions that it took ‘nearly a day’ for something to be done. To Humphrey this is a deeply foolish complaint to make. Hurricanes and other natural disasters are not something you respond to by just going ‘send X’ in an email and then getting on with it.
To do a disaster relief effort, you need to know where to go, what damage has happened, what the needs are and more importantly where can you land? The RAF is deploying a C17 today with troops and supplies, but its not clear where it can go or where it can land to help (hence the advantage of the RFA in theatre).
|World class FOST training prepares the RN/RFA for this sort of scenario|
Too many people in this era of instant connectivity assume that just because something happens on the news and is known about instantly, it can be responded to instantly. The reality is the harsh tyranny of the Mercator projection has kicked in. It will take two weeks for OCEAN to sail to the west indies because it’s a bloody long way! People don’t understand that the world is a very big place, and ships even at best speed don’t move that fast across it. No other navy in the world right now, other than the US Navy which has similar ships closer could get a ship of equal capability there any faster – yet we’re somehow blaming the RN for the fact that it will take two weeks to get there.
Similarly the UK is being attacked for a lack of foresight for not stationing equipment there. This again seems grossly unfair. The military presence in region today for disaster relief could not be better – compared to ten, twenty or forty years ago when it would have been an old frigate or destroyer with limited aviation, no landing craft, no well deck and most importantly no ability to store lots of disaster relief supplies, the UK response today from a capability perspective is simply the best it could be. Also we'd have had worse ships in the amphibious fleet, less capable of providing assistance like HMS OCEAN will do, and a less capable strategic airlift force too to move the heavy plant (no C17 equivalents). The UK is genuinely better placed now to respond to this crisis, than it is at any previous one in terms of what is in theatre, and what is able to come right now with follow up support.
Could the UK have lots of troops permanently based in the region during hurricane season to stand by to do disaster relief? Yes it could, but it would be an enormous cost to establish new bases, and then sustain the right amount of kit in one spot, with no guarantee that it would be needed. Remember this is the first ever recorded category 5 hurricane in history to hit most of these islands. Ultimately the RN expects to do some disaster relief each year, which is why it has a ship there to do it, but this year was worse than anyone could credibly have expected. Even if UK troops were there, there is no guarantee their equipment, communications, medical support or other facilities would survive – far better to keep it at sea safely, so it can be deployed as required.
Additionally complaints of the UK response miss the mark that the armed forces are not intended to function as a disaster relief organisation. They can do it, and have a proud history of doing it, but that is not their intended role. There is a huge number of amazing UK disaster relief organisations that are better trained, better equipped and better suited to do this sort of operation out there- the military is at best a sticking plaster. But these organisations need to know where to deploy and where to go – they haven’t the resources to go forwards and be in the wrong place, unable to get out to give the help it turns out was needed elsewhere.
So when we look at the UK response, ask yourself these questions. Firstly, was the capability in theatre appropriate for the likely level of need – and the answer is absolutely yes it was. Secondly, could the UK have done more to respond given the geographic dispersal of territory, the lack of easy access and the limited amount of capability to do disaster relief held by the UK forces – and the answer is no, absolutely not.
Ultimately security is about risk management – on every risk register there will be issues that come up that can’t be treated, must be tolerated and which run the risk of doing huge damage. The UK approach to supporting the West Indies has been about balancing investment to keep modern ships with good capability available when required, but when something this game changing happens, no one could have been ready to solve the problem.
To compare the UK response to France or the Netherlands, who have totally different needs, operations and garrisons in region seems a bit futile. We do not know the level to which these forces are able or trained to do disaster relief, or if they are able to do it. The solution for those countries works, because of their specific situation. The UK solution works because it reflects the UKs’ specific and very different needs and requirements for disaster relief.
In this time of desperate human suffering, it is sad that rather than focus on the good that the UK is doing, and the way it is intelligently sending relief where it is needed now, this is seen as grounds for unwarranted criticism of an approach that seems eminently sensible. Send help where it needs to go, not where you think it may have to go.