Two companion articles have drawn attention to UK military bases in the Persian Gulf and in Cyprus (used in the UK bombing of Syria). Here we will briefly explore the roles of some of the other bases that are either the remanence of the old British Empire or represent new interests. Whichever it is, all Britain’s permanent military installations are in British Overseas Territories (BOTs) or former colonies which retain close diplomatic ties with the UK.
UK overseas bases help to underpin the US-UK special relationship and in 2015 the UK Strategic Defence and Security Review stated that “Our contribution to the special relationship includes our European and global reach and influence; intelligence; the strategic location of our Overseas Territories; as well as military interoperability, and the UK’s ability to undertake war-fighting independently or as a lead nation in a coalition”.
The British Army Operations and Deployments are described in some details on their web site [See: https://www.army.mod.uk/deployments/] and there is an interesting guided tour of UK overseas bases on Youtube. Here’s a brief run-down:
Germany – has hosted the 20th Armoured Infantry Brigade and support since the end of WW2.
British Forces in Germany are currently located at:
- Catterick Barracks, Bielefeld – HQ British Forces Germany;
- Mansergh Barracks, Gütersloh (part of Bielefeld Station);
- Normandy Barracks, Paderborn – HQ 20thArmoured Infantry Brigade, HQ Paderborn Station;
- Barker Barracks, Paderborn;
- Athlone Barracks, Paderborn;
- Dempsey Barracks, Paderborn.
The Government plans to remove all UK army units from Germany by 2020, in line with the announcements made in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) and rebase them inside the UK. Since 2010 82% of the 20,000 Service personnel based in Germany and their families have relocated to the UK and, as of 2015, about 6,000 troops remain but this is scheduled to be reduced to 4,400 troops by 2016.[See: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-34919954] On the 4th November 2015, the Ministry of Defence confirmed that the final Field Army units will withdraw from Germany in 2019 in accordance with the Government’s commitment. The remaining Field Army units will then return from Paderborn, Sennelager, Bielefeld and Gütersloh to the UK. The British Forces Germany HQ will also close. A small number of detachments are due to remain to maintain military ties with Germany.
Gibraltar – the last UK-based infantry battalion left Gibraltar in 1991 and the defence role of the Rock was taken up by the Royal Gibraltar Regiment. There are Army sub-units that remain in Gibraltar with responsibility for signals and infrastructure, and several Army posts in the tri-service headquarters. The Army and other services retains Gibraltar as a Permanent Joint Operating Base for UK operations in the region. Altogether, around 1,000 maintain a military presence at these facilities and others, including the airbase RAF Gibraltar and the Port of Gibraltar. It is also an important base for NATO.
South East Asia
In Brunei some 900 are deployed on a British Garrison that hosts routine jungle warfare courses for the British Army and Royal Marines. The Garrison has three sites: Sittang Camp, just outside Tutong in the middle of the country and Medicina Lines which houses the Jungle Warfare Division and 7 Flight Army Air Corps. The Garrison Support Services are located at Tuker Lines along with the Garrison Headquarters and the Gurkha Battalion.
Although small, the Garrison means that the UK has a permanent military presence in South East Asia and the UK is also one of the key members of the 1971 Five Power Defence Alliance (FPDA) with Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia.
In support of the FPDA, the UK has personnel and facilities based in Malaysia and Singapore.
HM Naval Base, Singapore situated in Sembawang at the northern tip of Singapore was a Royal Navy shore establishment and a cornerstone of British defence policy in the Far East between the World Wars. British Forces withdrew from Singapore in 1971 and the Naval Base was handed over to the Singapore government. However, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) continues to maintain a small logistics base at Sembawang wharf to control most of the foreign military activities there. This includes the repair, refuelling and resupplying of ships of navies of Commonwealth countries under the auspices of FPDA. Staff at Sembawang total three Ministry of Defence civil servants, one Royal Engineer Warrant Officer, one Chief Petty Officer and one Petty officer (RN) [see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Five_Power_Defence_Arrangements]. As of 2015, the UK Defence Adviser to Singapore is a Royal Navy Commander.
The Head Quarters of Integrated Area Defence System (HQ IADS) is at RMAF Butterworth in Penang, Malaysia, is staffed by one Wing Commander, one Squadron Leader, one Lieutenant Commander, one Major and one Flight Sergeant. From 1941 until 1957 the base was formerly known as RAF Butterworth, it was then transferred to the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). Subsequently, on 30 June 1988, the airfield was handed to the Royal Malaysian Air Force and renamed RMAF Station Butterworth. As of October 2008, the Australian Defence Force continues to maintain a presence there as part of Australia’s commitment to the FPDA.
The British Army Training Unit in Kenya (BATUK) is used mainly to train British infantry battalions. Based mainly in Nanyuki, 200 km north of Nairobi, but with a small presence in Nairobi, BATUK has around 100 permanent staff with a short tour support cohort of an additional 280 personnel. A long-standing Defence Cooperation Agreement between the UK and the Kenyan Government allows up to six British infantry battalions (10,000 service personnel) per year to carry out four-week exercises in the arid Great Rift Valley. Royal Engineers and Royal Army Medical Corps exercises are also carried out and develop civil engineering projects and offer health care assistance to local communities.
There are also 750 British Medical Regiment personnel in Sierra Leone supporting the international aid effort to tackle Ebola and other RAF personnel are based in Accra, Ghana moving equipment and personnel.
UK and Belize international partners conduct jungle survival training in Belize. The British Army has maintained a presence in Belize since its independence and the British Army Training Support Unit in Belize (BATSUB) is based in Price Barracks, which is also home to the Belize Defence Force. The Unit has 12 permanent staff and employs over 100 local civilians, providing close country and tropical environment training to troops from the UK and international partners. Up to 5 close combat exercises are carried out each year and 3 times a year the Unit also hosts the final exercise of the British Army Platoon Commander’s Battle Course.
The Falkland Islands (Malvenas) is home for the British Forces South Atlantic Islands. It includes 4 RAF Typhoons and Voyager and Hercules aircraft; a Type 45 destroyer or Type 23 frigate, HMS Clyde. There are also several early-warning and airspace control radar stations placed at tactically critical locations, and a deep-water port at East Cove – a total of around 1,600 personnel.
In 2015, following an exchange with the Argentinian government, the MoD decided to equip the islands with a £280 million defence package. In 2017 it was reported that Britain had purchased advanced technology used in Israel’s “Iron Dome” missile defense system for £78 million to defend the Falklands. It will be used for the command and control of a British air defense system called “Land Ceptor” as part of a newly developed “Sky Saber” system to replace the current “Rapier” air defence system by 2020.
The RAF also maintains an airbase on Ascension Island which was used extensively as a staging post during the 1982 Falklands War. The island also hosts a European Space Agency rocket tracking station, an Anglo-American signals intelligence facility and the BBC World Service Atlantic Relay Station. In addition, the island is the site of one of four ground antennas (others are on Kwajalein Island, Diego Garcia, and Cape Canaveral) that assist in the operation of the Global Positioning System (GPS) navigational system and, at the John Africano NASA/AFRL Orbital Debris Observatory, NASA operates a Meter Class Autonomous Telescope (MCAT) for tracking orbital debris – a growing potential danger to satellites and spacecraft.
In Canada the British Army Training Unit Suffield (BATUS) has trained on one of the most sparsely populated areas of the Alberta plain since 1972. Over 400 permanent and 1000 temporary staff are deployed there, equipped with over 1000 vehicles, including Challenger 2 tanks and Warrior Infantry Fighting Vehicles. They provide training for the British Army in an area the size of Wales. 4 Battlegroups, each containing approximately 1400 soldiers, are trained at BATUS each year.
UK’s forces in NATO
Also, as part of NATO – UK armed forces are deployed in more than 80 countries across the world in a range of roles, including:
- 450 soldiers in Camp Bastion, Afghanistan;
- Over 275 military training personnel in Iraq;
- Early in 2017 the UK, the US, Germany and Canada are leading the deployment of 4 multi-national battalions to Estonia (500 UK troops), Latvia, Lithuania and Poland (150 UK troops).
The UK also took over leadership of NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task orce in 2017 in which 3,000 troops based in the UK and Germany joined a 5,000-strong unit ready to move with 5 days’ notice.
Germany and Canada are leading the deployment of 4 multi-national battalions to Estonia (500 UK troops), Latvia, Lithuania and Poland (150 UK troops). The UK also took over leadership of NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task orce in 2017 in which 3,000 troops based in the UK and Germany joined a 5,000-strong unit ready to move with 5 days’ notice.
The Indian Ocean
Perhaps one of the most controversial of British military involvements is the base on Diego Garcia. A number of military operations by the UK and US would not have been possible but for the British Indian Ocean Territories Island of Diego Garcia, a small island in the Chagos Archipeligo. Diego Garcia has been used for major operations by the British & Americans during the Global War on Terror (2001-present), Operation Granby (1991), (NATO) Operation Herrick (2001-2014), Operation Tellic (2003-2011), Operation Shader (2014 on), Operation Desert Storm (1991), Operation Desert Fox (1998), Operation Enduring Freedom (2001-2014), Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003-2011), and (NATO) Operation Inherit resolve (2014 on).
In addition, Wikileaks disclosed that the base was also used as a storage section for US cluster bombs as a way of avoiding UK parliamentary oversight and on 21 February 2008 David Miliband, the British Foreign Secretary at that time, admitted that two US rendition flights refuelled there in 2002.
The island nation of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean became a British colonial possession in 1810 and remained so until 1968, the year in which it attained independence. Three years prior to independence, in 1965, the UK excised the Chagos archipelago (over 1,000 islands, mostly very small) from Mauritian territory to form the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) with others from the Seychelles. Between 1968 and 1973 the UK then and gradually depopulated the archipelago’s indigenous population. Diego Garcia is the largest island and strategically placed within striking distance of the Middle East and Asia and was then leased to the US for them to set up a military base. There was no monetary arrangement between the US and the UK but a declassified addendum to the 1966 agreement revealed that the UK received a $14-million discount on the acquisition of the US Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missile system.
Families from Mauritius were banned from returning to Chagos and Chagossians have been struggling for re-unification with the Republic of Mauritius, and for the right to return for all Chagossians, ever since.
A Wikileaks disclosure documents how, the UK government proposed that the BIOT become a “marine reserve” in order to prevent the Chagossians returning. The UK Foreign Office claimed that it was an environmental move and necessary to improve the coral populations off east Africa and therefore sub-saharan marine supplies, however, some Chagossians realised that it would also prevent resettlement because it prevent fishing in the protected areas.
Diego Garcia and the US airfield
On 1 December 2010, a leaked diplomatic cable exchange of 2009 between British Director of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Colin Roberts and US Political Counselor Richard Mills, shows Roberts asserting that “establishing a marine park would, in effect, put paid to resettlement claims of the archipelago’s former residents.” Richard Mills concludes: “Establishing a marine reserve might, indeed, as the FCO’s Roberts stated, be the most effective long-term way to prevent any of the Chagos Islands’ former inhabitants or their descendants from resettling in the BIOT.”The 50-year “lease” of Diego Garcia to the USA ended in 2016 and in 2015 the judgment of a Tribunal held under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, determined it to be illegal for Britain to do anything with Chagos without consulting Mauritius. Britain has said it is willing to allow the return of some Chagossians, if they accept continued colonisation as subjects of the British Indian Ocean Territory – the illegal colony set up after the land grab in 1965. On 23 June 2017, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) voted in favour of referring the territorial dispute between Mauritius and the UK to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in order to clarify the legal status of the Chagos Islands archipelago in the Indian Ocean. The motion was approved by a majority vote (94 for and 15 against).
The UK should support Mauritian sovereignty and the right of return of all Chagossians free from and constraints to recognise a colonial status.
They should be paid proper reparations and the military base closed and cleaned-up. The lease on Diego Garcia should be terminated.