Responding to Natural Disasters

Given when this is appearing, it obviously relates to Hurricane Irma, which has raised hell itself in the Caribbean. The British Ministry of Defence (MOD) has been taking a deal of heat for its response. Is it justified?

The best analysis I’ve seen of it is from The Thin Pinstriped Line, and in a sense, the emphasis here should be on “thin”. Sir Humphrey has this to say:


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.

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.

As so often, Sir Humphrey has his ‘verbose’ switch on, as I often do. But I think he is correct. Even mounting the relief effort on naval ships has its hazards – there is a reason why the USN has sortied nearly every ship from the southeast US. when they are in port, they are far more vulnerable than when they have sea room. And remember, there is still another storm following Irma. If the MOD (or the US) had stationed troops in the threatened areas, they could easily have been trapped and unable to accomplish much, given our and the Brits, wide ranging commitments. Better to remain mobile and able to respond where things are worst.

That doesn’t necessarily engender friendly headlines, but it comes under the economy of force. If the Brits had say, a battalion of engineers stationed on one of these islands, at this point they are a local force, unable to render assistance in any of Britain’s other far flung possessions. They are simply likely to be stuck there, being on an LSD (or similar ship) the can render assistance where it is needed most. And mark this, if you think the US has starved our services (and we have) it is far worse for the British, they started cutting all the way to the bone long ago. The cousins’ cupboard is pretty bare, but they will accomplish the mission if iron men can make it happen, yesterday saw the first of the RAF’s C-17s take off to help, there will be more, it’s what they do, and what they taught us to do.

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