British military bases abroad: what does the future hold?

20 December 2018 (Last Updated January 20th, 2020 09:57)

The UK has decided to retain some of its facilities and select personnel in Germany despite long-standing plans to withdraw from the country. What message does this send to NATO and Russia?

British military bases abroad: what does the future hold?
A parade for troops of 7 Regiment, Royal Logistic Corps at Bielefeld, Germany. Credit: Crown Copyright / MOD.

The world has witnessed an abundance of military posturing of late; notably by Russia, China, and the West. In the past, such bluster could have arguably been dismissed as testosterone-driven muscle flexing. Lately, however, things have taken a more sinister tone.

Speaking at the beginning of the joint UK-Oman training drill – one of the UK’s largest military exercises for almost 20 years – commander of the 1st UK Armoured Infantry Brigade, Brigadier Zac Stenning, said: “We face many threats; this is an uncertain world. As the army, we want to be able to offer choices to our political leaders.”

Organised in the Omani desert, the joint training drill brought together six warships, 200 armoured vehicles and 5,500 UK personnel, as well as 60,000 Sultan Armed Forces for a simulated conflict, in this instance against Russia. The exercise highlighted the importance of Britain’s military presence in bases around the world, of which there are currently 16.

“Generating military power and then transporting it from the home base to the theatre of operations takes resources and time,” says Peter D Antill of the Centre for Defence Acquisition at Cranfield University. “Having a base, or bases, means a state can keep a military force in situ and, if a crisis occurs, be able to react to it much faster.”

Britain’s base in Germany

The UK’s 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review signalled an end to UK troop deployment in Germany by 2019; a move which raised eyebrows at the time.

“As well as relocating them back to the home base, the UK chose to station an increasing proportion of this military power in Western Europe.”

However, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced a partial shift in strategy in September, saying: “We are increasing our British points of presence across the world. We will not be closing our facilities in Germany, and instead use them to forward base the Army.”

He confirmed that, once the withdrawal is complete, around 185 British Army personnel and 60 Ministry of Defence (MOD) civilians would remain in the country at the 45 square mile Sennelager Training Area in Paderborn.

Antill says the move is clearly a response to escalating Russian activities. “The reasons are, very likely, ones similar to what happened in the Cold War,” he says. “As the Cold War progressed, the UK began to divest itself of its Empire and relocate forces that had been acting as imperial garrisons around the world.

“However, as well as relocating them back to the home base, the UK chose to station an increasing proportion of this military power in Western Europe in order to act as a deterrent to possible Soviet aggression.”

One eye on the future

With growing Russian aggression, President Trump’s lambasting of NATO members and an evident refocus of the US global defence strategy, where does that leave the UK and its allies?

At its peak, the UK had more than 55,000 personnel stationed in West Germany with the potential to amass up to 150,000 in case a conflict had broken out. Clearly, now, that will not be the case, although the UK will maintain its Ayrshire Barracks in Mönchengladbach with the capacity to store 2,000 vehicles, with access to munitions.

“Indeed, having forces in the area may well act as a deterrent and keep a situation from deteriorating into a conflict in the first place,” says Antill. “If this means that British forces will be kept on in Europe in order to bolster NATO then hopefully such a force will contribute to the alliance’s deterrence posture.” It does, however, eat into any cost savings that the MOD was hoping for.

The MOD’s changing strategy

“For well over a decade from 2001, the British Army was primarily focused on conducting counterinsurgency. This has had an impact on the procurement of equipment and provision of logistics support by the MOD,” says Antill.

But the British Army and MOD are now in the process of re-orientating themselves back to become much more expeditionary in nature.

“In future conflicts, the lack of overseas bases, although that is changing slowly, means the UK cannot guarantee it will have one near to the theatre of operations or be able to draw on host nation support,” he warns.

As with many functions of state today, budgeting is key. Antill believes that while great emphasis has been put on ‘light’ and ‘medium’ forces – the likes of the Royal Marines, airborne troops and light infantry, as well as the newly forming Strike Brigades – conflict with Russia in Central or Eastern Europe would mean a need for ‘heavy’ forces, which is why bases are essential.

“Given how stretched the defence budget is, being able to properly fund the equipment, training, and logistic support to cover all this will be a challenge, not only for the UK but for much of NATO,” he argues.

Middle Eastern ambitions

As the US turns its focus towards the Far East, Middle East governments have been left considering their future defence policies. This, says Antill, gives the UK opportunities to raise its profile in the region, preferably working with allies able to project military power, such as France.

“Given how stretched the defence budget is, being able to properly fund the equipment, training, and logistic support to cover all this will be a challenge.”

Although the UK has long had interests in the Middle East, its military reach has been curtailed by subsequent governments and global events since the 1960s. Its membership of NATO has also indirectly crafted the British strategy in the region, including the withdrawal from the base at Aden in Yemen.

The recent Saif Sareea 3 joint exercise with Oman is a promising start to regaining a greater military presence but, according to Antill, it isn’t necessarily a major advance. “Whether this could translate into the re-establishment of a large-scale permanent UK presence, and therefore regionally based forces, is open to question. Not only in regards cost but what forces could be based there.”

The UK returned to the East of Suez with the opening of HMS Jufair in Bahrain, able to support vessels the size of the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers earlier this year. The island state is also home to the UK Maritime Component Command, which supports Royal Navy mine countermeasures vessels.

Currently under construction, Oman will be home to the latest UK military logistics centre and training facility. Situated in Duqm, the UK joint logistics support base will have a dry dock and be able to accommodate nuclear submarines and Queen Elizabeth-class vessels.

“The port is in a favourable position geographically and could, in future, be linked to other Persian Gulf countries by the Gulf Railway,” adds Antill. Other bases in the region include an RAF outpost in Qatar, RAF Al Udeid.

NATO deployment ebb and flow

As the threats to the West begin to shift, NATO has to change with them. Earlier this year the head of the British Army, General Sir Nick Carter, said Britain must “get its act together” if it wanted to be a serious player on the world stage, perhaps falling into the trap of President Tump’s rhetoric on NATO allies not pulling their weight.

The withdrawal of most UK personnel from Germany has been met with an increase in US counterparts. With 33,000 US employees stationed across 36 German facilities alone, the US Department of Defense announced it is sending 1,500 more as “a display of our continued commitment to NATO and our collective resolve to support European security”.

Meanwhile, the UK is planning to deploy 800 troops to Norway in response to Russian arctic activity and is building a new base there set to be operational in 2019.

“If the importance of Russia to the UK Government’s and NATO’s strategic decision-making has increased, that will undoubtedly have consequences for the future of UK defence procurement,” Antill says.

We’ve seen some of those consequences already. As for what else it may mean, only time will tell.