After the closure of the British Army Training and Support Unit Belize, the UK reopened its installations in Belize and is increasing its training exercises in the Central American country.
Belize and the UK enjoy a close relationship that has its roots in the British colonisation of the Caribbean and nearby regions. Formally known as British Honduras, the territory located on the east coast of Central America became a source of increasing British interest in the eighteenth century opening the path to conflicts with Spain’s territorial desires. Successive times the Spanish attacked the British settlers in the area where would eventually become the present day Belize. These attacks occurred in years of war between the two countries, in 1717, 1730, 1754 and 1779 the settlers were forced by the Spanish forces to leave the area. Nevertheless, Britain would slowly increase its presence in the territory and the last Spanish attempt to take over the area – the Battle of St. George’s Caye in 1798 – culminated with a decisive British victory. Afterwards the threat of a Spanish attack decreased enormously.
The Settlement of Belize would turn to be named British Honduras when it became a Crown Colony in 1862; the status quo prevailed until 1964 when it became a self-governing colony. When the decolonisation processes approached the British territories in the region, British Honduras would face its own particular and lasting difficulties before independence could be achieved in 1981. In the early 1960s Britain held control of defence, internal security, foreign affairs and the conditions and terms of the public service. At the same period, the country was willing to let the self-governing colony to achieve independence. The first step in anticipation of it was to rename the colony’s name to Belize on 1 June 1973.
The main obstacle to Belize’s independence was the threat posed by it neighbouring country, Guatemala, which has been claiming the territory of Belize in whole or in part since 1821. Guatemala’s intransigence over its long-standing desires dragged the Belizean process of independence for years. The failure of the negotiations between Britain and Guatemala over the future of Belize led the cause to the United Nations (UN), which eventually passed a resolution that acquiesced Belize territorial integrity and demanded its independence until the next UN session in 1981. With Guatemala diplomatically isolated, independence was granted by Britain on 21 September 1981. The tensions between Guatemala and Belize persisted for years with Belizean-Guatemalan diplomatic relations being only established in 1991.
Therefore, following the independence, Britain sought to maintain a deterrent force in the country to guard it from the threat posed by its hostile neighbour. During the first decade of Belize’s independence the British forces consisted of an Army battalion and a Royal Air Force flight of Harrier jets, the No. 1417 Flight RAF. Britain was also committed in training and strengthening the Belize Defence Force allowing the country to be well prepared against an eventual invasion.
Less than a year of Belize’s independence, the Falkland Islands were invaded by Argentina. The operations in the South Atlantic required a significant amount of equipment and personnel which could undermine the British presence in the new country. However, fears of a Guatemalan invasion during the Falklands War never materialised, but exposed the necessity of sustaining a British force in the country. The deterrence strategy plus continued training of Belizean military would remain as the cornerstone of British policy towards the area until the early 1990s. With the recognition of Belizean independence by Guatemala and the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two neighbours, Britain’s mindset changed quickly.
The British forces in the country were known as British Forces Belize (BFB) and RAF Belize and from 1991 onwards they were going to face a major reshuffle. Firstly, the BFB was disbanded in 1994 and most of British personnel left the country. The No. 1417 Flight of the RAF Belize faced its closure in 1993. The remaining troops would maintain a training presence via the new formed British Army Training and Support Unit Belize (BATSUB) and 25 Flight Army Air Corps, initially equipped with Bell H-13 Sioux light helicopters.
While Guatemalan threat was stabilised, the BATSUB would provide Britain a ground for jungle warfare training over an area of 5,000 square miles or roughly 13,000 square kilometres of jungle terrain, allowing deployment of highly trained and acclimatised British Armed Forces to conflict theatres of similar environment and climate conditions. The programme also involved training of the Belize Defence Force enhancing the prospects of skills exchange between the two armed forces. The Price Barracks in Belize quickly became the main international facility for jungle training for the British Army.
However, in 2010, the British Government declared it would mothball the BATSUB facilities as part of the Strategic Defence and Security Review. So, in August 2011 the 25 Flight ACC left Belize, followed by the last British forces in the same year. Only a dozen advisers of the British Army remained. Britain’s facility at Price Barracks ceased its operations in December 2010. Although the British Army continued to use the Barracks as a training point, it was on significantly reduced scale.
The closure would not last long. In 2015 Britain would re-open the British Army Training and Support Unit Belize as part of its 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review. The reopening involved the Border Dispute with Guatemala, which seemed to gain a new momentum and because of the increasing joint exercises with Britain would require the reestablishment of the Price Barracks for British usage. A larger force is also set to be stationed in the country, but relatively in smaller number when in comparison to the presence before the 2011 cut-back. In 2016 approximately 2,000 personnel from the Army and RAF were deployed to Belize over the course of the year.
The decision to increase the British personnel in the country was received positively by Belize’s Prime Minister Dean Barrow as the announcement seemed to have lowered Guatemala’s President Moralles tone over the Border Dispute. Following the reopening of BATSUB, President Moralles invited the Mr. Barrow to his presidential inauguration ceremony and declared that he will work for cooperation between the two Central American nations. Britain’s stauch support for an old and close ally seemed to have softened tensions, reassuring Belize that Britain’s commitment to its territorial integrity persists.
As the only unitary parliamentary constitutional monarchy in Central America, having English as its official language and being a Commonwealth Realm meaning that Queen Elizabeth II is Belize head of state, the country is the closest British ally and partner in the area. Therefore, the decision to re-open BATSUB reaffirms that Belize can rely on Britain to preserve its territorial integrity and sovereignty from any neighbouring threat. The British presence also stimulates the creation of jobs and revenue for the Central American country.
For Britain, the prospects of training in an area of challenging terrain and austere environment is an unique opportunity to maintain its word-class military forces fit to long deployments in the jungle warfare. Furthermore, Britain is the largest supplier of military equipment to Belize Defence Force (BDF) providing, for example, trainer and light utility aircraft and portable mortars.
Therefore, British presence plays a central role in Belize for its security. The training facilities also helps to increase the BDF capabilities, reducing its dependency on British Army. As tensions between Belize and Guatemala grew – just after the closure of the BATSUB – Britain steeped back and re-opened its training facilities and is seeking to establish a new permanent land force in the country which is set to have helicopter support for surveillance, transport of troops and emergency situations; an essential capability in a country with dense jungles, few roads and mountainous areas. As mentioned, the many benefits of the BATSUB will be shared between Britain and Belize. Working shoulder to shoulder, both countries have much to earn from a sustained co-operation, especially on the fields of security and defence.