The Cayman Islands and Britain have a long shared history.
After fighting alongside British forces in the Napoleonic Wars, in the two World Wars, the Falklands War, the first Gulf War, in Iraq, Afghanistan, amongst many other conflicts, the Cayman Islands decided to establish its first locally raised defence unit in 2019.
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In October 2019, the Cayman Islands Government announced the decision to create a locally raised home defence unit for the territory. This decision was the first of its kind in decades. Two months later, the Turks and Caicos’ Governor stated that the local government decided to follow the move of the Cayman Islands with the creation of a local regiment. After decades with no expressive interest in creating local units, two British Overseas Territories opted for a policy change.
In part, the need for small forces trained to respond to natural disasters on the islands contributed to this change; on average, hurricanes brush or directly hit the Caymans every two years. Additionally, since the 1980s, most of the British Overseas Territories in the Caribbean, especially the Cayman Islands, witnessed a slow but steady improvement in local governments’ revenue. This improvement enabled some of the British Overseas Territories to achieve a more balanced economic relationship with Britain, allowing them to adopt new domestic policies, including the possibility of creating small locally raised defence units.
Moreover, since Britain permanently deployed a vessel to patrol duties in the Caribbean and Bermuda in the late 2010s (reaffirmed through the 2021 Integrated Review) and reversed the decision of the 2010 Defence Review to close the training base in Belize, the trend of British military disengagement from the region has come to a halt. Thus, a slight increase in the regional British presence through the Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary is an opportunity for the Cayman Islands to improve the training and readiness of its new Regiment. The deployed British forces are going to enhance the links of the British Armed Forces with the new Caymanian unit while functioning as a model for the local personnel.
Alongside Montserrat, the British Virgin Islands, Anguilla, and the Turks and Caicos Islands, the Cayman Islands is one of the five remaining British Overseas Territories in the Caribbean. The British control of this territory goes back to the Treaty of Madrid of 1670, when Spain formally recognised the English possession of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands. Even though since 1662, the Government in London wished for military fortifications on the Cayman Islands, a permanent English – and later British – settlement and military presence would take roughly four decades to come into fruition. Meanwhile, the Islands would be used mainly by shipwrecked sailors, corsairs, pirates, and former soldiers who fought in Jamaica’s Invasion. After several unsuccessful settlements in the 1730s, Britain established a permanent presence in the Cayman Islands, ending the islands’ status as a haven for pirates.
However, it would take the Cayman Islands decades until the construction of its first fortification. In the late 1780s and early 1790s, Caymanian efforts to build a fort following the design of British fortifications in the Caribbean resulted in the construction of Fort George, located on Grand Cayman. Although relatively small compared to its peers, Fort George would fulfil for years the defence needs of the British settlement in the Caymans.
During the first century and a half of British rule, the threat of Spanish attacks and invasion remained as the Cayman Islands’ main security concern. Britain’s military presence and naval facilities in Jamaica, alongside the primacy of the Royal Navy, dissuaded Spanish moves against the Islands. In 1802, the Governor of Jamaica received an official report on the conditions of the military facilities of Grand Cayman. The report indicated that the primary military facility of the island, Fort George, would need improvements as the fort lacked cannons for its minimum efficiency.
Nevertheless, significant improvements to Fort George would not come. Following the first wave of decolonisation of Spanish America during the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the Spanish threat vanished. In the 1830s, Britain had already secured its position as the leading world power. Spain had no interest in recovering the Caymans or Jamaica after the independence of the majority of its colonies in the Americas. During the subsequent decades, the British territory would remain a responsibility of the Governor of Jamaica.
The UK’s economic and naval primacy in the world directly impacted the Caymans’ defence installations. Throughout the nineteenth century, the military utility of Fort George declined as the relative strength of the British Empire ascended. Coaling Stations in Bermuda, the Bahamas, Jamaica, and Barbados assured logistical support to the British fleet operating in the region. Although the United States considered the Caribbean one of its “spheres of influence” within the Monroe Doctrine, the eventual disagreements with Britain – the Venezuelan Crisis of 1902-1903, for example – remained in the diplomatic field. Furthermore, technological advancements would lead to British investments in other military assets for the defence of its Empire. Therefore, Fort George had lost most of its military usefulness in the early twentieth century, and the nearest permanent British military presence remained based in Jamaica.
During the Second World War, the old structure of Fort George witnessed the revival of military insecurity in the region. For the first time since the age of the Spanish colonial empire, the Cayman Islands faced a security threat. In 1942, the ongoing conflict against Nazi Germany raised concerns in London and Washington about the security of the sea-lanes near the Cayman Islands. In June of that same year, Britain established a locally raised company of the ‘Jamaica Home Guard’ in Grand Cayman. The ‘Cayman Company Home Guard’ comprised 44 personnel tasked with coastal patrols on lookouts for German submarines. In addition, Britain set up six lookout points throughout Grand Cayman.
After a series of U-boat attacks in the Caribbean in late 1942, the United States established a small naval station on Grand Cayman. Home of roughly 60 American personnel, the base provided additional help to monitoring submarine activity in the area. In 1945, the facilities were transferred to the US Coast Guard to operate a short wave relay radio station on the island. Even though the US Coast Guard ended its local presence in the early days of the Cold War, it makes regular port calls for its Coast Guard Cutters operating in the area.
Highlighting that the Cayman Islands’ geostrategic value persists in the twentieth century, the United States uses Grand Cayman’s Owen Roberts International Airport as a stopping point for flights of United States Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM). The forward bases of the USSOUTHCOM in Central America are the main beneficiaries of this cooperation with the British and Caymanian Governments. One of these bases is the Joint Task Force-Bravo (JTFB) in Honduras. During disaster relief operations of the hurricane seasons, the components of the JTFB can use the Owen Roberts International Airport as an operating base.
Concerning the British military presence, Britain would remain a relevant regional actor until the 1960s, retaining naval bases in the region and Bermuda. However, the decolonisation process gained momentum in the Caribbean in the 1960s. In 1958, the British Government included the Cayman Islands as part of the West Indies Federation due to its administrative links with Jamaica. Following the collapse of the Federation in 1962, British plans for a single independent state covering most of its colonies in the Caribbean gave way to a series of independence processes that ended more than twenty years later with the independence of Saint Kitts and Nevis in 1983. During the arrangements for Jamaican independence, the then ‘self-governing’ Jamaican territory of the Cayman Islands was transferred to direct British rule. In 1972, a new constitution granted some internal degree of autonomy. Constitutional revisions in 1994, 2001 and 2009 cemented the Islands domestic autonomy and self-governance.
While the British Government negotiated the independence of several island-nations in the 1960s-1970s, the Royal Navy had several vessels deployed to the region. In 1951, London established the position of Senior Naval Officer West Indies (SNOWI). Considered a sub-area Commander under the Commander-in-Chief of the America and West Indies station, the position was occupied by a commodore who would spend much of his time at sea in the West Indies. The existence of the SNOWI meant that the area continued to be within the priorities and financial capabilities of the British Government. Despite its popularity amongst officers and its regional relevance, the SNOWI was disbanded in 1976. For the rest of the Cold War, Bermuda, outside of the Caribbean region, would be the only British base for naval (HMS Malabar) and air operations ‘responsible’ for the area. The last Royal Navy base, HMS Malabar, was closed in 1995. In Central America, Britain continued to deploy troops for training purposes in Belize until 2011. In the previous year, the 2010 Defence and Security Review determined the closure of the British facilities in Belize. The 2015 Review cancelled the 2010 decision regarding Belize, enabling Britain to maintain its last military facility in the region.
Nevertheless, from the late 1990s to the early 2010s, Britain had no permanent vessels assigned exclusively to the Caribbean. At the same time, France and the Netherlands maintained a naval and land presence in their territories. In November 1998, the British Government decided to expand the area of operations for the West Indies Guard Ship (WIGS), which included West Africa. The WIGS was renamed the ‘Atlantic Patrol Task North (APT(N))’, signalling a new responsibility for a vast area of operations. Even though this change led to reducing the British naval presence in the Caribbean, the Royal Navy and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) maintained a regular presence in the area through the APT (N). The decisions of the 2010 Defence Review, which, amongst other things, severely hit the Royal Navy surface fleet, reduced the availability of frigates able to fulfil the Atlantic Patrol Task North’s duties in the Caribbean.
According to the Navy Lookout, in the decade after the 2010 Defence Review, the Royal Navy deployed frigates twice to the Caribbean; HMS Lancaster in 2013 and HMS Argyll in 2014. The deployment of RFA vessels partially compensated for the absence of at least one British frigate. Between 2010 and 2020, the RFA deployed eight times to the region and RFA Wave Night became the auxiliary vessel with the most time spent in the Caribbean, followed by RFA Mounts Bay with roughly 41 and 36 months respectively since 2000. Despite criticism for the lack of a warship, the RFA’s ships operating in the region can be considered as adequate temporary alternatives in the low threat environment of the Caribbean.
In 2015, the Ministry of Defence temporarily deployed HMS Severn – an offshore patrol vessel (OPV) – to the Caribbean. The decision to send an OPV signalled that the British Government wished to reconsider its regional presence. The absence of frigates – and the reduced number of available hulls – during most of the previous years and the duties performed by the RFA’s ships contributed to the defence of the argument that the Royal Navy could maintain a permanent presence in the Caribbean without committing major assets. Therefore, the British Government stated that in the 2020s at least one OPV would permanently perform patrol and disaster relief duties in the Caribbean while supported by one RFA vessel. It is worth noting that Royal Navy and Army personnel worked closely with the RFA and the local British Overseas Territories throughout the hurricane seasons, even though only the RFA had long-term deployments in the region.
Lastly, sources from the British Government and Royal Navy have declared that one of the five planned Type 31 frigate (Inspiration-class) could be deployed to the Caribbean in the early 2030s, fulfilling the duties of Type 23 in the 2000s. A written answer from March 2019 indicated that the Caribbean, the Persian Gulf and the South Atlantic were some of the operational areas considered for Type 31.
Within this context, having consulted Britain several times for technical support, the Cayman Islands Government approved the creation of the Cayman Regiment. The British Government had been discussing with Caymanian leaders since at least 2018 for plans regarding a local defence unit. These talks gathered pace after the severe 2016-2019 hurricane seasons. Thus, the main reasoning behind this decision was the increasing severity of the hurricane seasons. In addition, in the first decades of the twenty-first century, the Cayman Islands’ economic scenario gives the local Government more freedom to raise a defence unit than in the previous decades.
Therefore, the Cayman Islands Regiment became operational in 2020 with an initial 50 locally recruited personnel. The size of the infantry Regiment is set to grow to ‘several hundreds’ during the following years. Britain’s support to the new unit comes through the Ministry of Defence and Foreign and Commonwealth Office in equipment, operational training, and logistical support and advice. In late 2019, the Regiment’s creation occurred under the supervision of the 131 Commando Squadron Royal Engineers and 40 Commando Royal Marines. Moreover, Regiments from other British Overseas Territories have expressed their willingness to cooperate with the Cayman Islands unit, especially the renowned Royal Bermuda Regiment (RBR). The first junior officers were sent to Bermuda to train at Warwick Camp alongside the RBR and later to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.
In addition to operating as an infantry unit, both the British and the Cayman governments plan to link the Cayman Islands Regiments to the Royal Engineers. This move would reaffirm their main duty as providers of assistance to the local Government in tasks concerning humanitarian relief and responding to natural disasters.
The Cayman Islands Regiment has been through significant progress since its creation in 2020. The technical and training assistance provided by the British Army, Royal Marines, and the Royal Bermuda Regiment enhances the prospects for a successful Caymanian unit. Most importantly, the creation of this regiment opened a new path for cooperation amongst the British Overseas Territories and Britain, strengthening defence and security links and improving coordinated responses to regional events.
It is worth mentioning that Britain’s decision to base an OPV in the region resulted in the deployment of HMS Medway to the Caribbean in early 2020. During her first 18 months in the area, HMS Medway assisted the British Virgin Islands during the COVID-19 pandemic, visited other British territories, and worked alongside the RFA and the US Coast Guard in counter-narcotics operations. HMS Medway and one RFA vessel (in 2021, RFA Wave Night) are expected to represent the UK in the Caribbean for the first half of the 2020s. Significant changes are not likely to occur until the commissioning of the Type 31 frigates, which might be deployed to the region by the UK. It should be noted that British plans for a permanent presence frigate presence in the Caribbean are subject to changes due to the acquired experience of the OPV and RFA vessels operating there in the 2020s.
In conclusion, the creation of the Cayman Regiment comes after a period of severe natural disasters and a declining British presence in the region. Nevertheless, the absence of Royal Navy hulls has been partially compensated by the outstanding presence of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels. Ultimately, the Batch 2 River-class OPVs and the RFA received the task of ending the ‘Caribbean gap’ – the lack of a regular Royal Navy presence – created by the 2010 Defence Review. Although relatively small, this renewed Royal Navy presence is set to broaden the possibilities of cooperation with the regional British Overseas Territories and the numerous member-states of the Commonwealth of Nations in the Caribbean. If the OPVs prove to perform duties previously given to frigates successfully, the British Government might have the argument to deploy future frigates elsewhere. Concerning the RFA, adequate handling of the Fleet Solid Support Ships (FSSS) programme is necessary to assure that vessels operating in the Caribbean – RFA Argus, retiring from service in 2024 – have replacements to fulfil their roles.
The history of the Cayman Islands shows that the territory aided Britain’s power in the Caribbean for more than a century while representing a small British community near the vastness of the Spanish Empire in the years that witnessed the rise of Britain as a world power in the eighteenth century. Since the 1970s, the Caymans gradually received internal autonomy, while London retained authority over foreign affairs and defence issues.
Therefore, deploying new vessels and reaffirming long-lasting commitments are assurances to the British Overseas Territories in the Caribbean that the UK is willing to strengthen the special relationship that links the country to its territories beyond the sea. The operational cost of these military assets is relatively small when considering the contributions that these Territories have been proving to the UK for centuries.