UK forces would be needed to evacuate UK citizens in the region, but a report released this morning states that there would be almost insuperable challenges for any evacuation to succeed if the UK further reduced its amphibious capability.
The Defence Committee is calling on the government to give a categorical assurance that, as part of its Modernising Defence Programme, it has fully understood the essential role of amphibious capability in conducting civilian evacuations, as well as inserting troops from the sea.
The report points out that the UK currently has very few forces in the region, with no permanent military bases in place. Earl Howe told the Defence Committee that a single frigate, HMS Sutherland, was currently on course to visit the region, with another to follow later in the year.
The nearest British Army presence is a battalion of Gurkhas stationed in Brunei and there are no Royal Air Force units stationed in the area. It would also take time to deploy significant UK forces, particularly if they were already committed elsewhere. Earl Howe told the committee that:
“At present, as of today, it is clearly difficult for me to give you facts and figures as to what we could send, because we are committed in a number of parts of the world, but given adequate notice, yes, I am sure we could deploy forces.”
Sir Jeremy Blackham went into more detail on how long force deployment would take:
“We need to be clear that were we to try to move significant forces to that part of the world, we are talking in terms of weeks, not days. We are also talking about reducing our commitment to a number of other current commitments and asking ourselves whether we actually have the resources to deploy a significant number of forces—I am now talking about not just the hardware but the manpower, arsenals, maintenance and support for a
significant period of time.”
The MoD have confirmed that the UK has plans in place to deploy forces to the region if necessary. Earl Howe told the committee that the plans cover different scenarios but he provided no further detail for operational security reasons. The Minister did confirm that these plans include consideration of how long forces could be sustained and what forces could be deployed given the UK’s existing commitments across the world.
For Britain, the largest rescue operation since the retreat from Dunkirk in 1940 was in 2006 in Lebanon with more than 22,000 British and dual nationals being moved out. Sixty were flown by RAF Chinook helicopters (pictured above) to Cyprus and others boarded Royal Navy vessels.