The recent events in Afghanistan, where Western militaries worked together to evacuate foreign nationals from Kabul were a grim lesson in how hard it is to conduct ‘Non-Combatant Evacuation Operations’ (NEO).
These are some of the most difficult and demanding of all military operations, requiring a combination of equipment, skill, training and a not insignificant dose of luck to succeed.
NEO’s are not an invention, and there is a long history of them being conducted by armed forces across the world.
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They vary in size, scale and complexity, from moving small groups of people out of a specific area, to supporting the widespread evacuation of thousands of civilians.
For example, the first ever evacuation using aircraft occurred in Kabul nearly 100 years ago. The so-called ‘Kabul Airlift’ occurred in the winter of 1928-29, after an outbreak of violence led to a need to evacuate the British legation (effectively the embassy). Using Royal Air Force aircraft, flying 84 missions, more than 300 British nationals were evacuated from the city.
Mass evacuations of civilians have occurred with surprising regularity throughout the 20th Century for a variety of reasons. Some evacuations have occurred due to weather or natural disasters – for example, the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 saw more than 20,000 civilians evacuated by sea to escape fires.
During the Second World War there were several large-scale evacuations involving millions of civilians attempting to flee the conflict zones. In Russia and then latterly Eastern Europe, evacuations occurred to move civilians away from cities, or areas likely to be captured. For example, during 1944 to 1945, more than three million German citizens were evacuated from East Prussia, fleeing the Soviet Army and hoping to avoid disaster.
After the war, the withdrawal from colonial empires led to several different operations to bring populations home. After the end of the Portuguese colonial wars in Africa, more than one million Portuguese nationals were evacuated by air from across the continent to return to Portugal.
There have been many evacuations of cities and regions due to adverse weather, including flooding or storms. This has often involved the military having to marshal resources to provide help. At a local level, for example, the British Armed Forces were heavily involved in the response to flooding in 2007 across the West Country that threatened many different towns and villages.
At a more dramatic level, the threat of volcanic eruption has previously led to the evacuation of entire islands. For example, the Royal Navy was responsible for evacuating the population of Tristan da Cunha in the 1960s and helped coordinate the evacuation of some 90 percent of the population of Montserrat in 1997.
It is clear then, that there is a persistent need to be able to carry evacuations out, but how do they work, how do the armed forces get involved and what sort of assets are required to be able to effectively carry out this sort of operation?
The big difference between many of these evacuations and an NEO is the risk of conflict and threat to both the people being evacuated and the military participants. The Ministry Of Defence (MOD) has its doctrine manual for NEO’s available to read online. It defines an NEO as “an operation conducted to relocate designated non-combatants threatened in a foreign country to a place of safety”.
The MOD's policy on NEOs is that there are three different types of environments for an NEO to be conducted. The first is the so-called 'Permissive' environment. This is where the MOD expects to enter a country with the full support of the host nation in order to evacuate people.
This sort of operation is the easiest to arrange because there are unlikely to be any direct threats to the evacuees, at least in the short term, and flights or maritime evacuation can occur without significant risks.
A good example of this sort of permissive operation is the maritime evacuation from Spain in 2010 after the explosion of a volcano in Iceland resulted in volcanic ash disrupting global air transport links. The Royal Navy sent several ships to pick up stranded holidaymakers and return them to the UK.
About 240 particularly vulnerable nationals were returned onboard HMS Albion, in a classic example of safely evacuating nationals from challenging but safe circumstances.
The next type is the 'Uncertain' environment. This is an NEO occurring in circumstances where the Government may have control over its security forces, but there is conflict in the country – for example with rebel gangs or militias threatening attacks. These are particularly challenging to plan for as the situation is so fluid and fast-changing.
Commanders on the ground will need to be ready for a quickly changing situation, where the threat levels may quickly switch. Trying to evacuate people in these circumstances, particularly if you need to retrieve them from remote locations, can be incredibly difficult as it is hard to work out what sort of response will happen or if events will become hostile.
A good example of this sort of evacuation is Operation HIGHBROW which occurred in Lebanon in 2006. Following the outbreak of conflict in the region, UK forces were sent to coordinate the evacuation of some 4,500 British nationals, initially using a Royal Navy task force, then evacuating via British bases in Cyprus.
The final type of operation is the 'Hostile' environment where the evacuation must be carried out in extremely challenging circumstances, where the host nation government has collapsed and all semblance of law and order lost. Good examples of this operation are the final US withdrawal from Saigon in 1975 and Kabul in 2021.
These sorts of evacuations are incredibly challenging to handle due to their complexity and need to be ready to operate in what is essentially a combat zone, while still trying to save as many people as possible.
Given these different types of operations, and the range of skills required to successfully carry them out, what sort of assets (both military and wider government) are needed to carry out an NEO, and how well prepared are the British Armed Forces to do one?
Perhaps the single most important asset for a NEO is not a military unit, but instead the presence of a British Embassy or High Commission. Having people on the ground able to understand the situation, build links to the local government and groups to understand the politics of the problem and spot the warning signs is crucial.
Having a small UK presence may make a key difference in identifying whether the situation in a country is rapidly deteriorating, or if it seems likely that the situation will recover. Additionally, having a UK focal point helps planners work out the size of the UK expatriate community, identify who would need to be evacuated and do the basic planning work needed to make sure that, if called upon, it would be possible to evacuate them.
Many diplomatic facilities will also have a UK Defence Section, with representation from the armed forces, providing people whose role is to build links with the local armed forces. Defence Attaches can play a critical role both in developing an understanding of the country and its armed forces, but also in casting a professional military eye on the situation.
Having a permanent UK presence in a country makes a crucial difference as it also facilitates wider planning with other countries who might be based there. For example, the British Embassy may work with representatives from other western embassies to identify the scale of the expatriate communities, develop joint evacuation plans and ensure that people understand what they need to do in an emergency.
Once the decision is taken that an evacuation may be required, the next key military asset needed is not necessarily kit, but an excellent planning staff. Being able to get to a country is one thing but knowing how to coordinate all the assets required and bring the plan together is significantly more complicated.
In the UK, a lot of work is done by the Standing Joint Force HQ at Northwood. This military headquarters comprises planners who are trained in preparing complex military operations, often at extremely short notice and ensuring that the plans are well-rehearsed. The teams are responsible for ensuring they can deploy at very short notice around the world, are able to deploy a planning staff to take charge of an operation and conduct it if needed.
If the decision is taken to deploy, it may involve a small recce team to take stock of the situation and do initial contingency planning, or it could involve a major deployment of a formed HQ to fly out and take control of the situation. The teams may be required to work with international partners to try and take stock of the situation and coordinate their assets and responses – for example, working out how best to conduct the evacuation and whether one country should take a lead in doing it.
Being able to deploy at speed requires the UK to have an effective strategic airlift that can reach any location around the world in a hurry. This means the RAF air mobility force, built around the C17, C130, A400M and Voyager force, is absolutely essential.
These aircraft can provide a range of options to planners, from a speedy deployment through the Voyager, to moving military equipment like vehicles or logistical support into the country to help prepare for the evacuation. In addition, these aircraft can be used to carry troops into the country – either conventionally, or by parachuting, if required.
Being able to fly into a country quickly is only one part of the challenge though. Once aircraft arrive, they need to be serviced, protected and refuelled, as well as being made ready to begin the evacuation. Sometimes, particularly in a benign NEO, this is very straightforward and done with the full support of the host nation, while at other times it can be extremely challenging.
During Operation PITTING (Kabul) the UK had to deploy not just aircraft but a significant number of troops to hold the ground, defend the airfield and be ready to rescue UK nationals who needed evacuating. Sometimes this task may be done by the RAF Regiment, which specialises in the defence of airfields, while at others it may be carried out by high readiness units like the Parachute Regiment.
In other circumstances, there may be a need to not just fly in troops, but also vehicles and aircraft able to roam across the country to find and rescue isolated nationals caught up in difficult circumstances.
A good example of this sort of remote rescue operation happened in Libya in 2011 when RAF Hercules carrying SAS troops and vehicles flew into remote oil facilities to rescue British nationals trapped by the Civil War. SAS soldiers were able to provide force protection for the mission and ensure the UK nationals were rescued safely.
It is not just ground troops that are needed for this sort of operation though. In places like Kabul, there was a need for logistical troops to support both the evacuation and provide the wider life support needed (fuel, food, water, shelter etc) to help keep troops able to operate. In addition, there will be a need for effective communications equipment, able to ensure that all participants in the operation can talk to each other, across different government and military IT systems and across international systems too.
The other element of an NEO that is not often considered is that getting people out of the initial conflict zone is just part of the process. There is a need to find a friendly airbase or port to unload people rescued and process them for their onwards return to the UK.
This is where the UK’s global network of military bases is particularly helpful. Locations like Cyprus have been heavily used to receive evacuees and provide them with help, support and onward travel. They are also vital facilities to carry out repairs and maintenance on aircraft too, providing a safe and secure environment for RAF ground crew to help ensure the aircraft can go back on another mission to rescue more people as needed.
The final part of the puzzle is having effective intelligence and international coordination arrangements in place to ensure that the UK can work with partners to conduct the evacuation and withdraw safely. Perhaps the most dangerous part of the operation is the final closing down of the perimeter, as troops withdraw and then head out for the final time.
At times like this, having a good understanding of the situation and being able to withdraw safely and with the support of allies is essential to prevent a disaster from occurring at the last moment.
It is not just aircraft and troops that can play a vital role in NEOs. As has been seen, the Royal Navy has often been heavily involved in evacuations, although this is somewhat reliant on the ships being in the local area to support operations.
In fact, a key part of Royal Navy operational sea training is to practise benign evacuations to ensure ships are trained in this challenging work. Any ship going through Fleet Operational Sea Training (FOST) training at Plymouth will experience the challenges of a disaster relief exercise, which includes elements of evacuations.
While the ideal vessel for an NEO would be one of the Royal Navy’s very capable Albion class amphibious assault ships, or the RFA Bay class transport ship, both of which are designed to carry hundreds of people in relative comfort, other ships can and have been used too. Destroyers and frigates are also ideal due to their ability to carry helicopters which can be used for coordination and evacuation flights.
The most unusual case of this was the evacuation from Aden in 1986 where the Royal Yacht Britannia, sailing in the region, was used to embark evacuees fleeing civil war and helped to rescue more than 1,000 people from the beach, even while hostile artillery fire was landing near the ship. Her Majesty The Queen, who was not onboard, was reportedly delighted that the ship was used in this way.
There is no doubt that NEOs are incredibly complicated and difficult operations, requiring an ability to respond at short notice to crises and be able to plan and carry out the difficult evacuation of civilians in very trying and potentially dangerous circumstances.
There is also no doubt that it is a question of ‘when’ not ‘if’ the next NEO will happen and the British Armed Forces not only have a long track record of success when it comes to NEOs but are also very well trained, prepared and equipped for future operations as and when they occur.
Cover image: Members of the UK Armed Forces on Op PITTING evacuating entitled personnel from Kabul airport. (Picture: UK MOD © Crown copyright 2021 / LPhot Ben Shread).
This article is the latest contribution in our Lima Charlie columnist section.
This is part of a series featuring unattributed contributions from experts and insiders providing opinion, insight and analysis on today’s Armed Forces, the wider politics of the military and observations on military life.
Under the pseudonym Lima Charlie, our contributors aim to explore the issues facing today’s military and their comment remains unattributed to allow our writers to present their analysis candidly and under one editorial voice.