The British Armed Forces began 2019 with troops deployed on operations or based across every continent on the planet.
It is a feat that only two other nations – France and the USA – can do.
For many, January might feel like a slow drudge back into routine after time off at Christmas, but for the Ministry of Defence, and British personnel across the globe from Easter Island in the Pacific to the Antarctic, it has been business as usual throughout the festive season and into the New Year.
The early part of 2019 has not seen a let up in the pace of deployments, with Royal Navy personnel deployed into the Channel to conduct patrols, while others were reportedly wounded in Syria.
The rest year ahead promises to be just as busy, with the British armed forces potentially liable to face challenges on every continent on the planet.
But what are these challenges, and why would the UK be likely to get involved with them? What lies in store for the British Armed Forces in 2019?
In Europe, the UK is likely to continue to actively support work by NATO to deter Russian aggression against member states.
This will take the form of ongoing commitments to the Baltic States, providing around 900 troops and equipment to form a tangible symbol of NATO support to these nations.
The RAF will also deploy four Typhoon aircraft to Estonia to provide air defence too.
While the UK enhanced forward presence in Eastern Europe may be small, it is a key sign of the British Government’s enduring commitment to stand alongside its allies.
Russian planners will need to consider carefully the fact that an attack on a Baltic nation will also be an attack on NATO nations, which could trigger the mutual aid clauses that would see NATO members come to defend against aggression.
The UK presence is central to reinforcing the message that NATO is a credible partner and ally.
More widely in Europe, 2019 will see the end of an era as the last main units withdraw from Germany, ending a military presence dating back to the end of the Second World War.
Throughout much of the Cold War, the UK maintained roughly 60,000 troops in Germany built around Armoured Divisions and supported by a major Royal Air Force presence too.
The ending of the Cold War saw this reduced in size and scale, and the 2010 SDSR took the decision to bring back the remaining 20,000 troops to the UK.
Although 2019 sees the final units withdraw, it does not mark the permanent ending of the British presence.
The UK has already committed to maintaining several small units such as a bridging unit designed to cross rivers and training areas, including Sennelager and the large vehicle storage depot in Monchengladbach.
The future deployment in Germany will be very different from previous years, and will not see major units permanently based in the country.
But 200 UK personnel will remain, and there will be units regularly exercising on the training area, ensuring that the British Army will remain a visible presence in the country.
The Mediterranean region will also see the continued presence of British ships participating in operations that can range from working with NATO vessels through to helping tackle the challenge of mass migration.
The UK will also continue to deploy in support of operations in the Balkans, where British personnel continue to be based in Bosnia as part of wider peacekeeping and stability missions.
The UK will almost certainly continue to deploy ships into the Black Sea, helping send a strong message of support to nations such as Ukraine.
Here there will also be a stepping up of British military support to the Ukrainian armed forces, helping increase their capabilities to protect against external threats.
There is potentially going to be increased UK interest in the Arctic region following the announcement that the MOD is developing an Arctic strategy.
This is intended to help ensure that the UK is able to support allies in the region and prevent it being dominated by unfriendly powers.
With the planned introduction to service of the RAF P8 aircraft in 2020, coupled with more Royal Navy commitment to the region, the UK is clearly planning to take a much longer-term interest in the Arctic at a level unseen since the height of the Cold War.
Linked to this is the news that the Royal Air Force will be deploying aircraft to Iceland to provide Quick Reaction Alert capability for the Icelandic Government (which does not possess armed forces).
This is the latest deployment for the Typhoon fighter, which in recent years has been deployed to the Baltic and Romania to help provide world beating air defence capability in support of allies.
This latest deployment will continue the trend of providing aircraft to monitor and intercept potentially unwelcome flights, particularly from Russia, and enhance regional security. It is yet more proof of the significant capability of the Typhoon platform, which is able to deploy in both the air defence and air to ground roles.
Across Europe, the UK will likely continue to participate in NATO exercises and operations that will enhance the Alliances capabilities. This will see ships, aircraft and troops deployed across the continent to support allies in a range of areas.
But it is not just in Europe that we will see major UK military presence. In the South Atlantic, the forces based in the Falkland Islands will continue their long-standing presence, built around a small but highly capable force to deter any external aggression.
Given the strongly improved relations with Argentina, it is equally likely that much of their time will be spent looking more widely – for example, the Royal Air Force worked closely with HMS Protector to conduct resupply drops for the British Antarctic Survey.
South America remains a relatively quiet area operationally for the MOD. But there remains a risk of challenges from nations like Venezuela, where there is a widespread economic collapse underway.
Although unlikely to turn into a conflict, there is always a residual chance that British troops may be called in to conduct an evacuation operation or participate in peacekeeping if the situation deteriorates further.
By contrast, the West Indies will continue to see British forces deployed in small numbers.
The presence in this region will be built around ongoing training deployments in Belize, where the UK has maintained a garrison and substantial jungle training facilities since 1981.
In recent years a lot of money has been invested in upgrading the training area (known as ‘BATSUB’ to provide a valuable training site for the Army.
Operationally the UK will probably keep one of its ‘Bay’ class LSD(A) vessels in the region for the long term to provide emergency support and assistance in the event of another hurricane.
In 2017, Hurricane Irma devastated the region, which is still the location of a number of UK Overseas Territories. The main UK operational presence in the region is likely to involve responding to natural disasters and provide assistance in an emergency.
In North America, there will continue to be a substantial UK military presence in a range of areas.
In the USA itself, a lot of effort will be focused on continuing the trials of the F35 aircraft and introducing it to service –UK personnel are based in the US helping deliver this critical work.
Later in 2019, HMS Queen Elizabeth will be returning to the US East coast to carry out further flying trials involving the F35, which is likely to see a significant Royal Navy and RAF presence occur.
The USA also plays host to a wide range of exchange and liaison officers based across the US Armed Forces, and there will continue to be widespread postings of British personnel into all manner of areas. This will be reinforced by regular exercises involving British units on US training facilities.
In a similar vein, the British Army will continue to use Suffield, Canada (known as BATUS)as the home to its largest exercise area. As the Army builds up to return to the concept of a ‘deployable Division’ Suffield will play a critical part in getting the Army back into the routine of deploying large numbers of troops and equipment in a large area.
BATUS is an often little-known facility, yet plays host to over 400 permanently based troops plus more than 1000 vehicles (including over 20 tanks and an Army Air Corps flight) are located there.
Operationally, the main areas where the UK is likely to see deployments occur will remain Africa and the Middle East. The UK recognises that instability in Africa caused by a variety of factors such as conflict, economic challenges, environmental change, disease and natural disasters can cause major disruption to the population and have very damaging long term impacts.
Over the year in 2018 saw the announcement of significant additional support and investment in Africa by the British Government which is keen to open new embassies and provide additional support. The goal of UK deployments in 2019 in the region will be to continue to build stability and improve the quality of life for locals. By investing in this, it will reduce the likelihood of conflict, and indirectly improve security at home.
The UK will continue its long-standing deployments to Mali, where the RAF has a unit of Chinooks based to work with French personnel on peacekeeping operations. In South Sudan, the UK will continue to contribute nearly 400 troops to a UN peacekeeping operation (known as Op Trenton). This work plays a vital role in saving lives and helping secure stability in the region.
There will continue to be a range of training and operational deployments at a variety of locations, from Nigeria to Kenya. For example, anti-poaching training will continue in southern Africa. This vital work helps train local forces to proactively stop poachers from killing endangered wildlife. The reason this matters is it helps local economies benefit from the tourism trade that would otherwise dry up without wildlife, and support stability. Although small in scale, this work is likely to continue to play a major role in helping both wildlife and people.
In the Middle East, the UK will continue to maintain a wide range of capabilities to support both national interests and wider international challenges. The Royal Navy will continue to maintain a reasonably sized force in Bahrain using the superb new facilities offered by the ‘Naval Support Facility’. This force will continue to support international efforts to tackle piracy and terrorism and disrupt drug smuggling too (a key source of funding for terrorist incidents).
The counternarcotics work can have a particularly substantial impact – HMS Dragon, currently on deployment to the region has already had several spectacular interdictions, including one which seized over 10 tonnes of drugs worth over £75 million. Similar operations are likely to continue for the rest of the year.
Further north, UK forces will continue to operate to train the Iraqi armed forces and contribute to efforts to defeat Daesh. The RAF will be likely to continue flying over Iraq and Syria, although given the US military withdrawal, how wider operations will proceed in the region is less clear.
What is clear though is that the Middle East will remain an extremely busy operational area for all three services and one that poses a series of complex and challenging operational environments to work in.
In Afghanistan, the UK will continue to deploy approximately 1,000 personnel to support ongoing efforts to improve security and train local troops. Although this number is significantly reduced from a few years ago, when well over 10,000 British troops were deployed in the country taking part in a very difficult operation, Afghanistan has never stopped as an operational tour. 2019 will mark the 18th year in a row where UK forces have been based there, with the end likely to be some considerable time off still.
In the Far East, there is likely to be a small but effective level of operational deployments, primarily built around the presence of Royal Navy warships. The UK is keen to increase its presence in the region, which at the start of the year saw two Type 23 frigates deployed there (HMS Argyll and Montrose) conducting a range of operations from Montrose visiting the smallest UK Overseas Territory (Pitcairn Island, whose population are descended from the Bounty mutineers), through to Argyll conducting ASW drills with the Japanese and US Navies.
2019 is likely to see extensive discussion about the role of the UK in the Far East at a time when China is becoming an increasingly assertive regional power. The UK is taking steps to play a more active diplomatic and economic role in the region, and it is likely that there will be some increased level of defence presence – be it exercises, bilateral staff engagement or other commitments. But it is unlikely to see major operational deployments outright of an unexpected conflict breaking out (the most likely of which would be somewhere like the Korean Peninsula).
To that end, the Gurkhas will continue to be based in Brunei supporting local security, while more widely the UK will almost certainly continue to participate in regional security drills linked to the ‘Five Power Defence Agreement’ (FPDA).
The FPDA is a regional security treaty that plays a key part in linking the UK to Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore to consult in the event of a security issue. In practical terms, the FPDA is a mechanism to improve joint working and collaboration and is a vital part of the UK’s wider security commitments overseas.
In the UK the military will continue to engage in the wide range of tasks that are expected of them on home turf. This will range from Counter Terrorism to State Ceremonial. While there has been much speculation about Brexit and the potential impact on the Armed Forces, it is simply too early to predict what may, or may not happen here. What is clear though is that in the event of a ‘MACA’ (Military Aid to the Civil Authority) request being received by the MOD, they will seek to provide an appropriate response.
The big challenge for the Armed Forces at home in 2019 will be probably built around two key battles. Firstly, the battle for funding as the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) continues. This major Government review will work out how much money is available for the MOD for the next five years.
Given the scale of the financial challenges faced by the MOD now, and the major security challenges that are posed in a range of areas, from tackling new threats like Cyber Security, to resurgent old ones like Russia, there is a clear sense that more money is required for Defence. Whether this funding will become available is less clear. But, finding enough money to make the books balance and continue to meet operational requirements will be a big challenge for the MOD.
The second challenge will be to keep the work of the Armed Forces in the public eye and make sure the taxpayer understands what they are doing. Since the drawdown from Iraq and Afghanistan, the public awareness of the military and what it is up to has probably dropped. Ensuring that the fantastic work of the military is recognised and understood is vital – not only for building public confidence in them but also to help build the understanding for why the Military needs appropriate long term funding and people. Ensuring that this message is well understood by the public is likely to be a major challenge – particularly as the number of veterans and people with family links to the military grows smaller as the WW2 generation fade.
It is likely that 2019 will see at least one ‘joker’ in the form of an unexpected deployment or operation that no one saw coming. Arguably 2018’s was the very short notice deployment to Gatwick Airport to try and find a rogue drone. Whether this will happen again, or if something else completely unexpected happens remains to be seen.
What is clear though is that no matter what the challenges faced, the UK enters 2019 safe in the knowledge that the hard-working men and women of the British Armed Forces, and supporting civil servants and contractors are well placed to keep them safe.
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.