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Storms And Emergencies: How A UK Military Response Is Decided

We look at how a military response is decided when storms turn into national emergencies

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Storms, floods and natural disasters may batter Britain with seasonal regularity but if national emergencies do strike, when would the military step in?

There have been many times over the years that the British military has been called upon to assist state authorities and agencies in taking control of a major national crisis - from flooding, to health strikes to security issues.

The Armed Forces have been called in many times, including when floods hit parts of the UK in the latter end of 2019, and there have been many other times in recent history when violent weather systems, or other national concerns, have needed military support to assist police and other state authorities manage the response.

Here, we look at how a UK military response is decided, and the strict criteria that governs the intervention of the Armed Forces in civil matters.

This was certainly the case in the winter of 2015, troops were sent to Cumbria and Lancashire to aid people left homeless or at risk of flooding following Storm Desmond (see below) and in November 2019, when troops were called in to assist when floods swamped South Yorkshire and other parts of the country.

In other civil matters, as recently as 2014, soldiers, marines and airmen were drafted in as drivers when ambulance workers went on strike.

How is it decided when to call on the forces?

 

British soldiers flooding rescue, Carlisle 2015

In current circumstances, that is, with Britain not being run by a military government or in a state of martial law, help from the forces can only be requested in response to a request from national government or local councils.

This provision is known as Military Aid to the Civil Authorities (MACA), which can be given in support of civilian authorities, other government departments or the community as a whole.

Last resort

 

British Soldiers flood response, Carlisle 2015

There are three criteria for the provision of MACA:

  • Military aid should always be the last resort. The use of mutual aid, other agencies, and the private sector must be otherwise considered as insufficient or be unsuitable.
  • The Civil Authority lacks the required level of capability to fulfil the task and it is unreasonable or prohibitively expensive to expect it to develop one.
  • The Civil Authority has a capability, but the need to act is urgent and it lacks readily available resources.

It is important to note, however, that all operations have to be conducted within both civil and military law, with any failure to do so potentially resulting in criminal and/or civil law proceedings being brought against individuals or the Ministry Of Defence.

During peacetime, members of the Armed Forces - unlike the police and some other civil agencies - have no powers over and above those of the ordinary citizen, with the same duty as anyone else to abide by the law at all times.

So when have troops been called in?

 

British Armed Forces personnel, 2012 London Olympics

There have been a number of other deployments of forces personnel to the streets in recent years.

The British Army drafted in around 18,000 soldiers to support the London Olympics in 2012, after security company G4S admitted it could not provide enough guards. 

In spring 2017 meanwhile, Prime Minister Theresa May enacted Operation Temperer, which was believed to allow up to 5,000 troops to be deployed in support of the police.

It was an extremely unusual raising of the terror threat level to 'critical', meaning an attack was expected imminently - only the third time the risk had been set at the highest level since the scale was made public in 2006.

Mrs May said it came after experts at the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC) raised the threat level.

In terms of environmental emergencies, troops were sent to assist the Environment Agency in dealing with severe flooding in the winter of 2013/2014, particularly in the south of England and again in 2019.

Which leads onto the next question ...

Has the move been criticised in the past?

 

7 RIFLES dam Kennet and Avon Canal breach with sandbags, 2014
7 RIFLES damming a breach in the Kennet and Avon Canal with sandbags in 2014

Authorities were accused after the severe winter storms that hit Britain in late 2013 and early 2014, of leaving it too late to get troops involved.

More than 5,000 homes and businesses were flooded and people left homeless and stranded after the wettest December-January period since 1876.

Many parts of the UK barely saw a dry day until the beginning of March, yet the military was not called in to help until mid-February - with many residents complaining that relief efforts made slow progress until troops arrived in affected areas.

Then-Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, argued that delays had been caused by local councils being slow to accept military aid. Once troops had been deployed he told the BBC's Andrew Marr show:

"We offered troops quite a long while ago to civil authorities who wanted them. What we've done over the last 10 days is pushed them a bit more aggressively at several authorities."

Ultimately the then-Prime Minister David Cameron, in his role as 'floodmaster general', took control over the relief efforts by calling the government's emergency COBRA (Cabinet Office Briefing Room A) committee, also often referred to as COBR, which is second only to the PM in the flood response chain of command, and the military was called in.

So what's been improved?

 

Major General Patrick Sanders & Penny Mordaunt, 2015
Iraq veteran Major General Patrick Sanders, who coordinated the military flood response at the Cobra meetings, with the then-Armed Forces Minister Penny Mordaunt in 2015

As Berenice Baker has pointed out in Army Technology, MACA is implemented in the UK "through the gold-silver-bronze command system used by emergency services to respond to major incidents and disasters, with the Gold Commander being in charge of the entire operation from a remote location".

Gold Command is comprised of local response units, usually led by the police, that involve other emergency services, the Environment Agency and local authorities to provide strategic advice to COBRA and the Environment Agency on how best to allocate resources.

As Baker adds, however, there "were no such constraints hampering the efforts of the 10,000 members of the Army and Air National Guard who leapt into action to participate in rescue efforts and clean-up in the 13 states affected by super-storm Sandy in 2012".

What needed to change, according to Mr Hammond, was getting the military involved in these structures at the highest level and at the earliest opportunity. He said:

"I think putting military liaison officers into the gold commands so that they’re embedded in the system has been a major step forward. We'll want to make sure in future that we do that at a very early stage in any emerging crisis."

In September 2018, troops from 2nd Battalion, Princes of Wales's Royal Regiment took part in flood prevention training. 

They joined other agencies in Northamptonshire on the exercise. Just click below to have a look...

Lessons certainly seemed to have been learned by the start of 2017.

A hundred soldiers travelled from Catterick to Skegness to help deal with bad weather when high tides and gales were expected to bring disruption along the coast overnight. 

The soldiers were split into teams to go door-to-door with police to warn and inform the public.

Should extreme weather conditions strike, troops' tasks could include anything from filling and moving sandbags, to evacuating residents, to repairing flood defences using military bulldozers and excavators or protecting electricity sub-stations.

* This is an edited version of an article first published in 2018.