Africa

UK In Africa: Why British Troops Are Teaching Other Nations To Fight Future Threats

In 1995, the UK had 10,000 troops deployed as UN peacekeepers - today just a few hundred are deployed overseas on UN missions.

The global threats Britain faces are changing, and countering them has led to UK troops going overseas, not to fight but to train.

In Africa, British personnel are working with the United Nations (UN) to give soldiers of other nations the skills needed to combat new threats, from sexual violence to the spread of extremism.

In 1995, the United Kingdom had 10,000 troops deployed as UN peacekeepers, more than any other country in the world.

Today, only a few hundred British troops are overseas on UN missions.

The British Peace Support Team (BPST) is a tiny unit of 26 mainly military personnel, stationed in the leafy Nairobi suburb of Karen.

They currently work with militaries in 14 different African nations.

Their role is to enable and deliver training to soldiers from across the continent, who are preparing to deploy on UN missions.

Paid for by a cross governmental fund, they fly small teams of servicemen and women over from the UK to conduct short training courses to troops from countries across the continent.

BPST training African forces in Kenya November 2019 used on 050320 CREDIT BFBS.jpg
British Peace Support Team delivering training to Kenyan troops in November 2019.

The BPST is commanded by Colonel Chippy Minton.

"We are the only organisation of its kind certainly in Africa, certainly in the UK defence, but there is nothing even in the international community that looks and feels like BPST," Col Minton said.

"The geographical range that we have and the range of activities that we deliver - it is military, it's police, it's counter-proliferation, it's maritime security.

"There is a raft of activities that we do, that nobody else does."

The team costs around £13m a year which includes all their activities and the number of countries they operate in is set to increase as their remit expands westwards.

"The demand for us is going up, rather than down," Col Minton said.

The courses are largely to 'train the trainer', so soldiers can go back and cascade the training to the rest of their battalion.

They consistently receive new requests from countries asking for assistance.

Most recently Chad have requested their help in the fight against Boko Haram, affiliated to al-Qaeda.

The British Peace Support Team was originally only responsible for the east, but their work is now stretching across the continent, admittedly with no increase in funds.

Kenyan soldiers during BPST training in November 2019 used on 050320 CREDIT BFBS.jpg
Kenyan forces during a training exercise led by the British Peace Support Team in November 2019.

But is training other nations for UN missions as valuable as providing personnel?

Many of the captains and majors moving through the ranks now have less operational experience than the colonels and brigadiers who went before them.

"The kind of activities we do – the short term training teams and the non-operational deployment pieces – it's good, it has a place, and you can learn an awful lot... but it's not the same as operations," Col Minton told us.

"For a military, maintaining your operational credibility and your operational experience is fundamental, and doing more on UN operations would be a good filler.

"It allows you to maintain that operational experience and the relevance whilst also contributing to something that has direct international relevance."

For the past four years, British personnel have contributed directly to the UN mission in South Sudan, but their involvement is set to end.

A new UN mission is promised for later this year.

In Catterick, 250 members of the Light Dragoons are preparing to head to Mali and the British Army is looking for an African country to partner with before entering this fragile state.

Kenyan forces during practical training with BPST in November 2019 used on 050320 CREDIT BFBS.jpg
Kenyan forces during the first phase of practical training with BPST, in November 2019.

"At the moment we work with Zambia, [with troops] in the Central African Republic, they at least have suggested that they want to send troops to Mali, so that provides us with an opportunity," Col Minton said.

He added: "Botswana, Ghana, and then there's a few other countries at the moment.

"The issue being with Mali is that they tend to be quite established, in which case they've already got fairly well-established training partnerships and a lot of them are francophone countries.

"That presents a challenge for us, because we don't have many competent French speakers in the Army, not as many as we need," he added.

UK-UN agreements are currently under review in parliament and a report is due out in September.

Whether the 2020s will see more or less British peacekeeping boots on the ground, remains to be seen.

The impact of the British Peace Support Team is increasingly felt across Africa.

More direct British involvement with the UN helps the organisation plug essential gaps in its skillset, such as engineering in South Sudan and the long-range reconnaissance capabilities the Light Dragoons will provide in Mali.