Exercise Saif Sareea 3 lasts for a month (Picture: PA)
In October 2018 the British Armed Forces began Exercise ‘Saif Sareea 3’ (SS3), a very large-scale exercise involving 5,500 personnel from all three armed services working alongside more than 60,000 Omanis. This exercise is one of the largest overseas deployments conducted in 15 years by the UK, and visibly demonstrates the strength of the Anglo-Omani relationship.
Oman is a critically important security partner for the UK. Occupying a vital strategic position on both the Indian Ocean and the Straits of Hormuz, both nations have a long-shared history. While Oman’s territorial integrity is not realistically under threat of invasion, Oman looks to the UK as a close ally to support them and provide military assistance if required. For decades the British Armed Forces have been based in, or operated out of Oman, with the current Sultan relying on the UK to help him secure power in the 1970s. To this day there is a substantial British military loan service presence in Oman, led by a 2* General who serves as the senior British Military advisor to the Sultan.
While maintaining a position of relative non-alignment and trying to maintain good relationships with all of its neighbours (including Iran), Oman has often hosted the British armed forces on a variety of missions. In recent years it has hosted detachments of Fleet Air Arm helicopters, RAF Nimrod and other aircraft and supported a wide range of training activity and exercises. Most recently the UK agreed to establish a regional land training hub in Oman for exercises and opened a logistics facility in the port of Duqm to help support maritime operations in the region.
The reason for this strong presence is partly due to the complex web of strategic issues which affect the region. The bulk of Oman sits outside the Straits of Hormuz, but the very tip of the Straits is Omani territory – hence it has a strong interest in ensuring these waters, through which enormous amounts of oil and liquid natural gas tankers must pass, are not closed. Likewise, it has a vested interest in preventing overspill from the civil war in Yemen to destabilise its own borders and shutting the Straits of the Bab-el-Mandeb – a critical choke point through which all merchant ships bound to and from the Suez Canal must sail. Nearby, the Horn of Africa and the situation there involving piracy, conflict and mass migration provide an exceptionally complex mixture of challenges that must be addressed.
The original Exercise Saif Sareea was held in 1986 as a means of testing the UK’s ability to deploy forces at distance from the home base. Involving some 5000 personnel it was one of the largest exercises of its type to occur outside of the NATO area of operations that the force was optimised for.
The follow up exercise was held in 2001, involving a substantially larger force to test many of the concepts and assumptions flagged in the 1998 Strategic Defence Review about the ability of the UK to deploy substantial numbers of forces across the globe on operations. Involving some 22500 personnel from all three services, it saw the deployment of an armoured force supported by amphibious force and a wide range of aviation assets totalling some 100 aircraft and helicopters. It was a timely opportunity to learn lessons about desert warfare and supporting a force at distance ahead of the invasion of Iraq in early 2003.
As an exercise Saif Sareea 2 was probably the largest post-Cold War exercise conducted by the UK overseas. By contrast, Saif Sareea 3 is significantly smaller in scale, closer to the original exercise in its size (some 5500 personnel overall) but still seeing a large and very capable force deploying drawn from all three services.
The aims of the exercise are to test the ability of the UK to deploy forces to the Middle East and ensure that these can be properly supported and are able to work and fight effectively. In practical terms this is the largest deployment of UK ground assets to the region since the withdrawal from Iraq. More widely the exercise is intended to strengthen the working relationship between the UK and Oman and develop their own military capabilities further, while continuing to ensure the UK can deploy a credible warfighting force overseas at distance.
Some commentators have noted that the UK presence is significantly smaller for this exercise than the last one, and implied that this is the result of defence cuts. While there is no doubt that the British Armed Forces are smaller than 17 years ago, this in itself does not make them automatically less capable.
The force deployed today represents a potent combination of some of the UK’s most capable assets, and highlights advances made in other areas. For instance, in 2001 much of the large naval force was made up of very elderly landing ships that were well over 30 years old, such as HMS Fearless and several ‘Sir’ class landing ships which were of limited capability.
By contrast, the modern amphibious force has deployed HMS Albion, the current Fleet Flagship to command the operation and two Landing Ship Dock Auxiliaries (LSDA) known as the ‘Bay’ class that replaced the old ‘Sir’ class. Several times larger than their predecessors, these vessels can carry significantly more troops, cargo and vehicles than their predecessors and come equipped with a dock for landing craft. In practical terms, the amphibious force deployed is vastly more capable and can carry more troops and equipment than in 2001 and is far better equipped to do so.
Similarly, the air component is deploying more modern aircraft, such as eight Typhoon fighter jets (also operated by the Royal Air Force of Oman). This aircraft is not only considerably more capable than its predecessors but has a much higher availability rate too than previous jets. Just because fewer assets are being deployed does not automatically mean the force is less capable – far from it.
What Saif Sareea 3 is doing is providing the UK with the opportunity to demonstrate to Oman, its friends in the Gulf region and potential foes, that the UK remains a global power with global reach. The breadth of capabilities deployed, from fast jets to mine sweepers is as much a shop window display to send a strong message that these assets exist, they can be deployed, and the UK knows how to use them properly.
You do not necessarily need to send an armoured division to send a message – the messaging is implicit in the deployment of the Battlegroup. Any potential foes intelligence analysts can quickly determine that the UK possesses more forces than have been deployed, and the means to deploy them. When planning exercises, there needs to be a trade-off between scale and value. While it may be tempting to plan to deploy an entire armoured division in theory, in practice doing so would not necessarily alter the message being sent, and would cause significant impact across the armed forces that would potentially impact on other operations.
It is precisely these other ongoing operations that also need to be remembered when looking at this exercise. Saif Sareea 3 is the largest UK exercise in the Middle East in nearly 20 years, but it is occurring at the same time as many other UK exercises and operational deployments across the globe.
For instance, the Army is training in Japan on a significant joint exercise, marking one of the first times in decades that the British Army and Japanese Ground Self Defence Force have worked together on their home territory. While smaller in scale, it represents the continued appetite and ability by the UK to demonstrate an ongoing commitment to Asia Pacific security issues and when coupled with the wider deployment of three Royal Navy ships out to the Pacific this year shows that the UK retains an impressive global reach.
Closer to home the UK is also actively supporting the biggest NATO exercise in decades (known as Exercise Trident Juncture), which involves well over 50,000 troops and 65 warships across much of northern Europe testing the NATO response to an Article 5 operation (the defence of an alliance member against external attack). The UK commitment to this exercise is substantial, involving several thousand personnel, deploying several warships, including a pair of Type 23 frigates, mine countermeasure vessels and survey ships. On land, there is a major effort to move British Army personnel and vehicles from their home base in the UK to the Netherlands and Norway.
This is significant because both major exercises are occurring almost in parallel, placing not insignificant pressure on the supply chain, logistics and other important enabling functions to ensure the UK can deploy its military capabilities and operate effectively abroad. The fact that the UK can conduct two major simultaneous exercises on two different continents, while also sustaining an extremely substantial series of operational commitments around the globe such as air operations in Syria, preparation for humanitarian aid operations in the Caribbean and routine deployments in the Falklands demonstrates the sheer range of reach and capability the British Armed Forces possess.
These exercises have shown the UK is one of a tiny handful of nations able to deliver a substantial military force to another continent and exercise a complex multi-national operation working across the full spectrum of military capabilities. To do this while simultaneously supporting another major exercise shows the significant capability in the system and helps validate the investment in globally deployable expeditionary armed forces.
While extremely valuable, these exercises do not come cheap. It costs a significant amount of money to run an exercise like Saif Sareea and it also commits a substantial amount of the UK’s military logistical and expeditionary infrastructure to one location to run it properly. There must be clearly defined benefits to warrant this sort of commitment and ensure it is worth doing – particularly at a time when the UK defence budget is under significant pressure.
For the UK these exercises help serve as a validation of investment in equipment and training. It is a chance to ensure that military equipment purchased works as intended in arduous conditions. Saif Sareea 2 became infamous for identifying that significant improvements were needed to the British Army’s equipment to make it capable of fighting effectively in the desert, which almost certainly made a significant difference during Operation Telic in 2003. It is almost certain that this exercise will also throw up issues that need tweaking or fixing. Far better to find out now in carefully controlled exercise conditions and fix it than discover it too late amidst the chaos of the battlefield.
The exercise will also test that different parts of the UK’s armed forces can work together and with international partners. It is easy to conduct single service training in isolation, but the real test comes when ensuring that an Army unit in combat can call in close air support or naval gunfire support and it is delivered properly. This sort of complex combined arms exercise provides plenty of opportunities to test that the system is working as it should and help let personnel gain familiarity with working as part of a major combined force.
The experiences gained here and the lessons identified will play a major role in shaping training for the next few years and help improve training for the better, and hopefully make the military more effective when working on operations.
In a similar vein, the chance to exercise the command and control of these assets together is quite rare. The sheer level of operational commitments in the armed forces means it is difficult to get time to deploy a tri-service force alongside international partners and exercise it properly. For HQs, battle staffs and commanders, the benefits are the chance to ensure that procedures work, that information is disseminated properly and that the system is able to translate the commander’s intent into tangible outputs on the ground. It also gives the chance to practise working in a Staff HQ environment with international partners and ensure that both groups are used to working alongside each other and understand how the others processes work. For the UK, the opportunity to gain practical experience of working with the Omanis at all levels is extremely valuable and could make a major difference in the event of a future joint deployment.
The key message to the UK’s friends and allies is that this exercise signifies the continued desire by the UK to remain a globally deployable power. In an era where the question of the UK’s global interests has perhaps been called into question by Brexit, this sort of demonstration reminds allies that the UK retains both the will to deploy, and the means to do so.
For Oman and the wider Gulf nations this deployment helps serve as a reminder that the UK is an ally who still matters. The question of the UK’s ongoing debate to the Gulf region has been a thorny issue in bilateral relations since the withdrawal of permanent garrisons in the early 1970s and many years of temporary detachments. When coupled to wider regional concerns about the reliability of some Western allies, particularly the USA, Saif Sareea sends an important reassuring message that the UK is still interested in the region.
Gulf rulers will be able to view this exercise alongside wider developments like the reopening of permanent bases in Bahrain and Oman for the Royal Navy and British Army and see it as a sign that the UK remains a credible ally. This commitment also serves as a helpful means to benchmark the support they can expect from other nations such as the USA, China or Russia when considering future security agreements and arms deals.
More widely other nations will see this as a key sign of UK capability. For instance, it sends a message to the USA and other NATO partners that despite challenging financial circumstances the UK still possesses the means to independently deploy on operations globally, while still meeting a wide range of NATO-related commitments such as the deployment in Estonia and contributing to Air Policing.
Finally, for those nations who do not see eye to eye with the UK and who compete for influence in the Middle East, such as Russia, will take note both of the UK’s reach and its access. There will be several capitals who will see this exercise as a timely reminder that for all the talk of dismissing the UK as a declining power, it remains an influential and potent potential foe.
Overall Exercise Saif Sareea 3 has proven to be a tremendous success for both the UK and Oman, further cementing a long established and deep relationship while sending a clear symbol of visible commitment to the region. The next key step is to ensure that the lessons identified on the exercise are acted on to fix problems as appropriate and that the UK continues to take appropriate steps to demonstrate its long-term commitment to the region. Hopefully, it will not be such a long wait for Exercise Saif Sareea 4.