On Strategy – East of East of Suez, The UK military presence in the Asia Pacific Region

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A Guest Post from Sir Humphrey, author of ‘The Thin Pinstriped Line‘ defence blog

East of East of Suez – the UK commitment to the Asia / Pacific Rim.

The Far East is an area which has long held a fascination for many in the UK – both as a tourist destination, a source of economic prosperity, an emerging powerhouse of influence and dynamism, and a location where over many years the MOD has been engaged in one form or another. The region conjures up images of UK forces fighting in the jungles and seas of the Pacific, of the fall of Singapore, of great national humiliation, and immense pride, in wars such as Korea in the 1950s. Even today the UK contribution in Malaysia and the ‘Confrontation’ Campaign are seen as good examples of how to successfully handle low level insurgencies or military clashes.

The phrase ‘East of Suez’ seems to sum up a generational policy shift in the 1960s, when the UK began the process of recalling the legions, and withdrawing the tens of thousands of troops from the Asia Pacific region, and the drawing down of the great naval fortress of Singapore. In the public eye, the UK ceased to be a military power in the region in the 1970s, and to many our final withdrawal was completed in 1997 with the handover of Hong Kong. Yet, against all odds, and despite the expectations of many, the UK retains a small military presence in the region, and continues to enjoy strong relations with many of the nations present in this fascinating and immensely complex part of the world.

The purpose of this short series of articles is to review the UKs military commitments to the region, to gain an understanding of where UK defence interests lie, and review what it is that the UK is being expected to deliver, and my own personal view as to why it benefits the taxpayer to retain an influence in this region. It will be structured over three parts, and should be seen in the context of the wider TD series of Strategy Posts. It does not represent any official viewpoint, and should not be read or construed as being anything other than a personal interpretation of the current UK level of military commitment to the Asia Pacific region.

UK Commitments

For the purposes of this article, the Asia pacific region is deemed to be those nations east of the Indian Ocean, from Singapore through to the pacific coastlines of the Americas. It does not look at the roles played by UK forces in the Indian Ocean itself. Since 1997, the two main physical locations for UK forces in the region have been Brunei and Singapore.

Brunei: The role of the garrison in Brunei has been, at the request of his Majesty the Sultan of Brunei, to provide security for the country as a whole. The UK has had a military presence in Brunei since 1962, when troops landed to provide additional security. Today the garrison comprises some 900 personnel, predominantly drawn from the Ghurkhas’, for whom one battalion of light infantry is usually based in the Kingdom. Additionally, a small flight of helicopters and the UKs primary jungle warfare school (the other being in Belize, which has been downsized in the last year), as well as assorted other staff.

The Sultan meets the costs of the provision of the battalion, and also much of the infrastructure costs associated with their presence. The garrison arrangement is renewed on a five yearly basis between Brunei and the UK. At present the UK presence is scheduled to continue until at least 2015. An excellent summary of the UK defence commitment can be found at the FCO website, click here

Singapore: The UK presence in Singapore is not known to many in the MOD, let alone outside it. Until 1971 Singapore was home to a not inconsiderable number of UK warships and support vessels, using the dockyard facilities and support networks to provide the Far East Fleet. This organisation continued in a much reduced tri-national (Australia, New Zealand, UK) format until 1976, when the UK then withdrew its final contingents as economic problems forced a final withdrawal from the region.

Despite this, the UK retains to this day the ownership of a large fuel depot, and berthing wharves in Sembewang dockyard. Having been to the site a few years ago, the author can personally attest to its size, which provides berthing access for up to three escorts at a time, plus access to fuel and spare parts. Reportedly the fuel depot is the second largest in the Asia-Pacific region, and provides useful access for UK and allied warships to fuel. The FCO website has a good description of current UK military assets in Singapore, click here

These two facilities constitute the only permanent UK military presence in the region in terms of formed units or military installations. There is a wider set of individual exchange posts, particularly in Australia and New Zealand, where a plethora of UK personnel work as integrated members of these nations militaries.

Defence Attaches: One of the most significant UK military contributions in the region in terms of influence is the Defence Attaché network. Although many people are often sceptical of the value of defence attaches (a recent Daily Mail article referred to them as the so-called ‘Ferrero Roche’ network’), there is a strong argument to be made for the retention of these posts.

Attaches provide the UK with the opportunity to put military personnel into the region, to meet with and understand the military issues facing a country, and to get a better feel for strategic developments in a region. Many countries genuinely appreciate a UK Defence Attaché presence – it is seen as a sign that the UK takes their nation seriously from a military perspective, and this presence can often be invaluable in opening doors in an emergency.

In a region like the Far East, the Defence Attaché network represents one of the best means of the MOD to engage with local military forces and continue a relationship, particularly in nations which may rarely see a UK visit. As of November 2010, there were DA’s located in Australia, New Zealand, Brunei, China, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, and Singapore. (Source). Additionally, since 1998, posts have closed in the Philippines and Thailand.

Some of these posts are of particular interest, and worthy of note. The two posts in Korea and Japan owe much to the Korean War for their continued existence. As one of the main participants in the war, the UK continues to have a place on the UN Military Armistice Commission, and the position of a 1* helps ensure the UK is engaged in this particular diplomatic issue. Additionally, the presence of military personnel in Japan, where the DA holds the position of UK Liaison Officer to the United Nations Command (Rear) helps ensure that the UK can invoke access to Japanese ports and airfields at short notice under UN resolutions dating back to the war – and as seen during the North Korean nuclear tests some years ago, where the UK sent a radiation sampling VC10 to the region, this is a useful access right to be able to invoke (and also a means of demonstrating continued interest and influence in the region). For further information on the role both sections play, see these links – http://ukinjapan.fco.gov.uk/en/about-us/our-embassy/how-we-can-help/defence-section and http://ukinrok.fco.gov.uk/en/about-us/working-with-korea/defence-relations/

For the relatively small outlay of two defence sections, the UK is able to remain not only engaged in, and kept abreast of developments in the Korean peninsula, but also is able to safeguard access into the region. This helps the UK play a small, but influential role, and when coupled with the wider diplomatic presence in both Seoul and Pyongyang, means that the UK can help punch above its weight when it comes to influencing both these nations, and others involved in the delicate diplomatic situation in the region. While this may only be a small example, it does show that often a deft touch with the presence of a military attaché can have significantly wider ramifications for the UK as a whole.

Wider Exercises / Deployments: Although the UK has not had a major permanent military presence in the region for some time, until late in the last decade, regular task group deployments to the region ensured that there was a routine RN presence at least once per year, often in substantial numbers. The Ocean Wave 97 and Taurus 09 deployments are both good examples of the UK deploying substantial forces into the region, using enablers such as amphibious assault capabilities, and also wider surface ship capabilities, to visit a range of nations, conduct exercises under the auspices of regional alliances (such as the Five Power Defence Arrangement), and generally show the UK flag in an area which rarely sees a substantial UK military presence.

The combination of a smaller RN and a busyoperational tasking schedule means that deployments such as these have been less frequent for some time. Although there has been a limited RN surface presence – such as HMS RICHMOND in 2011, the reality is that for the time being, there is likely to be only a limited engagement in the area. The RN is very busy at present, and with a smaller escort fleet and reduced amphibious capability, all of which are in demand for real world operations, it is likely that future deployments to the region will see physically fewer, but materially vastly more capable, vessels operating there. Sadly the days of 10 – 15 vessel deployments such as OCEAN WAVE 97 are likely to have gone forever.

The RAF is also unlikely to see significant non-operational deployments into the region for the time being. The RAF operational fleet remains committed for operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and for as long as support to operations in Afghanistan remains the Defence Main Effort, then this is the priority for resources. That said, it is likely that exercises or small deployments, for instance to showcase Typhoon, will continue. As ever, it is important to remember that numbers of aircraft does not directly equate to capability, as both Typhoon and Tornado are immensely capable aircraft.

The Army is the service least likely to deploy in any substantial numbers to the region, although this is in keeping with the wider reality that since the 1960s and the end of Confrontation, the Far East region was far more an RN / RAF operational environment than an Army one. At the same time, the Army has the largest laydown of personnel of any UK service in the region, through the Brunei garrison.

Therefore, at any one time the UK military presence in the Asia Pacific region is just under 1000 permanently based military personnel, including Singapore, Brunei and the Defence Attache network. There are reasonably regular visits by RAF aircraft, and RN vessels, and although vastly smaller than the 1960s, there still remains a relatively substantial UK military presence to the East of East of Suez.

Having considered what the current UK military capabilities and commitments are in the region, the next instalment of this article will consider what possible challenges and threats exist in the region. This will also focus on the role of the FPDA, and wider UK engagement.

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