The need to respond quickly to an emerging crisis has formed the bedrock of much of the UK’s force capability generation activity for some time. Beyond the counter-terrorism role of UK Special Forces there are a number of capabilities held at high or very high readiness, examples of such capabilities might include everything from a single C17 to a spearhead battalion or the NATO Submarine Rescue System.
Under the control of the Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ) in Northwood is a collection of forces called the Joint Rapid Reaction Force. This is defined as;
The Joint Rapid Reaction Forces (JRRF) is a pool of highly capable units from all services that are maintained at high readiness for contingency operations. CJO is responsible for the JRRF, although operational command of the units is retained by the single service CINCs until they’re deployed.
These units are trained to joint standards and are deployed in joint force packages, tailored to meet the operational requirement. The pool is configured to mount operations up to medium scale war fighting and can be employed nationally or multinationally under NATO, EU, UN or other ad hoc coalition.
To command the JRRF a fully resourced Joint Task Force HQ (JTFHQ) is maintained at 48 hours notice to move.
This used to be supported principally by two elements from the British Army and Royal Marines although these have contracted and been renamed as part of SDSR 2010 and subsequent force changes. The Spearhead Lead Element was replaced with the Airborne Task Force and UK Operations Battalion in 2012.
This was modified further with the announcement of two combined high readiness forces.
The Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF) is a joint UK/French construct and the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) is a an agreement between the UK and Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands and Norway that will create yet another high readiness force by 2018.
Recent announcements have also described the UK’s contribution to the NATO Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) and there is also the Royal Navy’s Response Force Task Group and the Army’s Reaction Force.
So pretty much everyone in the armed forces seems to belong to some kind of high readiness force!
There is also a discussion to be had on the relation between forward basing heavier units and responding from a distance with lighter units but in the context of this series of posts I am going to have a look at the UK’s ability to rapidly intervene at distance.
Rapid reaction forces will rotate through a readiness cycle like any other forces and they can, and are used for deliberate operations. Both the Parachute Regiment and 3 Commando were used as part of the roulement for Afghanistan which reduced significantly the ability of the UK to mount a rapid intervention elsewhere, hardly ideal. The Royal Marines were used in Iraq in a semi amphibious role on the Al Faw peninsula, supported by various British Army units. This was not the traditional amphibious assault where that assault was the focus but carried out as part of the wider land focused operation.
A reaction force may also be deployed in phases, lead elements followed by second and third echelons as those forces are activated within their notice to move windows.
There is also a considerable political impediment to the deployment of rapid reaction forces, by definition, a capability deployed rapidly is more likely be conducted in a UK only context, although again, this is not a given.
The key fundamental of rapid reaction amphibious and airborne forces is their inherent flexibility although the obvious trade-off between speed and ‘weight’ means they are not the cure-all.
It is also clear that the UK has reduced its rapid reaction force capabilities.
Not at the headline level, both the Royal Marines and 16 Air Assault Brigade are still there, they have not been significantly reduced even in the post 2010 SDSR reorganisation and continue to cut about the place zooming around in landing craft and jumping out of aeroplanes.But scratch the surface and the story is not so rosy, reductions in amphibious shipping and transport aircraft especially but also a lack of investment in enabling capabilities mean the actual value of these forces is less than might first appear.
But scratch the surface and the story is not so rosy, reductions in amphibious shipping and transport aircraft especially but also a lack of investment in enabling capabilities mean the actual value of these forces is less than might first appear.
I am of the opinion that there is some collective self-delusion going on when it comes to our rapid reaction amphibious and air assault capabilities and I am equally unsure if they remain wedded to old fashioned concepts whilst the world has moved on around them. We can also look at the two main capability pillars and ask whether there is duplication, duplication the British armed forces can ill afford; during the series I am going to explore whether there are opportunities to eliminate this duplication and create a single high readiness unit.
Rapid reaction forces, whether delivered from a ship or an aircraft, will also need some form of control of the air and the ability to look over the next hill. That might be delivered via a ground-based air defence system and RPAS controlled from the UK, or it might need some form of expeditionary air support. Rapid reaction might also potentially consist of only aircraft, there are many cases where the UK has rapidly deployed fast jet and supporting capabilities alone i.e. no land or sea forces. This is a joint capability that I think is ignored or downplayed by many, it has proven to be of great value in the past and will do so in the future.
Part of this series will also explore the UK’s ability to forward and rapidly deploy a tailored fast jet force into a number of environments including the F35B forward austere base from the sea ‘thing’.
They can be deployed during an enduring operation just as equally as they can be deployed on their own.
To summarise, rapid reaction forces do not necessarily have to react rapidly but they must retain the ability to do so and so they will always be constrained by the means and mode of transport to their area of operations.
It is going to be a fairly wide-ranging series!
Other posts in this series