Defence Engagement, Capacity Building and Conflict Prevention

Last year (2016), the MoD released a news story that described how an RAF C-17 from 99 Squadron had deployed to Hungary to conduct training in Hungary.

UK Ambassador to Hungary, Iain Lindsay, said:

It was fantastic to fly above Lake Balaton with the C-17 crew and to witness an intercept by Gripens from the Hungarian Air Force. This is the first time the RAF have held a joint exercise working with the Heavy Airlift Wing; it’s a fantastic capability and I hope to see the RAF’s C-17s back in Hungary soon. We value our allies and partners and our existing cooperation. NATO will remain in the heart of UK defence strategy. There’s great scope for more UK-Hungary defence cooperation in the future.

No. 99 Squadron pilot Flight Lieutenant Ben Mountfield, said:

This is a fantastic opportunity for us to train at an airfield specifically designed for C-17s. It’s great to enjoy the free airspace around Pápa, which allows us to manoeuvre the aircraft to develop our tactical procedures. Our NATO allies here in Hungary have been so welcoming – they’re beyond reproach. We’re absolutely looking forward to working with them again.

Although the deployment was ostensibly a training one, there was a valuable defence engagement opportunity to be exploited. A flight and assault landing with VIP’s from the Hungarian Ministry of Defence was carried out.

This is the theme of this post, the value of using ‘air’ capabilities in the defence engagement role.

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Defence Engagement, Capacity Building and Conflict Prevention

Chatham House held a workshop in 2014 to explore the role of the British Army in Conflict prevention with General Sir Peter Wall and Allan Mallinson, click here to read the transcript. The Army’s Adaptable Force as part of Army 2020 continues to evolve, the August 2015 Joint Doctrine Note 1/15 describes the MoD’s defence engagement approach and the International Defence Engagement Strategy provides additional information.

Our collective experience from operations tells us that Defence Engagement activity is a constant: it rises and falls in volume and extent as situations evolve and events happen but the boundaries are blurred.  There may sometimes be a fine line between Defence Engagement and combat operations – equally Defence Engagement may continue inside a country or region during combat operations. Therefore, when understanding Defence Engagement, consensual flexibility in both scale, metrics and effect is needed.

Defence engagement is therefore designed to build understanding and develop capacity with the objective of preventing conflict.

The Building Stability Overseas Strategy (BSOS) is a joint Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), Department for International Development (DFID) and MOD strategy for conflict prevention. BSOS also outlines three main mutually-supporting pillars of the Government’s stability strategy;

  • Early warning
  • Rapid crisis prevention and response
  • Upstream conflict prevention.

Defence engagement supports all three of these pillars.

Defence Engagement creates effects through four broad ways; security and non-combat operations; Defence diplomacy, defence and security exports; and regional stability, conflict prevention, post-conflict reconstruction and stabilisation.

Upstream conflict prevention, is a simple concept that at its core seeks to make the UK safer by providing help to unstable nations such that they can help themselves to stabilise. The theory is that an Ounce of prevention saves a Pound of cure. Getting in early, de-escalating early stage conflict and supporting overseas development efforts are all seen, quite rightly, as effective means of preventing wider and much more expensive conflict.

The British Army and Royal Navy conduct upstream conflict prevention missions all the time and can range from a training on an opportunity basis to more involved and lengthy engagements. Some no doubt are successes, others less so, that of course being the nature of the beast.

Short Term Training Teams and enduring deployments like the British Military Advisory and Training Team (BMATT), together with regionally aligned Adaptable Force brigades, demonstrate how the British Army devotes considerable resource to the task, especially in Africa.

There has been a couple of posts on defence engagement over the years on Think Defence, including this from David Hulme Footsoldier;

Current defence doctrine defines capacity building somewhat generically as “a range of activities in support of developing an indigenous security force, such as training, mentoring, partnering, monitoring and enabling.” Defence capacity building is often regarded as synonymous with Security Sector Reform (SSR).  However the two are distinct and while SSR normally incorporates an element of defence capacity building, capacity building can (and often does) occur in the absence of a meaningful SSR effort.  The distinction is important because the effect the UK policy seeks to achieve (stabilization) is probably best achieved by capacity building nested within SSR rather than capacity building in isolation.


“Security Sector Reform addresses security problems and tries to improve the situation through institutional reforms.” “…the crux of the reform of the security sector is the development of both effective civil oversight and creation of institutions capable of providing security.” The problem with defence capacity building in the absence of an SSR effort is that it is highly unlikely to be sustainable. The Iraqi Army did not suddenly collapse in Ramadi in May 2015, it corroded from the inside out over a period of some five years as predatory political and institutional interests undid almost a decade of US and Coalition defence capacity building efforts. Military capacity building in isolation of an SSR effort is unlikely to address root causes of military weakness, in much the same way that building military capacity in unlikely to deliver stability unless security weakness is the primary driver of instability.

DHF concluded that capacity building to prevent conflict must be integrated with Security Sector Reform (SRR) and share three characteristics;

  • Focused, prolonged engagement,

that includes

  • Train, Advise, Assist and Accompany,

and is

  • Nested within an SSR context.

Phil also wrote another post, highlighting risks and urging some degree of caution with upstream engagement;

The logic behind upstream engagement is sound in the abstract – it is better to invest smaller amounts of resource and effort early than it is to invest huge amounts of resources and lives later fighting a bigger threat. But in practice as we have seen upstream engagement brings with it its own additional and different risks which means we  must be realistic about its limitations as a corner-stone of our military direction. The further upstream you go, the more your success or partial success becomes a dynamic non-event (undermining efforts to mobilise support for action) or inappropriate action is taken.

What does this mean in practice?

It means we have to accept some realistic fulcrum point will always exist and that we will sit by and watch threats emerge and grow to a certain critical mass where they therefore become clearer and the phenomenon of safety being a dynamic non-event thereby becomes less applicable. This will be reinforced when domestic governments get their fingers burned in an early engagement, either by history judging an intervention as inappropriate in itself, or by early actions themselves being inappropriate: thus will Governments become more averse to upstream engagement and thus ironically increase the overall security risk through being less inclined to meet threats early again in the future. This will also therefore fundamentally undermine the whole strategy which represents one of the biggest risks of all since we’d still have on the surface a force structured to engage in defence and upstream engagement thereby leaving us less able to meet conventional threats and give us false reassurance in our seemingly pro-active direction

From these two posts, it is apparent that upstream engagement and capacity building are connected, have risks and must be seen in a wider context to be successful.

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The Air Component

Joint Doctrine Publication 0-30 defines UK Air and Space Doctrine, particularly the three core air power attributes;


Air capabilities exploit the vertical dimension. Aircraft are usually faster than surface vehicles and can often go directly to their destinations. By definition, elevation is inherent to air operations. These factors result in the core air power attributes of height, speed and reach


The advantage of height is an enduring military reality. Air power’s high vantage point allows us to observe and dominate activities in other environments. At the tactical level, height may put us out of vertical range of some surface threats. It also allows us to manoeuvre in three dimensions, helping to enhance our survivability.


The speed of aircraft allows us to project power rapidly and responsively and to complete missions quickly. This increases tempo and provides the opportunity to exploit the fourth dimension – time. At the tactical level, speed allows us to create surprise and reduces our exposure to hostile fire, thereby, increasing survivability.


The pervasiveness of air power provides reach. This potentially exposes all of our adversaries’ resources to influence through attack or observation, regardless of their location.

On preventing conflict…


Preventing conflict involves identifying and managing threats before they materialise. This demands an integrated, cross-government approach, including outreach, influence activities and conflict prevention based on diplomacy, deterrence and aid Air power provides particular opportunities to support these activities. These include: Engaging overseas, beyond our core alliance within NATO – activities include providing mentoring, advice and training to other air forces (capacity building); Building understanding – using air-derived intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) for horizon-scanning to identify threats and opportunities; Managing developing crises – by delivering humanitarian aid, disaster relief and early-intervention forces; and Supporting conventional deterrence – providing a demonstrable and credible capability to hold potential adversaries at continuous risk.

JCN 3/12 described the future UK Air and Space Doctrine and whilst it provides some additional context for capability building and conflict prevent as part of the Adaptable Britain posture.

One of the issues of using the RAF for upstream conflict prevention is nothing at all to do with them, it is the other guys. Whilst the British Army can train an infantry solder from Sierra Leone in first aid or section attacks without needing Challenger 2 tanks it is more difficult (although not impossible) to exploit the many advantages of air power without aircraft.

Although the RAF conducts defence engagement activity with many nations and like the other services, has many nations wanting to come to the UK for training, the complexity of the RAF’s basic equipment does have a limiting effect on the types of defence engagement activity it can carry out.

For many years the gulf between modern Western combat aircraft and those of less developed nations has grown ever wider.

Aircraft like the Typhoon or even F-16 are enormously expensive to purchase and operate and need a developed engineering and training infrastructure that is simply unattainable for most, especially those likely to benefit most from even basic air power components such as logistics and ISTAR.

One of our guest authors has previously chronicled the complete waste of money and almost total failure of ISAF’s efforts to create an Afghanistan air force but in Iraq, the US had much more success. In Iraq, they started with simple equipment and worked up to the F-16’s they are now flying. The Iraqi forces had the advantage that they could read and write and that they had used complex aircraft before, but by starting with aircraft like the Cessna Combat Caravan they achieved a workable, sustainable and effective capability without breaking the bank or it collapsing under the weight of its own complexity.

AC208B Cessna Caravan AGM114 Hellfire

Accepting the extensive and excellent work carried out by the RAF with NATO partners and other advanced air forces this is a proposal to extend that down the technology ladder for less advanced air forces, especially those in Africa and some parts of the Middle East.

Building on the activities that are currently carried out.

If as a nation we are at all serious about preventing conflict then we must include the benefits of ‘air-power’ and invest in capabilities accordingly.


Table of Contents


Defence Engagement, Capacity Building and Conflict Prevention

Roles and Requirements


Developing the Capability



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