The UK’s International Defence Engagement Strategy: Lessons from Bassingbourn

LT COL JAMES CHANDLER

In 2015 Lieutenant Colonel James Chandler was the Chief of the General Staff’s inaugural Army Visiting Fellow to the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House.  The following post is a short summary of his research paper published by Chatham House in April 2016 (available here).  The author argues that if the UK’s International Defence Engagement concept is to be successful then there must be a more coherent commitment from Whitehall and a more culturally attuned British Army.

In 2011 the United Kingdom was instrumental in supporting the popular uprising in Libya that led to the downfall of the Gaddafi regime. Thereafter, the British government was keen to assist with post-conflict stabilization to support Libya’s democratic transition.  Central to this stabilization effort was an ambitious plan, under the auspices of its new International Defence Engagement Strategy, to train a new Libyan army at Bassingbourn Barracks in Cambridgeshire. The training programme, implemented in June 2014, was beset with challenges from the outset, and was abruptly terminated less than five months later after a number of trainees absconded from the barracks and were arrested for serious sexual assaults in Cambridge city centre.

The continuing instability in Libya and the failure at Bassingbourn have come to symbolize the shortcomings of the UK’s defence engagement strategy.  Although entirely plausible in theory, the strategy has proved problematic in practice.  Bassingbourn also acted as a ‘wake-up call’ for the British Army. Despite a long history of training indigenous forces and a new operating model (Army 2020) that heralds defence engagement as a major output, the Army was unprepared for this programme and lacked the necessary understanding to deliver its new role.

Lessons

The Bassingbourn case study produces some important lessons, both for Whitehall and the British Army.  First, government planners must ensure future defence engagement strategies encompass coordinated efforts across the political, socio-economic and security arenas, rather than depending solely on the military dimension.  As the UK’s Libya assistance package failed to arrest the post-Gaddafi socio-political turmoil, Bassingbourn became an isolated endeavour where the recruits realized they were a forgotten force.  Bassingbourn proved that the security sector cannot successfully be reformed in isolation: there must be a coordinated strategy that considers all relevant political, military and societal aspects.  Although the UK’s stabilisation plan for Libya eventually included cross-spectrum activity, these wider aspects emerged too little too late.  Bassingbourn failed because it was an isolated project with little or no support from wider areas requiring similar engagement.

Second, capacity-building at all levels of the non-military sector is of critical importance.  The lack of proper political oversight on the part of the Libyan authorities and the absence of support from the Libyan people undermined the Bassingbourn initiative from the outset.  The UK’s stabilisation effort in Libya confirmed that weak or ineffective organs of government can undermine external stabilization efforts in a heartbeat.  Security sector reform can only occur once political actors have established the foundations of good governance and are in a position to devise and execute reforming policies.  Similarly, civil society must be included in the transition process.  The local population must understand and support the new national security force in order to ensure its supremacy over local militias and other destabilizing actors.  The Bassingbourn trainees simply lost interest in the project as they realized their government and society had lost interest in them.

Third, the British Army must invest more time in understanding its training audience and the associated cultural and social norms.  Bassingbourn exposed the British Army’s limited capacity to interact effectively with a non-Western army.  Specific understanding is critical when dealing with armies from a distinct culture in which matters of politics, prestige and history may stand at odds with any attempt to create a new army on the Western model.  Bassingbourn was a classic example of a quick technical solution that has an ephemeral effect at best.  A more persistent presence overseas, with measured approaches and longer-term goals, could be more effective.  Critical to such an approach will be the increased use of regional partnerships – as the late edition of Jordanian instructors at Bassingbourn proved – in order to facilitate the achievement of goals and bridge cultural gaps.  What is clear from the Bassingbourn experience is that front-line units are not in a position to invest the necessary time and resources to acquire proper linguistic skills and cultural orientation.  For this, properly dedicated defence engagement units are required.

Fourth, future defence engagement strategies must focus on those areas most needed by the country concerned, and not on those the MoD is most comfortable delivering.  Bassingbourn focused on low-level technical military training, when the urgent need lay in leadership, command and control, and unit cohesion.  Furthermore, security sector reform is hugely challenging in the absence of a legitimate state monopoly on violence, as was the case in Libya, and Bassingbourn was largely derailed because of this very absence.  If a situation deteriorates during execution of a programme, or if initial parameters are no longer valid, then the programme must accommodate the changing reality or be terminated before events dictate.

Conclusion

What is clear from the Bassingbourn experience is that successful defence engagement is both complex and challenging.  Just because it may be less costly, in terms of ‘blood and treasure’, than ground force interventions, this does not make defence engagement an easy option.  The theory could be sound enough, but the practice requires some refinement.     

Image: A tank in the city of Sirte October 16, 2011 where Libyan government fighters battled to subdue pockets of resistance by pro-Gaddafi fighters, via flickr.

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