Sunday, January 11, 2015

British Empire's symbolic return

A headline in Britain's sadly decayed newspaper the Daily Telegraph on December 6 was exciting. It announced with pride that "Britain returns 'East of Suez' with permanent Royal Navy base in Gulf", which conjured up imperial memories for many people, including myself, as I was serving in the military at the time of Britain's withdrawal from East of Suez. Indeed I was stationed well to the east of Suez, in that region, according to Rudyard Kipling in the previous century:


… where the best is like the worst
Where there ain't no Ten Commandments and a man can raise a thirst.
For the temple bells are ringing and it's there that I would be -
By the old Moulmein pagoda, looking lazy at the sea.


Britain's new base is to be in Bahrain, a feudal fiefdom owned by His Majesty King Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa who has about US$5 billion and whose family members are generously represented in his non-elected regime.

The king exercises absolute power over the executive, legislative and judicial arms of government. He appoints cabinet ministers, generals, judges and members of the Consultative Council and is a close ally of the United States which, according to the State Department, considers that "Bahrain plays a key role in regional security architecture and is a vital US partner in defense initiatives". Britain, not to be outdone, declares that it has an "historic and close relationship with Bahrain".

It is this vital US partner with close UK relations that in early December jailed a young woman for three years for tearing up a photograph of the king.

The Telegraph rhapsodized about the "East of Suez" military focus and reported that "Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond announces military return to region abandoned with the end of the British Empire", but then reality set in and it reported that this new navy base was going to cost 15 million pounds sterling, or $23 million, which might meet the cost of a modest jetty. That amount would hardly pay for a suite on the Al Khalifa Royal Yacht. Indeed it is about half the value of the London mansion owned by the king's second playboy son.

This is the country about which even the US State Department recorded last year that "the most serious human rights problems included citizens' inability to change their government peacefully [and] arrest and detention of protesters on vague charges, in some cases leading to their torture in detention".

Britain's defense secretary, Michael Fallon, said the new $23 million base "is a permanent expansion of the Royal Navy's footprint and will enable Britain to send more and larger ships to reinforce stability in the Gulf."

And Bahrain's foreign minister, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed bin Mohammed Al Khalifa (of the Al Khalifa family, as are the prime minister and ministers of defense, interior, information, finance and almost everything else), said that the monarchy "looks forward to the early implementation of today's arrangement and to continuing to work with the UK and other partners to address threats to regional security".

The US Navy presence in the Gulf, based in Bahrain, is colossal. After all, it has an enormous threat to meet. For example it was reported by Western media that "on April 21, an Iranian Fokker F-27 maritime surveillance aircraft circled the USS Eisenhower aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Oman, at the eastern end of the Strait of Hormuz. Iranian aircraft rarely operate there and it was the first time one had approached a US warship. The twin-engined aircraft, believed to be unarmed, circled the carrier for 20 minutes, apparently taking photographs."

And the five-frigate Iranian navy held a six-day exercise in December.

When you've got this sort of menacing activity taking place in the Persian Gulf it obviously has to be countered by two aircraft carriers, 11 guided missile destroyers and frigates, five submarines, thousands of Marines, two brigades of soldiers and 200 combat aircraft.

US investment in the region is lavish, and according to 5th Fleet Commander Vice Admiral John Miller there is to be a "$580 million base expansion in Bahrain. Some of the modifications that we are doing right now will help us get the base ready for the arrival of the littoral combat ships, which will start right around 2018. Those are ships that will serve in the US Navy and this area right until the middle of the current century. We would not plan for this infrastructure if we did not plan on staying here."

And Britain is right behind you, admiral, with $23 million, although, as pointed out by the Economist, "under the terms of the deal, Bahrain will meet most of the 15m pound price tag for building the facility, while Britain will be responsible for its operating costs" in the country whose monarch-appointed judiciary in December sentenced prominent human rights activist Mohammed al-Maskati to six months in jail on charges of taking part in an illegal gathering in 2012.

How many ships do you think that Britain will be able to deploy to create a "permanent expansion of the Royal Navy's footprint" East of Suez? Ten, perhaps? Or a dozen?

The UK has four tiny minehunters based in Bahrain, all considerably smaller than the monarch's yacht - 600 tons and 170 feet (52 meters) as against 1,100 tons and 220 feet - and unlike the royal yacht none of them has a helicopter pad.

But they are to be joined by "more and bigger ships" which, according to Britain's Mr Hammond, will be "a clear statement of our commitment to our sustained presence east of Suez. A reminder of our historic and close relationship with Bahrain and one example of our growing partnership with Gulf allies to tackle the threats we face together."

But Hammond's government doesn't say how many ships it intends to station in Bahrain for the purpose of demonstrating this "clear commitment".

When I served East of Suez the British fleet based in Singapore had three aircraft carriers, a cruiser, a destroyer squadron, a frigate squadron, about 30 other ships and a social life of some intensity. The total strength of the Royal Navy was about 180 ships. Even in 1980 there were four aircraft carriers and 60 destroyers and frigates.

But now the entire Royal Navy has a mere six destroyers, 13 frigates, 10 submarines, an assault ship and a handful of minor vessels. It won't have an operational aircraft carrier for at least another five years. It is, alas, incapable of fighting a war.

As a former British navy chief said in July: "A ship can only be in one place at one time. You need three ships for every one permanently deployed, which means with our current fleet we can permanently deploy just six ships, which for a great maritime nation is not good enough."

Britain has not been "a great maritime nation" for half a century, and its floundering incompetent government is further reducing the navy's size and capabilities while trying to pretend that things are wonderful. (The government's deceitful media campaign is both absurd and disgraceful.)

Emasculation of the navy has been as savage as it has been unjustified. The star frigate HMS Edinburgh, for example, completed an extensive refit four years ago that cost about the same amount as a Bahrain jetty - $25 million - but was sent to the scrapheap by the government three years later (in which the subsidy for House of Commons dining rooms and bars, met by the taxpayer, $9 million).

The British army continues to suffer even more savage cuts, and its structure and ethos have been sacrificed on the altar of shabby expediency. (The farce of attempting to train the Libyan army would have been extremely amusing had it not been such a squalid disaster.)

The Royal Air Force has been reduced to "bare bones", according to its former chief, Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon, who said last September that "the lack of combat air craft is a major weakness in our make up. This has been raised time and time again and basically ignored. We really are at rock bottom."

As to the Bahrain base, General Sir Nicholas Houghton, Britain's chief of defence staff, somewhat fudged his feelings, knowing that his political masters are devious deceitful charlatans but being unable to say so unless he wants to shed his uniform in a brief blaze of glory for telling the unpleasant truth; so he came up with a cagey interpretation of his masters' voice to the effect that "rather than being seen as a temporary deployment to an area for a specific operational purpose, this [Bahrain base] is more symbolic of the fact that Britain does enjoy interests in the stability of this region".

"Symbolic" is the right word for this ridiculous exercise in futility, but not in the meaning intended by General Houghton. The preposterously bombastic "permanent expansion of the Royal Navy's footprint" in Bahrain is symbolic of the decline of Britain rather than of any capability to influence events in the Gulf or anywhere else.

For the British government to proclaim that their extended jetty in Bahrain is "a clear statement of our commitment to our sustained presence east of Suez" is embarrassingly pathetic, given Britain's military feebleness and economic plight.

Two British analysts, Professor Gareth Stansfield and Dr Saul Kelly, observed perceptively that the maximum force the UK could deploy to the Gulf might be "large enough to get us into trouble, but too small to get us out of trouble once it starts". In that statement they have gone to the heart of the problem: Britain's return to Empire is symbolic and promises to be shambolic. But it won't be too expensive - until the blood flows, as it has in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And we should remember that the commitment in Bahrain is de facto endorsement of the ruler of a country in which, in the words of the US State Department, "the most serious human rights problems include citizens' inability to change their government peacefully".

Brian Cloughley's A History of the Pakistan Army is to be published in a fifth edition by Skyhorse, New York, in August.

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