Matthew Offord MP: Reductions in Defence spending do not have to mean a reduction in overseas influence
In recent years political and military attention has been focused on Iraq and Afghanistan and, in past weeks, on Libya. But UK and US forces have been engaged in a similarly important battle in a less covered theatre - that of the war against narco-terrorism in the Caribbean. This link was strengthened by George Bush following the September 11, 2001 attacks. As a result Colombia has become an ever more important recipient of U.S. drug war aid as the Colombian FARC has joined the ranks of designated terrorist groups, including the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Hamas and Hizballah.
As such the MOD announcement in February of this year that the UK would not continue to have a continuous warship presence in the Caribbean, the first time since the Second World War, was greeted with dismay in the region. Originally established to provide protection for British Overseas Territories (there are 6 in the Caribbean), the presence of a warship has assisted in the combined UK/US operations against drug smugglers, whilst also providing humanitarian relief during the July-November hurricane season. It was announced that the alternative was to be a Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) vessel who would undertake a similar role to that which had occurred previously.
To determine the veracity of this claim, in August of this year myself and Mark Garnier MP, both of us Members of the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme, picked up the RFA Fast Fleet Tanker Wave Ruler to see how narco-terrorism is being tackled by the Atlantic Patrol Task (North) without the use of a warship.
During our time on board, three operations were conducted against suspected drug runners, the third of which resulted in a major disruption of illegal contraband which was thrown overboard by the suspects. Regardless of the lack of presence of a warship this occurred because the RFA ship was able to stow and launch a Lynx helicopter. This, alongside the assistance of a US Coastguard Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft, allowed the identification, surveillance and interception of the Go Fast, a rogue vessel containing drugs and powered by four outboard engines. The use of the Lynx helicopter makes it possible to search hundreds of square miles in the space of a few hours following identification by the Radar system or following previous specific intelligence about a route taken by the smugglers.
The experience showed that it is not the use of firepower that is vital in this work (though Wave Ruler was more than capable of making its presence known through the use of its twin 30 calibre and General Purpose Machine Guns) but the improved use of intelligence and co-operation between law enforcement agencies from the UK, the Caribbean and the US. In fact, what would increase the effectiveness of the narco-terrorism operations would be improved Memorandum of Understandings with the countries of the Caribbean and even EU countries that don’t always provide the necessary diplomatic permission for a boarding party to search a suspected vessel within a reasonable time limit.
In some ways this "new" way of working is akin to that what is trying to be achieved by The Big Society. Participation comes in many forms and attaining the objective of enforcement does not demand all countries to send a force to board a suspected vessel (in our case a unit of the Law Enforcement Detachment from the US Coastguard), simply that each agency and country puts measures in place that help to disrupt narco-terrorism.
At the beginning of August, the Defence Committee published its Strategic Defence and Security Review and the National Security Strategy. In this report, the Committee stated that it disputed the Prime Minister's assertion that the UK has a full spectrum defence capability. But this does not apply in the case of narco-terrorism initiatives in the Caribbean. The Ministry of Defence can maintain its influence whilst reducing spending as the colonial period alone ensures that the influence of the UK remains a positive force and our participation in any form is considered valuable.
I reached the conclusion that the decision to remove the presence of a warship in the region will not affect narco-terrorism operations. Ships such as the RFA’s Wave Ruler remain capable of intercepting vessels suspected of carrying drug consignments and such operations remain feasible even without warship support. While Defence cuts may determine reductions in other spheres of influences elsewhere in the world, this is not the case in the commitment or effectiveness of narco-terrorism in the Caribbean.