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Who Fights the Fires?

Copyright: Mark Rightmire Orange County Register/Getty Images

I have been watching the wildfires in Europe and in the USA with interest. The resources devoted to these firefighting efforts are impressive and in both Europe and the USA the efforts have been multinational. Here in the UK the military has also been involved relatively recently in firefighting at Saddleworth; it may be a harbinger.

It is likely that climate change will continue to challenge national governments in dealing with natural catastrophes.  The UK now maintains a surface vessel, currently the RFA’s Mounts Bay, in the Caribbean during hurricane season just for any such Humanitarian Relief and Disaster Relief (HADR) contingencies.

Copyright: Noah Berger AP

Could and should the UK military do more?

The UK military could certainly so more. The assets involved in the wildfire efforts in California involve trained and organised manpower (and the National Guard routinely activates, trains and deploys for firefighting tasks) and the use of air assets to provide both direct support to firefighting and logistical support (the US Forest Service has an agreement with Alsaka for seven military C-130s) . All of these types of assets the UK military could provide, and air assets in particular can respond quickly.

The UK military are at the moment the only organisation the UK possesses that has the capacity to deploy at reach and conduct these sort of tasks. Although specialist expertise is limited within the military, the UK does not possess deployable civil defence (Fire and Ambulance) capacity at mass, unless risk is accepted against the UK base. In other words, Chief Fire and Ambulance officers are not mandated or resourced to provide capacity for overseas contingencies (much as it is for policing). The UK does not possess any equivalent to the German Technische Hilfswerk (THW).

Should the UK military do more?

Climate change is likely to create instability and instability will in turn create national security issues for the UK.  I am unconvinced that this task is a core military task, but it is unavoidable that the military is already heavily involved in efforts and is likely to see further commitment to this type of operation.  Few may know that NATO already maintains the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC). This is NATO’s principal civil emergency response mechanism in the Euro-Atlantic area. It is active all year round, operational on a 24/7 basis, and involves NATO’s 29 Allies and all partner countries.  Although for the recent fires in Sweden the following assets were mobilised through the European Civil Protection Mechanism the EADRCC was approached for assistance.

  • Norway: nine helicopters and ground forest fighting units deployed on bilateral basis;
  • Denmark: two ground forest firefighting units;
  • France: two water scooping airplanes, a reconnaissance aircraft and one ground firefighting unit;
  • Italy: two water scooping airplanes;
  • Germany: one ground firefighting unit and five helicopters;
  • Lithuania: one helicopter;
  • Poland: two ground forest firefighting units;
  • Portugal: two water-scooping airplanes;

These are highly illustrative of the type of response likely to be requested in the future.  The UK does not possess either water-scooping planes or helicopters fitted for firefighting operations, but the latter is not insurmountable as it can be conducted with underslung equipment.

The question remains as to whether it should be a core UK military task? Currently the UK Military Task is to support civil emergency organisations in times of crisis.  In the absence of a deployable capability at scale should the UK military become that civil emergency organisation?  I remain unconvinced, but I am convinced that there is a requirement, that it is likely to grow, and that UK defence planners should be more cognisant of the implications, not least in training and equipping appropriately. From a strategic perspective the UK’s ability to deploy such capability in mass and at distance, and with a willingness to do so, is likely to pay dividends.

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