Sunday, 10 September 2017

Is the UK still failing in the West Indies (Part Two)

The news cycle continues to be dominated by Hurricane Irma, which is now making landfall in the US and causing astonishing levels of damage and destruction, without yet reducing in intensity – by a significant margin Irma remains the most destructive hurricane in the Caribbean region in recorded human history.

In the UK a tale of two narratives is unfolding. On the one hand, the UK government is quickly and effectively getting on with the job of delivering aid and support where it is needed. On the other the media, Parliamentarians and opinion formers are attacking the UK Government for ‘not doing enough’ to help.

The original ‘Has the UK failed’ article on this site came out Friday lunchtime, and since then the original article has had over 8000 hits on the blog site, with wider tweets on the subject reaching nearly 30,000 ‘impressions’ as Twitter likes to call them. By a significant margin this has been the largest reaction to any article on this blog since it was first established in 2011.

The remains huge public interest in this issue, and so rather unusually, this quick follow up piece has been written to take stock of what has gone on, consider the implications and again ask the question ‘Has the UK failed in the West Indies’ now that a few days have passed. Ultimately it will revisit some of the issues raised in the original piece, but hopefully there is significant new material here to consider too.

RFA on the ground to help

What are the positives on the response?
Despite naysayers to the contrary, Humphrey remains convinced that the UK response to this disaster has been astoundingly good, from Central Government through to troops on the ground.

The first positive is the way it has demonstrated how effectively the National Security infrastructure works when dealing with a major crisis, which paradoxically was one of the main complaints of the media.  The challenge when looking at something like a natural disaster is knowing at what point things are going to go badly wrong, and more importantly what help is needed to alleviate the problem.

It only became clear at some point last weekend that a bad storm was brewing, and it remained uncertain where it would go. At this point HMG options were limited for a response. The islands knew hurricanes were coming, but they didn’t know how bad it would be (often they can change strength or course before a warning is issued). The likely scale of the hurricane meant an evacuation was neither feasible or possible. Many of the UK island groups do not have major runways capable of landing military aircraft, let alone large airliners, and even if you could evacuate, where would you have sent the people?

If you don’t know where the hurricane will go precisely, and you don’t know how bad it will be, its not possible to immediately send aid. DFID and UK NGOs are highly experienced at knowing what is needed post disaster, but you need to know where to send it and in what quantities.

If you send troops out there, you have no means of landing them on most of the islands that the UK has an interest in due to the lack of airheads, and no military capability on these islands – mostly because it is not needed. Do not forget these island groups are tiny and contain a plethora of smaller islands – the Turks & Caicos islands alone by way of example have 8 main and 299 smaller islands – housing a population of barely 31,500 people.  Where do you send the assistance if you don’t know what will be hit?

Given the lack of military presence, had assistance been sent, it would have required a major operation involving sending UK troops into dozens, if not hundreds of islands without supporting equipment or logistics in barely 48hrs, and only hours before the largest recorded hurricane in the regions known history was due to hit. It is difficult to imagine what good could have come of this plan – at best UK troops would have been trapped in their shelters, at worst they could have been badly injured or killed and unable to get help. History is full of stories of rescuers requiring rescue themselves – this would have been no exception.

It is easy to criticise the Government for ‘not doing something’ but it is hard to see what you can do at times like this. Beyond advising the local population to take shelter, and taking the usual hurricane prevention measures for people and property – which is something that these islands should be used to having an annual hurricane season, there is little else you can do before the disaster occurs.

To those who complain the Government has failed, Humphrey would ask a simple question – what would you have done as a course of action given the many logistical constraints facing the planners in this scenario?

99 Sqn on their way to help

Joined Up Government
What seems to have happened instead is that the UK Government did a lot of effective planning to work out what was needed, and take steps to do post disaster recovery instead. This may sound a statement of the bleeding obvious, but it’s a mark of how well joined up UK Government is that this happened so quickly. Between last weekend and Wednesday, a significant amount of planning, preparation and getting ready to move occurred for military assets and disaster relief agencies. This meant that even as the storm was hitting, it was possible to have the right kit, people and capabilities prepositioned and ready to move off to help.

This is not an easy task – it involves getting the Cabinet Office, MOD, DFID, Home Office, FCO and others to work together to conduct the planning to determine what is needed, where it is needed and what the mission is. It requires MOD to stand up a crisis cell to oversee the Operation (now known as OP RUMAN), to take charge of it and ensure all the contributing units and organisations could respond quickly to get underway. It required DFID to work with charities to identify what emergency response was needed, to pull coherent asks together and get the supplies ready to move and sort out £32 million shopping list of items required to get moving. All of this is complicated and involves thousands of people working together to pull it off. It happened in 72 hours.

Lets consider this for a moment – in barely three days Government was able to go from identifying that a bad storm was forming, and that the already highly capable disaster relief assets in place wouldn’t be sufficient, to planning, co-ordinating and commencing a major international civil military rescue operation on the other side of the planet. That’s pretty good going by any reasonable measure, and is in sharp contrast to the very disjointed responses of other nations.

It highlights how effective things like how effective the UK military working relationship with DFID is now – again, far better than almost any other national equivalents abroad. It shows how swept up procedures are to generate a very challenging rescue mission and get it ready to go in a couple of days. It also shows just how good HMG staff are, civilian, police and military, and how lucky the UK is to have their services.

Finally it shows just how wise the UK investment in strategic lift capability has been to allow this to happen, and how superb the RAF are at pulling all the stops out to get aircraft airborne to save lives.

‘Long Reach’
OP RUMAN has demonstrated once again how capable the UK military is at delivering relief and support on the other side of the world at next to no notice, and doing this while lots of major military operations are going on elsewhere. This is something that except for the USA, no other nation can do right now.

Today the UK has got a major international disaster relief operation underway, lifting hundreds of people, plant, vehicles and supplies into a region devastated by a hurricane, and its done this at next to notice. While this is going on, its also supporting troops in the Baltic and Black Sea against possible Russian aggression; patrolling the med to help support the ongoing crises there; conducting major air operations and training on the ground in Iraq and Syria; working in support of maritime security in the broader middle east; delivering support to the Afghan National Army in Afghanistan, and continuing to man garrisons in Falklands, Cyprus and Brunei to name but a few jobs.  These require major support from the homebase, yet the UK has been able to flexibly rerole airframes and assets to ensure that help is available to do this. This is not the mark of a minor military power.

One of the key takeaways from OP  RUMAN has to be just how flexible the UK power projection capability is, particularly the flexibility of the A400M, A330 and C17 fleets, which have been quickly drawn into service to conduct a joint operation. This sort of work isn’t easy and shows again the sheer professionalism underpinning the RAF strategic A/T force in the way they meet these challenges.

More widely OP RUMAN has highlighted the value of Gibraltar as a Forward Mounting Base. HMS OCEAN has deployed to the region, and has pulled into Gibraltar for supplies and to embark aircraft for the dash across to the West Indies. The presence of a runway and secure stores highlights once again the value of the dispersed network of Naval bases across the globe that the UK can call on to help in emergencies. Much as in OP PATWIN (disaster relief in Philippines) when HMS ILLUSTRIOUS used the RN facilities in Sembewang dockyard in Singapore to embark stores, OCEAN is doing similar in Gibraltar. This is a timely reminder of the way that the UK can exert influence globally through its ability to airlift aid and equipment out to UK facilities for loading onto other ships to conduct disaster relief.

RN/RFA/Army/Police in the West Indies

HMS OCEAN will also be deploying with Chinook helicopters – several are heading down now to deploy to the ship for the transit. This simple statement also helps tell a great story about how swept up the UK is – for most countries the idea of flying a large air force helicopter from home to another country then embarking on a naval platform to deploy to the other side of the world to do disaster relief with NGOs and the Army for an indeterminate period and thus needing a logistics chain to fly out spares and equipment to the other side of the world too is challenging. To do this at 3 days notice would be seen as mission impossible – yet to the MOD, this is essentially routine business.

Embarking in this manner helps highlight just how sensible jointery is, and how effective (to the outside) the UK approach and ability is at making things like this happen at short notice. It is fair to say that many other countries will be incredibly envious at the way that the UK doesn’t just possess good equipment, but its able to operate it in such an effective manner.

There will be those who complain about the lack of UK aircraft or helicopters in the region to start with. This seems unfair – before the storm hit, it wasn’t clear what state any airports would be in. Now the storm has passed, its clear only one airport is at present open that can take military aircraft – had the UK forward deployed then the chances are that the aircraft would have been destroyed, or even if they survived, they would by now have run out of spare parts and fuel. Photos below taken by 70Sqn RAF, landing in their A400M aircraft show how much damage the airhead they are using sustained - and thats classed as one that is currently usable!

One of the realities of this sort of operation is that good logistic chains are essential to keep things going. Part of the ‘delay’ has been as much about establishing working communications, finding out where it is possible to go to, and working out how to get equipment into region that is usable. There is no point rushing something out, only to find it breaks down two days later and can’t be fixed because the airport is closed and the harbour blocked.

Expectation Management
Part of the issue here has been one of a failure to adequately manage expectations of people used to seeing something happen instantly on twitter, then wondering why if they can change their Facebook page to show support for a crisis, that the response is slow to turn up.

Examples of this include the way that the Government was criticised for ‘not doing enough’ as if planning a major rescue operation doesn’t count. There seems to be a view that somehow saying ‘COBR is meeting’ means that magically everything just happens in the manner of a Hollywood movie. In reality, the world isn’t like that – COBR is a great means of getting people to talk, to share information and discuss issues – but it doesn’t change the laws of physics.

Similarly, the expectation management of those trapped needed to be better handled. One paper reported how a couple were to be trapped for a whole 72 hours on a Dutch Island before the FCO could get to them. Never mind that the island had effectively just had the equivalent of a nuclear blast go off on it, that thousands were dead, injured or homeless. No, what mattered was that the FCO had failed as they’d have to spend the weekend there.

RAF Shot of damage on airfield

It may come as a shock to learn that the FCO is not a large organisation, it is not hugely staffed and many posts have very few people at them. It is also not psychic – if someone goes overseas to a destination in hurricane season, doesn’t tell the FCO where they are going (which can be done via an email), then its perhaps not always realistic to expect the FCO to know there are British nationals there. Posts can only deal with the people they know about (whenever Humphrey goes somewhere off the beaten track, he always uses the facility on the embassy webpage to let them know he is present and his contact details and plans for this very reason – it’s a shame more people don’t do this).

More widely, with very few FCO posts in region, tens of thousands of known British entitled persons to track down and ensure safety of, is it perhaps not surprising that if a pair of people not known about to the authorities, on an island that doesn’t have a UK Embassy or consulate aren’t top of the list to be tracked down and recovered? It takes time to establish how is, or is not, entitled to external help, and frankly 72hrs seems reasonable under the circumstances. Yet the narrative in the media was of failure because these people were not helped NOW.

The real story of Hurricane Irma is perhaps that it shows that in a world of twitter and instant gratification, many people are simply unable to comprehend that things take time to happen. Rather than accept that HM Government is doing an astonishingly good job of trying to fix things, to get targeted help on scene and then put in place proper relief efforts, the news seems instead to focus on the idea that the UK ‘failed’ because the Government didn’t send a bunch of troops to the UK administered islands early for reasons not entirely clear.

This desire to attack and criticise is an increasingly depressing reality in looking at defence and current events coverage. The breathless tone of reporting about ‘UK FINALLY turns up’ as if the presence of a floating disaster relief ship in region for this precise eventuality didn’t count, or the way that the existing and overwhelmed infantry garrisons for the vastly larger French and Dutch islands meant they were ‘better’ than the UK response ignored the reality that both nations are struggling to get laid out and are asking the UK for help.

As a nation, we are quick to flagellate ourselves and attack what we have done. We seek to complain, to do down and denigrate. When the government do not meet the exact standards of the self-appointed media inquisitors (who all too often know nothing of the subject at hand) then they are deemed to have failed. In fact, the UK response to Hurricane Irma has been incredible – swept up, effective and coherent. It has put the right kit in the right places at the point when it is needed.

People forget this is the single worst hurricane ever recorded here -the UK could have had ten times the assets available and it still wouldn’t have been enough to cope. But what they have done is deliver a far more effective and swept up response than any other nation out there, and this will make a real difference in the days, weeks and months ahead, long after the media inquisitors forget about this and go on to attack HMG for failing in whatever subject of the day attracts their attention.


  1. This is all far too sensible. You need to get with the zeitgeist...

    Can you please just get "on message" and confirm that it's all PM TMs fault, as once again, just like Grenfell the BAME population have suffered and the none-BAME population have been inconvenienced, just like the Southern Rail strike which is also the fault of PM TM and could have been avoided if only Jezza had been declared the winner like he so obviously was.

    As for the FR/NL efforts, clearly we'd have been "equal" to them if only the stupid people hadn't voted for Brexit.

    Now - can someone please find some sort of transgendered person in the same hemisphere who is unable to find a suitable lavatory facility due to the effects of Irma. Why doesn't Mounts Bay/the RAF/DFID have a ready stock of portaloos with suitable transgender signage etc. It's a scandal!

  2. What planet is Not a Boffin on?

  3. Not a boffin WTF!!

    Sir Humphrey again well laid out argument, the Telegraph story of a couple of presumably well off tourists not immediately being rescued is exactly expectation management. Their first complaint was the USAF should have taken them off because we were British dammit, following storm coverage over the weekend, the US only succeeded in evacuating the last of their own nationals late today, then the argument was the Dutch or French should have helped, well again which part of the island they are on is not made clear and both governments are trying to deal with the needs of the entire population not just 2 tourists however frightened.

    The French are getting additional resources to the area but that arriving from Metropolitan France is arriving today, a couple of days after the first RAF flights.

    Cuba despite being hit itself is sending medical staff to a variety of the smaller islands, perhaps going forward DFID/MOD should help co-ordinate help between the Coomonwealth independent islands, BVI or Anguilla are tiny but Jamaica isn't, perhaps this happens already and it just needs more publicity.

    1. On your first point: yes, much of the UK media coverage has been terrible, because it's based on the assumption that the (upper) middle class tourists are more important than the British and other EU nationals for whom the Caribbean is home. The fact that the tourists are mostly white and the locals are mostly black is probably coincidence, but it's certainly unfortunate.

      On your third point: the Commonwealth Caribbean islands do co-operate through the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA)m which tries to share resources between the islands, largely funded by the EU. I don't have inside knowledge, but I suspect that co-operation will be difficult though because each island has its own power-brokers; that's why there are so many tiny states in the first place.

  4. I suspect that the alignment of Not a Boffin's tongue and cheek are not apparent to some readers of his/her remarks.

  5. It seems afew readers here dont understand irony/Sarcasm....

  6. I've read the story of the couple stuck on one of the islands. How much of the criticism is accurate is hard to tell, however it does seem odd that aircraft were leaving not even half full?

  7. I agree with many of the points made in this and the preceding articles (no-one can predict where hurricanes can hit, the effectiveness of RAF air mobility, the demonstration of jointery, unrealistic expectations of the FCO's tiny staff in the region, etc.). Your article and a Twitter conversation have also persuaded me that Mount's Bay is far better suited to this task than the old warship/tanker combo; in this case, austerity has been the mother of invention, with good results.

    However, I still think the UK's response has been poor in two ways. Firstly, Mr Johnson and Ms Patel were still saying in the middle of last week that the FCO would be contacting British nationals. So at that point, they were thinking about British tourists, not British territories (they clearly understand this point now, but it's too late). Secondly, the APT(N) ship is probably good enough for a cat 1 or cat 2 storm. But this was a Cat 5, and it needed an extra level of effort.

    "what would you have done as a course of action given the many logistical constraints facing the planners in this scenario?"

    I'll attempt to answer this, as no-one else has.

    On September 4 last week, the Met Office and NHC were saying that Hurricane Irma was en route to the Leeward Islands and was likely to be Cat 5 when it reached there. There were steps that could have been taken at that point:
    - Get a battalion to Brize Norton or Stansted ASAP (we have a spearhead battalion on permanent standby, do we not?)
    - Move them and their basic kit by Voyager or Globemaster or commercially-leased aircraft to a regional hub away from Irma, such as Kingston, Montego Bay or Port of Spain. Ask the Jamaicans/Trinidadians to help to find (but not necessarily fund) accommodation for the ~600 soldiers as part of hurricane relief.
    - Hire a small airliner in the US to arrive at the regional hub early on Sept 6. I believe this costs about £175,000/day.
    - (Hypothetically) Irma misses the Leewards and heads straight for Florida. Not our problem, so the squaddies have had a couple of days in the Caribbean & come home by the cheapest means. If anyone questions it, show them the pictures from Florida or Hurricane Andrew.
    - (Real life) Irma hits British territories, so you use that regional jet to fly the battalion to the nearest usable airport for onward movement, probably via RFA Mount's Bay, but possibly by commercial shipping or helicopter. You might need a couple of runs for both legs.
    - If by some freak of nature Irma heads to the hub airport, then you just fly them to another regional hub.

    This plan doesn't require sending troops into hundreds of islands, nor does it require foreknowledge of the disaster, but gets boots on the ground at least 24h earlier - the days when the looting and disorder was worst and the need was greatest. I'm sure it has weak points other than the costs (I'm just a citizen, with no specialist knowledge), but it seems to answer the objections in this article.