Time To Separate Fact From Fiction Over ‘Military Lockdown’

The COVID-19 virus has continued to pose an incredible challenge to the global way of life, causing major changes to lifestyles across the planet. In the UK, it has led to all manner of changes, from shop closures to the near-total shutdown of many airlines.

This is a time of considerable uncertainty and confusion, with many people hearing news that has them concerned.

For instance, there has been a spike in claims that the British Armed Forces are on the verge of instituting lockdown across the UK, with a wide variety of social media posts showing footage of British Army vehicles on the move. All of the images posted on social media have, on quick analysis, been proven to be either taken many months or years ago or show foreign army vehicles abroad.

Despite this, many people continue to believe that the Army is on the verge of staging some form of martial law.

Vital Role

In reality, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) is playing a vital part in trying to support wider government efforts to tackle the virus, but it is important to separate fact from fiction and understand what is really going on. The use of the armed forces in the UK to conduct operations is sometimes known as ‘Military Aid to the Civil Authorities (MACA). It is a complex process that has a long history around trying to properly define and control the domestic role of the armed forces in peace and wartime.

During the Cold War, for instance, much of the planning for WW3 and continuity of government assumed that the military would be responsible for guarding critical facilities like bunkers, fuel stores, food depots and being used as an essential support to maintaining law and order. This led to haunting images in the public’s imagination such as the 1980s drama ‘Threads’ which portrayed the impact of a nuclear attack on Sheffield, where the Army (and traffic wardens) were seen guarding food supplies.

Domestic Operations

After the Cold War ended, plans changed considerably, and the military took on a far less active role in providing support to the Government for domestic operations. Outside of a few niche areas – such as counterterrorism, bomb disposal and other very niche areas, the military spent many years actively trying to avoid home operations.

Part of this was a fear that if the armed forces were seen as being too available for operations then local authorities would simply work to the assumption that, come a crisis, they could rely on the military to come to their assistance.

More widely there was the realisation that with vastly smaller troop numbers than previous generations, the headcount and specialist equipment needed to deal with many disasters simply does not exist.

This approach has changed slightly in recent years, with the MOD now able to provide troops in bulk when required for major disasters like flood relief, but what it has tried to do is avoid being seen as the organisation of last resort that can bail other areas of government out of a crisis. The overall policy that drives the involvement of UK military assets at home is the doctrine publication JDP2-02 ‘The Defence Contribution to Resilience & Security’ which sets out how the criteria by which the MOD looks to provide troops and equipment, and what is considered to be an appropriate use of military resources.

Specific Criteria

There are five specific criteria applied to each time the military gets called upon to support operations in the UK, setting out the requirements for involving the armed forces.

  • The civil authority has all or some capability, but it may not be available immediately
  • The urgency of the task needs rapid external support
  • The civil authority lacks the capability to fulfil the task and it would be unreasonable or too expensive to expect one to be developed
  • There is a definite need to act and the tasks the armed forces are being asked to perform are clear
  • Mutual aid and commercial alternatives have been discounted.

JDP2-02 is being referred to heavily now by planners across government as they look to work out the most appropriate way for the armed forces to support the Coronavirus response. It sets out the ways that UK forces can work, and more importantly ensures that they work on behalf of the civil authorities and never act outside of clear control.

Despite groundless fears that the Army is allegedly planning to take over appearing on many social media channels, the reality is that any Defence involvement will be working only in support of other departments, and only at their express request.

The Armed Forces will not be deploying on a unilateral basis.

At the moment, it looks like the sort of commitment that the MOD will be involved in is wide-ranging and could require a significant chunk of military people working across the UK in a variety of diverse areas. Previously, the MOD has committed aircraft to carry out evacuations from around the world, for instance in China and Japan.

This has seen RAF bases like Brize Norton take a major part in supporting the arrival and onward transit of potentially infected individuals and ensure they arrived in a safe and controlled way.

Now the virus has spread, the role of the MOD is to try and provide support to the response here in the UK.

This effort will be overseen by the Standing Joint Commander HQ at Army HQ in Andover. This team is responsible for coordinating all domestic military operations and is essentially a UK focused version of PJHQ, organising domestic military operations. There are always a lot of potential operations ready to be deployed in the UK, with contingency planning existing for a wide variety of issues. This ranges from the major state ceremonial events like Royal weddings and funerals, through to providing specialist troops to help with areas like fuel tanker driver strikes or, potentially, strikes by prison guards.

The media may make out there has been a significant increase in readiness by the news that there are currently some 20,000 personnel on standby for COVID-19 operations, but, in reality there are always thousands of military personnel at some level of readiness for potential UK operations. The most likely short-term response will involve using specialist drivers to handle the driving of oxygen lorries to deliver supplies across the country to NHS staff as needed.

This will be vital in supporting the work of hospitals as they put patients on ventilators.

More widely, the military is likely to be able to provide up to 20,000 regular and reservist personnel to provide general support to operations. This will include potentially helping the NHS, putting trained military police on the streets to support existing police forces, or maybe in some very limited cases, using military personnel to backfill as guards in order to release police for other duties.

The key message here though is that it is exceptionally unlikely that any form of armed presence on the streets would occur. Military planners will also likely work with local authorities, helping them cope with the ability to respond to the pressures they are under, and also identify where the military may be able to offer some kind of help and support. These liaison officer roles are well tested, and a vital way of helping ensure people understand both what the military can do, but also the limitations of its aid, and where it may not be appropriate to help.

More widely, the civilian scientists of the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), a key part of the MOD civil service, are working around the clock in their efforts to identify and trial vaccines to relieve the pressure.

They will be using sites like Porton Down to try and conduct cutting edge research to improve the situation.

Extensive use is likely to be made of reservists who will be keen to support operations where possible. Already efforts have been made to ensure that, if required, mobilisation can happen to enable reservists to be called up to support efforts where needed. The reserves are a source of many units with niche roles or specialist expertise. It is likely these units will be called upon to provide advice and support to the regular military and wider government when required. For example, it may be the case that logistics units are activated to support any enduring deployment, or that media experts or other very niche areas get mobilised to help backfill into existing roles.

One area where military support will be critical is in using the existing Defence Medical Services teams to support the NHS. Over the last 30 years, the MOD has intentionally closed Military Hospitals after identifying that, while nice to have, these hospitals rarely had sufficient patient numbers, particularly in complex cases, to keep staff skills current. Instead, the move was made to create specialist wards within NHS hospitals where military staff would be embedded to keep their skills up and ensure they could work on complex cases.

This means that many military staff are already actively working to try to counter the virus, and many medical reservists are existing NHS staff. Calling up the reserves here may provide a pool of wider medical technicians who can support work, but in reality, the majority of the military medical specialists are already working to handle the Coronavirus.

There may be some efforts made to use military resources like field hospitals, or even the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Argus, a ship normally used for helicopter training, but which contains a deployable hospital inside. Although primarily intended for supporting patients in a warzone, she was used to great effect for Op Gritrock, handling the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone some years ago and could be a very visible symbol of the military effort to help contain the virus. The Irish Defence Forces have done something similar, moving a mothballed warship of theirs into port to use as a portable COVID-19 testing station. While Argus is probably not of huge value in the medium term (the challenges of getting patients on and off are difficult if she is at sea), the sight of the commitment alone may be helpful in showing that the military is here to help.

More widely there is a plethora of aviation assets like Puma, Merlin and Chinook helicopters that can be used to move troops, people and stores around the country as required, while the Army can provide a not insignificant logistical capability to move and support people if needed. Hopefully, these assets won’t be required, but it is useful to know they are there if needed. The bigger challenge for the MOD is working out how to both balance preparation for the Coronavirus while also still trying to carry out normal business. There are basic challenges like ensuring bases do not become overrun with the virus, and that units are functionally fit for duty.

This may prove challenging for people living in residential shared accommodation, particularly naval ships messes, where bugs can rapidly proliferate.

Over time, it may get harder to ensure that enough units are available for duties.

The MOD is likely to have to investigate how it can take steps to ensure the most important military tasks can continue without impact. This means ensuring that the RAF can operate its Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) aircraft to intercept any unknown aircraft, a task that must be sustained 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Ensuring there are enough aircraft, people and support elements to deliver this, particularly if the virus continues to spread will be a real challenge.

For the Army, the issue will be in ensuring there is both a quick spearhead element available (Special Forces and 16 Air Assault Brigade) to conduct any short notice intervention operations. This is always a challenging task, particularly as it needs a lot of specialist equipment and people able to carry it out – even if the people are ready, what do they do if there are not sufficient aircraft available to deploy due to crew shortages?

Finally, the Royal Navy will want to make sure it has the ability to both surge ships out to sea in a crisis to intercept vessels near the UK – for instance any Russian warships transiting the Channel, and also protect the duty ballistic missile submarine from any suspected Russian submarines that may be lurking nearby. This latter challenge will prove particularly challenging as it requires multiple ships, helicopters and people to deliver, and is crucial to ensuring the safety of the nuclear deterrent.

For the deterrent itself, the Royal Navy is going to need to take significant steps to be certain that it has enough people available to maintain the continuous deterrent patrol that has been going on unbroken now for over 50 years.

The biggest risk is if the crew get ill shortly after the submarine sails, then what would happen to the ability to maintain the nuclear deterrent for the medium term?

This worry is likely to be one of the biggest challenges for planners, ensuring that the deterrent remains able to carry on and that it is not disrupted. The bigger issue for the MOD is identifying the potential impact COVID-19 will have on operations and exercises. The increase in commitments in the UK means much of this years planned exercise programmes will almost certainly have to be postponed, potentially with longer-term impacts. For instance, what does this means for the plans for HMS Queen Elizabeth to deploy to the USA later this year to carry out the next round of F35 trials?

The longer-term impact could be a disruption that could have a disproportionate effect on trials, building programmes, and long-planned activity that could be felt for years to come. Also, what happens if a threat emerges to UK or NATO security? What if, for instance, Russia decided that with NATO members distracted, now was the perfect time to occupy the Baltic states?

With many NATO nations struggling to cope with containing the virus, it is reasonable to say that restraining Russian aggression may be less important now than keeping the virus under control.

If the UK did find itself committed to carrying out operations, how would it react and what would it prioritise?

With troops called up and committed for home operations, the ability to respond more widely is very limited right now, and in the event of an international security crisis over the next few months, the UK may find its ability to intervene or support to be highly limited.

Finally, what does this all mean for the ongoing Defence Review? On paper, the review was due to report later this year, but in reality, the ongoing situation may not only delay its publication but also significantly impact its findings. It remains to be seen whether the sudden commitment back to home operations in a significant way leads to longer-term force structure changes or alters the policies and practises around the use of the military in the UK. It could be the case that the Coronavirus has a far bigger impact than expected in shaping how the Defence Review goes, and in what the future structure and roles are for the military.

Throughout all of this though, it is important to recognise that these deployments are occurring in support of Government activity.

There has been a great deal of social media chatter about ‘Army lockdown’ which is frankly incredibly misleading.

It is essential to realise that the armed forces are not deploying except in response to requests by different parts of Government and that they are not acting unilaterally. The best place to get information on what the military involvement looks like is via the MOD website and not via random social media channels. If in doubt, look to official pages for information first and do not rely on what someone says on Twitter – there is already a lot of misinformation out there, and it is vital at times when people are feeling under pressure to not pass on information that could be completely inaccurate or wrong.

It is without doubt a deeply challenging and worrying time for many people, but whatever happens here in the UK, it is reassuring to know that the British Armed Forces will play a central and leading part in supporting the government response, and in helping get life back to normal.

This article is the latest contribution in Forces.net ‘s Lima Charlie columnist section.

This is part of a series featuring unattributed contributions from experts and insiders providing opinion, insight and analysis on today’s Armed Forces, the wider politics of the military and observations on military life.

Under the pseudonym Lima Charlie, their contributors aim to explore the issues facing today’s military and their comment remains unattributed to allow our writers to present their analysis candidly and under one editorial voice. More from Forces.net here