The time is almost up for UK forces in Germany. But is this a wise choice?
Two incidents spring to mind immediately, those being the operations over Libya in 2011 and the recent hoo-ha in the Ukraine. These two incidents, both occurring effectively on the borders of NATO, have demonstrated that not all the future uses of the UK armed forces will be on the other side of the world. Some may be very close to home indeed.
The UK has long retained a presence on the continent, for the simple reason that events on the continent play an important role in the interests of the UK. The dominant power of Europe has long been of interest to British political leaders, be they Kings and Queens or Prime Ministers and Chancellors.
The British landscape was changed immensely by the arrival of the Romans who back at the turn of the millennium were the dominant power of Europe. The rise of groups like the Angles and Saxons in Germany went on to further alter the course of British history. 1066 marked an invasion from Normandy and kick started a period of around 400 years where the fortunes of Britain were intertwined with the fortunes of France.
Then it was Spain. Then France again. Then Holland. And back to France. Then eventually Germany. Who controls the other side of the channel has long been of great importance. Managing the balance of power in Europe has seen Britain pour money and manpower onto the continent for almost a thousand years.
In 1914 it helped check the German expansion. In 1940 the shortage of adequate resources which contributed to the defeat of the British Expeditionary Force had a significant knock on effect on the UK, handing the French Atlantic ports to the Germans as well as the bases needed to launch night after night of air strikes against our cities. From 1945 onwards UK forces contributed greatly to facing down the Russian tide.
In the modern world the dynamic is a little different, the stakes not quite as high as they once were, but recent history has taught us that the presence of UK forces abroad is of great utility. It made operations in the Balkans a little easier for a start.
By comparison operations over Libya required a significant redeployment of RAF resources from the UK to Italy. When the situation in Ukraine reached its highest tension there were insufficient UK forces on the continent to realistically make any kind of move to protect the Ukraine, even if the political will had existed.
And so I wonder whether we have been too hasty in drawing down. I appreciate that it costs money to keep these forces deployed abroad and that money pumped into the German economy by the personnel and their families would otherwise be pumped into the UK economy, but surely at some point we have to draw the line with this incessant drive for savings?
Having RAF and army assets deployed to Germany, where they would be just a (long old) drive away from many potential conflict sites on the periphery of NATO seems like quite a good idea to me. This aside from the continued use of the significant training areas available, which to me seems a much better proposal for cost saving that having to send British units to Canada, especially when there are heavy seasonal restrictions on the use of the Canadian training area at Suffield.
It might take some jiggery and pokery. I for one would rather see the British army have two armoured divisions, one based around Sailsbury and the other in Germany, than the current split that leans heavily on light forces for stabilisation and forward engagement.
But ultimately I think it would be worth it. Having forces that can be trucked up and moved quickly to potential flash points in the east or south, or that can equally travel just to the north west German coast to grab a ship to somewhere exotic, seems like a much more flexible approach to me than withdrawing everything back to blighty.