The various branches of the UK Armed Forces play a key role in delivering humanitarian aid in times of crises. The combination of manpower, logistical expertise and finely honed teamwork allows the UK Armed Forces to step in and help quickly in situations which can often prove too much of a challenge for civilian organisations.
There are two primary motivations for humanitarian activity of this kind. The first is a sense of basic decency and the knowledge that, as a developed nation, we have a role to play in helping people who aren’t in a position to help themselves. The second is a more strategic understanding that ‘soft power’ of this kind is key to helping create and foster international alliances which may prove vital in the years to come. As a country such as Afghanistan, for example, slowly emerges from the chaos of the Taliban rule, the fact that large parts of its infrastructure were put in place by UK military forces will almost certainly place us in an advantageous position when it comes to any future political and trade negotiations. Some of the types of humanitarian roles played by the UK military include the following:
In the aftermath of many disasters, either natural or man-made, the issue of distributing aid is often more problematic than supplying that aid in the first place. This can encompass vital supplies such as food and fresh water and, following a disaster such as an earthquake or hurricane, the transport and storage facilities which would normally be in place can be absent or badly degraded. That’s when the ability of the military to act quickly in a coordinated manner, and the access to the kind of equipment needed to deal with adverse conditions, can prove to be invaluable.
An example: In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, Operation Ruman, in September this year, saw the RAF fly approximately 230 troops from the Royal Marines and Royal Engineers out to the Caribbean to join an existing task force sent to help the tens of thousands of people who’d been left homeless.
In some cases, a situation can be so catastrophic that the people affected by it have no option but to leave. This is often easier said than done of course, particularly for civilians caught up in armed conflict or affected by a natural disaster. The UK military has the manpower and logistical experience needed to move large numbers of people quickly and safely.
Example: In 2006, when the Israeli government was mounting military offensives against Hezbollah, the Royal Navy used its vessels to shift 4,400 people from the Lebanon to Cyprus, 2,500 of whom were British citizens at risk from the military conflict. During the 2010 Icelandic volcanic ash incident, they repatriated more than 200,000 nationals who would otherwise have been stranded.
All too often, innocent civilians are put in the incredibly difficult position of requiring medical intervention more than ever at a time when the facilities have been damaged or destroyed. UK military forces can offer both expert assistance and the personnel needed to create temporary facilities.
Example: In May 2017 several dozen UK troops travelled to Juba, the capital of South Sudan. They went to help the United Nations Mission in South Sudan to deliver engineering and medical support to more than 100,000 people who, according to aid workers on the ground, were at risk of famine in the aftermath of the 2013 civil war.
The question of restoring infrastructure is one which frequently goes beyond simply dealing with the emergency nature of an immediate crisis. The infrastructure which the UK military helps to deliver, as well as offering direct relief, is often intended to put the country in question on a much more secure and stable footing moving forward.
Example: In the period between 2003-2008, the UK forces based in Afghanistan helped to build 168 miles of new road, 15 health centres and 26 new schools.