British Army soldiers with the 1st Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, wait inside the belly of a Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron CH-53D Sea Stallion. Image, public domain.
When David Cameron made his case for airstrikes in Syria in 2015, he explicitly ruled out sending in UK ground forces to fight Islamic State. Yet the following year British soldiers were photographed on the ground, reportedly fighting alongside Syrian rebels. All without any disclosure to parliament.
How is this possible?
The answer comes through the use of special forces. As far as the government is concerned, the operations of any units that come under the command of the Director of Special Forces are exempt from public disclosure and scrutiny. In theory, this means British troops can operate anywhere in the world without the public or parliament ever knowing about it, let alone getting the chance to debate or vote.
This may not seem unreasonable at first glance. After all, aren’t we talking about a very small number of elite troops carrying out a similarly small number of ‘quick-in, quick out’ operations? We could hardly equate missions like ending the Iranian embassy siege in 1980 or the rescue of British soldiers captured by the ‘West Side Boys’ in Sierra Leone in 2000 with full-blown military interventions. And secrecy has arguably been understandable to avoid compromising these missions and endangering the personnel involved.
The problem is the scope of the operations is changing. Special forces are now being used to conduct sustained combat missions as well as quick, one-off operations. In June 2016, around the time UK special forces were photographed in Syria, they were reported to be frequently crossing the border to aid Syrian rebels on the frontline, and they also appear to have established a base in Al-Tanf from which to conduct sustained operations. Reports also suggest UK special forces are present in Libya on a sustained mission to advise, train, and assist Libyan allies. Thanks to a leaked memo from a briefing given to US lawmakers by the King of Jordan, we know they have been deployed there since January 2016, and they were also reported to have attacked Islamic State targets outside Misrata in May of the same year.
The numbers of special operations forces have also been increasing[i1] with the emergence of dedicated support units such as the Special Reconnaissance Regiment in 2005 and the Special Forces Support Group (SFSG) in 2006, adding upwards of 500 and 800 personnel respectively and helping to take the total number of special operations forces up to around 3,000. The SFSG incorporates regular military forces, notably from the Parachute Regiment and the Royal Marines, and when I recently tabled a parliamentary question asking if these regular units within the SFSG would be subject to parliamentary scrutiny in the normal way, the answer that came back was a clear no.
There is also a concern that the same is true of drones and other aircraft when they’re involved in special forces operations. When Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee questioned Foreign Office Minister Tobias Ellwood on UK special forces activity in Libya last year, he said ‘I am not able to provide any comment whatever on any questions involving the role of special forces.’ However, when asked whether the RAF had flown over Libya in 2016, he stated ‘It has flown over Libya, yes.’ When the committee later sought details about the flights they were told the government does not comment on special forces, suggesting even RAF flights are being included under the non-disclosure umbrella.
This has dangerous implications for our democracy. The government could in theory assemble a quite substantial military force, comprising special forces soldiers, regular troops, support personnel, drones, and manned aircraft, and bring them all under the blanket of ‘no comment’. Instead of following the now well-established convention that parliament should authorise the use of military force, and risking a no vote as with the proposal for military intervention in Syria in 2013, the government can simply push military interventions under the radar by re-classifying them as special forces operations.
A Ministry of Defence document leaked in 2013 suggested that one way to continue conducting military operations despite the scepticism of the British public was “investing in greater numbers of SF [Special Forces].” And this is exactly what the government has done. In the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review, the government pledged to more than double investment in special forces equipment.
And this isn’t the only loophole the government could exploit. Operating outside of UK command structures, embedded British troops can fight alongside their host nation’s forces in wars the UK is not officially a party to. I also recently asked a parliamentary question asking for up to date information on the deployment of British military personnel within the armed forces of other states. As of March 2016, there were 176 UK personnel ‘embedded’ with other nations’ armies. For example, in July 2015 it was revealed that UK personnel embedded with allied forces operating in Syria were involved in carrying out airstrikes against Islamic State, without prior authorisation of parliament…
The truth is, the government knows the public are rightly sceptical of military intervention after the terrible legacy of failure in Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, in a 2013 poll, about 60 per cent of respondents said recent military action in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya made them less likely to back future military interventions. In another poll in the same year, 69 per cent of respondents said the role of the UK military should be to defend British territory and provide humanitarian assistance in emergencies. Instead of exploiting loopholes to make military intervention more secretive, the government should think about listening to the public who they’re accountable to.
The answer, for me, is clear. If British troops – any kind of British troops, whether special forces, regular, or embedded – are committed to comprehensive, long term combat operations, there should be open disclosure and a debate and vote in parliament. There should also be parliamentary committee oversight of special forces (no committee of parliament currently has the formal power to scrutinise them) so that they’re accountable for secret operations. The government must come clean about its secret wars. Only then can the public have confidence that our military is being used as they would want it to be.