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Britain could see biggest mobilisation of Army since Iraq War

Britain could see biggest mobilisation of Army since Iraq War


25 Mar, 2020

Military units are looking at what contribution they could make during the current coronavirus crisis, with more than 20,000 Service men and women on standby, writes Deborah Haynes, Sky News foreign affairs editor …

Britain’s fight against COVID-19 could see the biggest mobilisation by the Armed Forces since the 2003 Iraq War. Military units around the country are looking at what contribution they could make, if requested, to slow the spread of the disease, boost the capacity of the NHS to care for patients, and help ensure vital supplies reach people self-isolating at home or in quarantine.

In total, more than 20,000 Service personnel are on standby and ‘there are many more to come behind that if necessary’, said General Sir Mark Carlton-Smith, Chief of the British Army, in a social media message at the weekend. These comprise both regular troops and reservists.

More than 700 military personnel are already deployed as part of what is being called the COVID Support Force. Their tasks include:

  • helping the NHS turn the sprawling ExCel exhibition centre in London into a 4,000-bed hospital facility for coronavirus patients
  • scoping out sites across the country that could also be turned into makeshift hospitals
  • working with ‘local resilience forums’ to prepare their response to the outbreak
  • training to drive oxygen tankers for the NHS
  • helping to transport protective equipment like face masks to hospitals.

General Sir Nick Parker, former Commander Land Forces, headed the military effort to secure the Olympic Games in London in 2012 in support of the government – an operation that required close to 20,000 Service personnel but lasted only a few weeks. He said the Armed Forces today would be ‘leaning into the challenge’ posed by COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. ‘Normally the military is the lead against the enemy,’ he said. ‘Here you have this rather bizarre situation where the NHS are in the frontline and the military is one of your essential components to provide the essential support to get through it.’

The Armed Forces ‘are very good at making rapid analysis of complex problems’, he added. ‘What I would expect to happen now is for quite a strong military command spine to emerge across the country, coordinating between the local resilience forums and central government to enable the non-NHS things to be coordinated.’

There is also an important role for the voluntary sector, according to Sir Nick, who is on the board of directors of Team Rubicon, a charity that has a network of former Service personnel and other emergency relief experts ready to provide disaster relief anywhere in the world, including in the UK.

‘There will be a significant, spontaneous, volunteer offer from the ex-military community,’ he said. ‘We are working hard at the moment to get a foothold because we do believe we have got something to offer.’

There will be a prominent and important role for the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, which is being coordinated by the Standing Joint Force Headquarters in Aldershot. The mission to support the UK at home has been code-named Operation Rescript.

A parallel coronavirus mission to support the UK overseas – including British military deployments abroad and the UK’s Overseas Territories like the Falkland Islands – has been named Operation Broadshare. It is understood that of the nearly 20,700 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Royal Marines on standby to mobilise in support of the coronavirus crisis, more than 2,000 personnel are on 24 hours’ notice to move and 1,500 are being put on 48 hours’ notice to move.

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