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Heavy lift human security: The UK military and fragile states

Article by Richard Reeve

December 6, 2021

Heavy lift human security: The UK military and fragile states

When we talk about conflict sensitivity, invariably the first words we hear are ‘Do no harm’. In practice, we know that this is an impossible ask. All interventions, however benign or well intentioned, have consequences that create winners and losers. And in the most fragile societies, where relations are already most unjust and unequal, these knock-on effects can have much greater amplification. So we focus on understanding these consequences and how they influence the context.


When we think about the possibilities of using military ‘force for good’, we assuredly cannot presume that no harm will be done. In many ways, the use or threat of violence is the application of harm. It aims to break the will of at least one side of a conflict, to change power dynamics and compel a settlement on different terms. And it is axiomatic that it envisages serious physical harm as a potentially acceptable cost of shifting the status quo.


In the most extreme examples, unleashing such force on a vast scale and the destruction of millions of lives, was the cost that the UK and its allies felt was justified to prevent a Nazi German invasion of the UK, to liberate Europe and to end the holocaust. On a much smaller scale, it was the cost of protecting Bosnian, Kosovar, Timorese, Sierra Leonean or Yezidi civilians from mass atrocities and the price that many believe the UK and other states should have been prepared to pay to avert genocide in Rwanda and carnage in Syria.


In the current century the option to utilise the military as a ‘force for good’ in supposed pursuit of liberal ideals – democracy, human rights, free markets – in illiberal lands, a magic wand for breaking and remaking other countries, has waxed and waned dramatically. Moving from the zero (British) casualty operations in Kosovo and Kurdistan to the megadeath quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan, the increasing harm done by UK military interventions has become ever more apparent over time. Yet the idea that the British Armed Forces have an almost uniquely global role and responsibility to do good is one that almost all senior figures in UK political parties, the media and the military itself cling to. It is integral to this year’s Integrated Review, as it has also been to every security and defence review since at least the Cold War.


This essay asks whether there is still a constructive role for the UK military to play in promoting global peace and security. It looks first at the military posture envisaged for the 2020s by the Integrated Review, then at some of the problematic principles and assumptions that underlie the current approach, suggesting some alternatives. It then examines some types of operation involving military contributions – not all of them violent – with which the UK could be involved, and identifies some of the unique capacities that might help the UK pivot to a more useful international role.


Lost in the grey-zone

How the UK military understands its future role is better approached through a study of the Ministry of Defence’s Defence Command Paper and the armed forces’ own Integrated Operating Concept than by studying the Integrated Review itself.[1] Unsurprisingly, the Defence Command Paper apes the Review’s analysis of threat from all sides, not least in a risible infographic on page six that features ‘Over exposure through globalisation’ as its primary interconnecting threat.[2]


Whatever this means, the MOD is clear that it requires a different strategic approach. Secretary of State Ben Wallace writes, “The notion of war and peace as binary states has given way to a continuum of conflict, requiring us to prepare our forces for more persistent global engagement and constant campaigning, moving seamlessly from operating to war fighting.”[3] He clarified this further in a speech in Washington in July, declaring that the armed forces must “compete below the threshold of open conflict” and “no longer be held as a force of last resort”.[4]


The Defence Command Paper pursues the Integrated Review’s logic of competitive advantage to make its case for ‘Persistent engagement overseas’:

“In the current threat landscape, and in an era of constant competition, we must have an increased forward presence to compete with and campaign against our adversaries below the threshold of armed conflict, and to understand, shape and influence the global landscape to the UK’s advantage. To pursue our foreign policy objectives and shape conditions for stability, we will rebalance our force to provide a more proactive, forward deployed, persistent presence.”[5]


So the UK will pursue its advantage through having more personnel and equipment in more places for longer, ready for war. Paradoxically, the reduced size army does this by reorganising to have more special operations forces (four new Rangers battalions) and other specialised units deployed ‘persistently’ overseas to train, mentor and accompany allied armed forces against unspecified enemies. The Royal Navy will scatter its ships more widely, and especially into the ‘Indo-Pacific’, from free-roaming aircraft carrier strike groups to offshore patrol vessels based in Singapore and Gibraltar.


This seems like radical stuff – as the MOD rightly says – but it demands some critical unpacking. Are we really unilaterally declaring that everything is now so grey that there is no legal or perceptual threshold between war and peace? If we are already constantly campaigning, do we not need to specify who we are operating against? Because if so, then we are already at war, exactly the situation that normal countries seek to avoid. Or is that we have been at war all along but been unwilling to recognise it?


National interests, national ambitions and national assumptions

How does a normal country define its interests? How does it define its own security? These are not trivial questions but ignoring them has been central to British security policy since at least World War II. Victory in that global conflict, a permanent seat at the UN, and two or three centuries of imperial expansion have long persuaded the UK that it has a status above the normal, that of a great power with global interests. A state of global importance. A force for good.


Time and the Treasury have chipped away at this importance. Tensions within Europe, the long march of decolonisation and post-imperial economic dislocation made their mark in the 1960s and 1970s. But the hubris of victory in the Falklands, Gulf and Cold Wars also buoyed much talk of national ambition, of being a lighter country that punches above its weight, of projecting power. So we see in successive defence and security reviews from 1998 onwards the reassertion of the UK’s global interests and the importance of a military with a global expeditionary capability. Increased dependence on and entanglement with the military of the United States is the little mentioned subtext to this revived assertiveness.


What we have lost sight of is how exceptional such a role is. Like the US and France, the UK continues to define itself as a global player with global interests and global responsibilities, even while fretting about the globalisation of Chinese or Russian ambitions. Other larger ‘middle powers’ without permanent UN seats or nuclear weapons – Japan, Germany, Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, Italy, Canada, and Spain – do not seem to feel the same way. Defence, for virtually all states, means the defence of national territory and population, not the need to be involved in combatting threats thousands of kilometres away.[6] Despite a minor resurgence within the Integrated Review, homeland defence has been but a minor feature of UK security strategy for decades.


As painful as reckoning with the past and privilege can be, it is essential that the UK does understand how exceptional its approach to security is, how this came about, and why this might present problems for its engagement with other parts of the world. A strategic refresh should start not with how the UK can uphold its strategic advantage over other countries, but with how it can work cooperatively with other states to overcome common challenges. It should start from a place of humility that assumes no special rights, interests or privileges. It should work from the assumption that the shared security of people everywhere is a more stable basis for national security than struggling for competitive advantage.


‘Force for good’?

Even starting from such a position of shared or common security, it is possible to recognise that aspects of the threatening world that the Integrated Review describes are grounded in reality. While we may recognise these ‘threats’ as manifestations of deeper underlying diseases like the desperation of poverty, the marginalisation of inequality, and the indignity of autocracy, each requiring very different kinds of intervention to transform conflict, such violent symptoms can often present real problems of how to manage violent conflict and crisis.


The most obvious international role for the military in a cooperative, multilateral context is through contributions to UN peacekeeping operations. The UK was once a leader in such support, not least during the Bosnian intervention of the mid-1990s. That fell away with the shift in emphasis to ‘counter-terrorism’ operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond in the 2000s but was made more of a priority under David Cameron in the 2010s. This has included both deployment of British peacekeepers and the training of other militaries, usually African, to participate in UN peacekeeping operations. Even so, unlike some militaries from the Global South, UN peacekeeping still occupies a tiny fraction of the UK military – well under one per cent of personnel.[7]


A few caveats are worth making to UN peacekeeping in the 21st century. While some missions remain genuinely about observing truces, separating armed parties to peace agreements, protecting civilians and overseeing military-to-civilian transitions, in the last decade others have abandoned impartiality and become more enmeshed in active conflict through adopting mandates that exclude certain ‘extremist’ parties from political processes and commit to offensive operations against them.[8] UNAMSIL in Mali and MONUSCO in the DRC are examples. Also controversial has been UN mandating of offensive ‘peace enforcement operations’ by other states or institutions such as the African Union (in Somalia), France (in the Sahel) or even NATO (in Afghanistan and Libya), sometimes in parallel with UN peacekeepers. UK troops are far more likely to have been involved in such operations.[9]


Military forces can also be useful in what are essentially paramilitary policing roles. This can be within UN peacekeeping operations, in which gendarmerie-type units are increasingly in demand for policing roles, or on the high seas. Operations to counter piracy off Somalia and in the Gulf of Guinea have been the focus of much international cooperation in the last 15 years, including such unlikely partners as the US, UK EU, India, Pakistan, China and Japan. Yet most states send vastly complex frigates and destroyers to do there what could be done by patrol vessels of the sort that the UK has just deployed to Southeast Asia. Like helping to patrol unpoliced waters off West Africa against illegal trawlers, this is a role perhaps better suited to paramilitary coast guard patrol vessels and aircraft.


The UK military also has a role in crisis response that has been useful in a number of humanitarian disasters, including rescuing and supplying civilian victims of hurricanes or cyclones in the Caribbean and Philippines, and the heroic medical response to the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone. Possessing transport aircraft, heavy lift helicopters, engineers and robust equipment, field hospitals and a specialised hospital ship (RFA Argus) all give the UK military an advantage in such responses in several regions. While some militaries, notably the Italian, have made integrating such humanitarian assistance and disaster response (HADR) capabilities into their forces a priority, it may be questioned whether a similar capability might not be more efficiently resourced through civilian structures with no primary warfighting role. Or perhaps a more hybrid military-civilian capability akin to the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) or the military medical services is the future.


Finally, at the potentially more violent or ‘kinetic’ end of the spectrum of potential operations, there may be cases in which UK forces could contribute, alone or in coalitions, to more potentially lethal missions under the hazy international Responsibility to Protect (R2P). UK-spearheaded civilian protection and militia disarmament operations in East Timor (INTERFET, 1999, led by Australia), Sierra Leone (Operation Palliser, 2000) and Macedonia (Operation Essential Harvest, 2001) give some indications of the factors underlying potential success. Apart from the small physical scale of such contexts and well trained and equipped troops, these factors would include a UN mandate, the broad consent of the local government and/or civilian population, observance of international humanitarian law, and clear strategic objectives, including a military exit strategy and plan for long-term support. Many other UK operations, from Nigeria to Afghanistan, show how disastrously such missions can fail when these preconditions are lacking.


Human security advantages

What I have tried to sketch out above is some means by which the UK military could be reoriented to play a constrained but constructive international role in support of peace and human security. It does not presuppose that the British Armed Forces would not also retain a ‘normal’ role in actual defence of national territory and population. This, after all, is why most – but by no means all – countries retain armed forces. Nor does it presuppose that other civilian forms of building and maintaining peace – diplomatic, developmental, and humanitarian – should not be given far greater prominence and resourcing. It therefore aims to suggest how national security at home might co-exist with the promotion of human security abroad. Unlike the Integrated Review, it proceeds precisely from the premise that use of force should be a last resort and that war should be an exceptional state of affairs.


Such a posture is not without precedent internationally and can be seen in, for example, the internationalist positions of such states as Ghana, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa and Sweden. Yet these are all relatively small countries with very limited military capabilities. The UK, even assuming a significant reduction in military spending, would be operating at far greater capacity: a globally responsible human security provider capable of heavy-lift operations and responses at strategic scale.


For the past two decades much larger British resources have been expended across Western Asia in catastrophic and futile wars of choice that have vastly diminished the security of millions abroad and diminished us as a country. Beyond curtailing such urges and associated forward deployments, a new focus on international cooperation and human security is vital to the UK, if not being a force for good, at least doing far less harm.


Richard Reeve is the Coordinator of the Rethinking Security network. He has worked in peace and conflict research in the UK, Africa and Western Asia for over 20 years, including as Chief Executive of Oxford Research Group, Head of Research at International Alert, research fellow at King’s College London and Chatham House, and an editor/analyst at Jane’s Information Group.


Image by DFID under (CC).


[1] Ministry of Defence, Integrated Operating Concept, September 2020,

[2] Ministry of Defence, Defence in a competitive age (CP 411), p.6,, March 2021,

[3] Ibid, p.2.

[4] Ministry of Defence and The Rt Hon Ben Wallace MP, Defence Secretary’s speech at the American Enterprise Institute,, July 2021,

[5] MOD (2021) Defence in a competitive age (CP 411), p.15.

[6] Celia McKeon, Contrasting Narratives: A Comparative Study of European and North American National Security Strategies, Rethinking Security, March 2018,

[7] As of September 30th 2021, the UK contributed 605 personnel to UN Peacekeeping operations, less than 0.5 per cent of c.140,000 personnel. At most a few hundred more were involved in training other peacekeepers.

[8] For discussion of the issues, see Larry Attree and Jordan Street, Incompatible Bedfellows: UN Peace Operations and Counter-terrorism, Saferworld, September 2020,

[9] Contribution of three Chinook heavy lift helicopters to France’s Operation Barkhane in Mali is one current example.

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