Yesterday 20th July 2015, Michael Fallon released a written statement that furthered expanded upon a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request about UK personnel serving in other armed forces that have engaged targets in Syria. Later on, Fallon was “skewered” by man anti-war MPs, saying that he had hidden information from and lied to the UK Parliament and some calling for him to step down. (See full debate here .)
The big question is: Should UK troops embedded in foreign/allied armed forces be engaged in active operations which the UK parliament, specifically the House of Commons, has not approved? Fallon’s argument is that “Embedded UK
personnel operate as if they were the host nation’s personnel, under that nation’s chain of
command, but remain subject to UK domestic, international and Host Nation law.” This means there are legal guidelines when personnel are embedded in other militaries. The stronger argument is that:
The convention that before troops are committed to military operations the House of Commons
should have an opportunity to debate the matter, except in the event of an emergency, applies to
the deployment of UK forces. UK personnel embedded within other nations’ armed forces operate
as members of that military.(Emphasis added)
So when UK personnel are embedded or on exchange, they are effectively controlled by those external armed forces. They get to perform what those armed forces conduct, and in this case, operations over Syria. They, as Fallon and this pompous ass Major state, are subjected to UK law and the law of the host nation they are under. So if they strike the wrong target or inflict civilian casualties, they can get charged under two different laws. But the bottom line is, they are effectively under external command and control. Repeat, external or foreign command and control.
The Shadow Secretary of Secretary of State, Vernon Coaker, argued that yes it is common practice to embed UK forces to other forces. However:
British troops embedded with US forces at the time of the Vietnam war were not allowed to take part. Similarly, Dutch marines embedded with the Royal Marines were brought home before the 2003 Iraq war, and US troops embedded with the British Army were not permitted to patrol the streets of Northern Ireland.
That is a sound counter argument, and Coaker stated the worst case scenario: What if one of those pilots was shot down and captured by Daesh/ISIL forces. Fallon countered with the slightly weak argument that the UK has supported the US action in Syria,Operation Inherent Resolve, from the start. He didn’t specifically address the part about the possibility about being captured and killed. Let me try to address that. First, it is a stated possibility. Yes a poor Jordanian pilot was treated in that manner, however, that is only one example. No US, French or Canadian forces have been shot down by Daesh or Syrian air defences. In fact, the US has been careful to only strike at Daesh-controlled areas and have indirectly communicated with the Syrians, via the UN on US strikes in that country. On top of that, the US has used advanced support and combat aircraft such as the F-22 to prevent any shooting down of aircaft. So there have been safety measures in place for US, French, Canadian or UK exchange pilots. It’s not some crazy “yee-haw” for any of them.
Second, all military personnel, whether just British or on exchange, always face threats. Daesh is a vicious organisation. Well, so were many other state and non-state groups. Fallon stated quite correctly that UK troops hasve served with other armed forces since the 1950s. That means for more than sixty years, UK personnel have faced threats when on exchange. In any case, you join the armed forces knowing there’s a risk, not joining it to serve away from hostilities.
Third, as Fallon and some supporters of this move have said, embedding UK troops assist with military knowlege and boost understanding of other countries’ capabilities. As a former solder now MP Jonhnny Mercer remarked,
When I was serving, one of the most frustrating things was an almost uninformed debate about our military action. Does my right hon. Friend agree that questions about embeds, and asking special forces capabilities to be raised on the Floor of the House of Commons, belie a fundamental misunderstanding of how our forces operate, and that in interoperability it is vital we have embeds to ensure we take part in the international fight against terrorism?(Emphasis added).
Therefore, it is a gain for the British Armed Fores to have such exchange. The constant counter-argument of the House of Commons did not authorise it and this breaks the Ministerial code only works to a weak extent. People forget that there’s such thing as the Royal Prerogative, which enable decisions to be taken without the backing of, or consultation with, Parliament. (There are better links that explain the Royal Prerogative for the UK, just google it.). The government of the day, Conservative, Labour or Coalition, need not inform the Houses of Parliament on every move they make in international affairs.
A further argument is that there is already UK direct and indirect participation in strikes against Syria. HMS Duncan is helping defend the present USS Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group, as it it predecessors HMS Defender and HMS Dauntless. There are, (not publically stated but known) UK Special Forces such as the Special Air Service or Special Boat Service operating around Syria, and possibly even the Special Forces Support Group (SFSG). As known, Special Forces operations, at least in the UK, are never officially broadcast and will never need parliamentary approval. Given such activity, why fret over personal on exchange?
Let it also be known (as through Fallon’s statement and parliamentary debate) that such exchange runs both ways, that is, personnel from other countries join UK units on operations. A clear example is the Baltic Air Policing, where a US Marine Corps fastjet pilot and a French Air Force pilot ere on exchange with the Royal Air Force (RAF), flying Eurofighter Typhoons. Their parliamentarians didn’t scream that they were notified, did they?
Personal go on exchange all the time for decades. Some people even served in other forces long before this practice was formalised. A clear example is that of the American pilots who served in the RAF during the Battle of Britain . They ran the risk of being punished by their own country. Coming back to the present and the argument, RAF personnel are on the Maritime Patrol Aircraft training programme Seedcorn in the US, Canada and even New Zealand. Parliament knows this. Would UK MPs try to stop them from serving?