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Vital Importance of SBA, British Forces Cyprus and RAF Akrotiri By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of 14 independent British Overseas Territories, the Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia in Cyprus are a distinct legal entity established in 1960 alongside the Republic of Cyprus.

Home to British Forces Cyprus, a sovereign joint capability and that is the UK’s assured operating platform for the Middle East, North Africa and Eastern Mediterranean, the Sovereign Base Area in Cyprus plays a crucial role in regard of defending UK interests particularly in the Mediterranean and Middle East regions just as it also does in respect of defence engagement.

Comprising 98 square miles of sovereign territory, in terms of overall size the base areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia equate to approximately 3% of the island of Cyprus. Each has a sizeable and crucially important UK military presence with around 8,000 UK military personnel, civil servants, contractors and their families living and working in the areas. In additions, some 11,000 Cypriots also live within the two separate sovereign base areas, many of whom work on the Sovereign Base Area too. Considerable efforts are put in by the Sovereign Base Area administrators and by those who are deployed to Cyprus with the UK military to build on the already excellent relationships that exist.

The Sovereign Base Area (SBA) has long been recognised by successive UK governments in respect of the ‘strategic importance’ that it provides and also for the crucial role that it plays in deterrence, the promotion of peace, stability, resilience, presence and reassurance. As an enduring structure, the rationale of SBA is that of being an influence enabler.

Over the past couple of years the importance of the SBA has once again been further highlighted through the basing at RAF Akrotiri of 903 Expeditionary Air Wing for the ongoing Op. Shader work at UK contribution to the fight against DAISH. That work continues but whatever the future holds, we must redouble our efforts to ensure that not only do we maintain a fit for purpose future operating model in SBA but also that we invest in its future.

Because of the ability that the UK has to maintain influence and the strength of our military, we continue to be are the coalition partner of choice. However, we must never stand still and in a world of deteriorating geo-politics and one in which others seek to grow in stature and influence, we must ensure that we remain fit for purpose too. Today we live in a world in which security and influence increasingly matters and the SBA must always be regarded as being a key capability for the UK and one that we must continue to invest in.

It isn’t hard to see why we need to do just that. On my recent visit to SBA I could not help but notice the increasing Russian influence and investment in Cyprus and from other important nations such as China. They have been quick to see the value and importance of where Cyprus is located.

The UK cannot afford to ignore this and without ignoring the many strengths that are very apparent within the SBA, I believe that we need to redouble our efforts as an influence enabler.

In 2019 British Forces Cyprus will become the largest Permanent Joint Operating Base and permanent deployment of UK military forces overseas. Deployment to the Sovereign Base Area is no easy posting and although it may look like a holiday camp to some, believe me when I say it is very far from being that. Cyprus is a long way from the UK and as you would expect, with Op. Shader continuing, the SBA is very operationally focussed. Note too that while investment has taken place on the runway and taxiways at RAF Akrotiri, many of the facilities in the SBA including accommodation are old and in need of investment. Finally, health and social welfare facilities are far below standards expected in the UK.

So, any perception that a posting to the Sovereign Base Area is tantamount to being deployed to a holiday camp are absolutely and totally wrong. Yes, in off-duty periods there are some beaches, golf courses, breathtaking mountain trails to explore and plenty of other things for a family to do but there are many things missing that are taken for granted in Britain. Finally, the summer is very long, hot and dry whereas the winter is very cold with frequent sizeable snowfalls.

With RAF Akrotiri also forming as the base for 903 Expeditionary Air Wing and which for the past two and a half years has been responsible for the UK contribution to the global coalition against DAISH under the title of Op Shader, together with supporting the Broader Middle East air-bridge contributions to Operation Toral and Kipion, resupply of Royal Navy vessels on deployment together with decompression for military personnel returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, RAF Akrotiri has become one if not ‘the’ busiest of all UK domestic and foreign military bases. In respect of its operation from and within the SBA, It was a delight to see and understand how the role of 903 EAW has over the past 30 months been so seamlessly interwoven with other SBA operations.

Formed in 1988 from the amalgamation of headquarters Land Forces Cyprus and air headquarters Middle East, headquarters of British Forces Cyprus are located at Episkopi, an area that as a whole lies partly in the Limassol district of Cyprus and the rest being within the Sovereign Base Area of Akrotiri and Dhekelia. Episkopi acts as a joint headquarters answering directly to the Chief of Joint Operations at the permanent joint headquarters In Northwood. The appointment of Commander British Forces generally alternates between the Army and the Royal Air Force.

The current Administrator of the Sovereign Base Area and who is also Commander British Forces Cyprus is Major General James Illingworth OBE. Commanding Officer of RAF Akrotiri is Group Captain Mike Blackburn MA, BSc, RAF. I am most grateful to both of these senior officers for hosting me during the week that I spent at both Headquarters British Forces Cyprus in Episkopi and RAF Akrotiri in November last year. The immediate previous Commander British Forces Cyprus had been Air-Vice Marshal Mike Wigston CBE and who, following this appointment was promoted to Assistant Chief of the Air Staff.

Command in Cyprus is exercised through 2 garrison headquarters, one at Dhekelia and the other at Episkopi, and through an RAF station headquarters at RAF Akrotiri. Although a number of airmen are based at RAF Akrotiri, and soldiers are at Episkopi and Dhekelia, at all locations there are to be found a mix of Army, Royal Navy and RAF personnel.

RAF Akrotiri is an extremely well-run base that not only supports operations but does all that it can to look after its people. The primary work currently is that of supporting air operations and that includes core activities such as transport, logistics, air-to-air tanker refuelling, rotary and other air support but also, given the huge impact that 903 EAW has brought with it to RAF Akrotiri, all forms of Contingent and Current Operations. RAF Akrotiri must be able to handle all aircraft including MRO and support requirement for each and every RAF aircraft using the base. Today that includes Tornado GR4, Typhoon FRG4, Air Seeker, Raytheon Sentinel, Sentry E3-D, Lockheed Martin C-130J’s, C-17 and most forms of rotary helicopter capability.

The future will be about the ability of RAF Akrotiri to be immediately ready to provide what Her Majesty’s Government might request UK military forces to undertake either directly or in support of our allies. This will no doubt include Royal Air Force/Royal Navy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft, planned Boeing Maritime Patrol Aircraft capability, UAV’s such as Protector and in supporting ever increasing needs for command and control systems, improved communications and data systems operation.

Strong Logistics capability is crucial to any operation and they have been particularly busy during OP Shader. Logistics is something that the Royal Air Force has long been very good and yet it is an area that often tends to be neglected and rarely allowed to demonstrate its strengths, hard work and vital importance to effective military air power operation. For instance, Air Cargo elements moving to and from RAF Akrotiri had been in the region of 6,500 tonnes in 2016. The same is true for the sea tanker delivery of aircraft fuels to the RAF Akrotiri fuel storage operation.

Station Commander Mike Blackburn has placed a very special and high emphasis on looking after our people. This is no easy task on a base that is so very busy supporting all air power related elements and particularly the large number of military and civilian personnel now on the base due to Op Shader and 903 EAW capability requirement.

It is of course absolutely right that the UK Government should always be ‘future proofing’ its long term requirements in the Mediterranean and Middle East Regions. These regions of are crucial importance but none so to me more than Sovereign Base Area and RAF Akrotiri. Recognising the importance also means continuing to invest in them and in having a long term strategy of ongoing development.

In order to achieve this there must always be a sensible plan that recognises levels of ambition over deliverability, the need for a whole force approach and that cultural change will always be a an important and ongoing element. Our work in defence today is primarily about promoting stability and resilience and in understanding and enabling.  The choice words of deter or deterrence and being there to reassure are equally driven into our primary thought process. To achieve success always requires well designed models and objectives to be set in respect of outputs and deliverability. Within all the areas of SBA that I visited and right across RAF Akrotiri including all elements of increased safety requirement, I found that whether it may be rationalisation of requirement, estate infrastructure planning, future manning and requirements, the need to accommodate personnel and provide they and their families with what they should be entitled and deserve to expect as a minimum and finally, design capability on the ground that takes fully into consideration all possible future aircraft capability that will use the base in the years ahead, across the whole of the SBA including RAF Akrotiri there was undoubtedly a will to achieve and to look forward writ large all around me.

Of course improving housing stock and infrastructure on any military base is, or should be, an ongoing process. To that end one of the major Infrastructure highlights that was completed in 2016 was a £46 million project to refurbish the main airfield apron and runway at RAF Akrotiri.

Under the responsibility and direction of the Defence Infrastructure Organisation, the 21 month project to resurface the runway and taxiways was undertaken by local contractor Lagan Lavoucou. The work was done on time and on budget, a factor that was made all the more difficult by the work needing to be undertaken only at night when activity on the base was at its lowest. The timetable was tough and bear in mind that the runway had to be fully available for RAF jets and planes operated by the US each morning. This was a remarkable task in itself and as far as I am aware, the single most important investment seen on the base for many years.

On the formal reopening of the renovated runway in March 2017 and that also included new runway and taxiway lighting, the then Minister for the Armed Forces, Mike Penning MP said:

This project has taken a tired and battered runway and transformed it into a modern, safe 21st Century facility capable of supporting operations for the next 20 years and beyond. This has been a unique and remarkable achievement. RAF Akrotiri is not just a refuelling spot or training base. This airfield matters. It has been at the forefront of supporting our most important military operations over the last decade and more, including the current campaign against Daesh”.        

Words such as these emphasise the importance in particular of not only RAF Akrotiri but the whole Sovereign Base Area.

One of the main principles of the Sovereign Base Areas is that it is governed in full cooperation with the Republic of Cyprus. Operating all functions of a civil government administration, the sovereign territory has its own legislation, courts, prisons, police and fire services, customs and immigration services. When established in 1960, the UK Government declared the following three principles which remain unchanged to this day – firstly, the effective use of the SBA as military bases, secondly, full co-operation with the Republic of Cyprus and thirdly, protection of the interest of those resident and working in the SBA area.

Have been able to see for myself the extent of work undertaken by British Forces Cyprus and which encompassed all aspects of work done by both military and civil servants across the spectrum, I have been left in no doubt in relation to the importance of the Sovereign Base area in Cyprus.

It is close to three years now since the then Commander Joint Force Command, General Sir Richard Barrons said in relation to OP. Shader “nobody should be in any doubt about the significance of what is being done at RAF Akrotiri”. Having been able to see all aspects of the base area I very much share that view.

The SBA also acts as a permanent home to the Regional Standby Battalion, a unit which from a military perspective is an acclimatised high readiness force ready to respond to national tasks across the region. Over the past two years for instance the Regional Standby Battalion has delivered force protection for Operation Shader assets at RAF Akrotiri in support of 903 EAW which I have previously written on.

Supporting Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ) and working under No 83 Expeditionary Air Group, 903 EAW (Expeditionary Air Wing) is as previously mentioned the highly specialist wing of the Royal Air Force. These are often forgotten elements of our deployed forces but as I witnessed for myself, they are very important in what they do.

Based at RAF Akrotiri for the duration of Op. Shader, 903 EAW is responsible for providing UK kinetic and other operational support to the Global Coalition mission that is tasked with conducting operations against Daesh/ISIL in Iraq and Syria. 903 EAW accounts for roughly 650 additional personnel currently based at RAF Akrotiri.

Recognition of the behind the scenes support required is extremely important – these are after all the real enablers that make possible all mission activity and success including all forms of operational support, military aircraft maintenance, weapons loading and logistics support, all of which units work hand in hand – 24 x 7 x 365 days a year with the squadron pilots, navigators, engineers, logistics, weapons loaders and many others that enable operational mission success. It is the dedication and professionalism that makes it work.

On another tack, I will repeat here a couple of paragraphs from the separate commentary that I put out on December 4th 2017 and that is available on request.

“I was left with the strong impression that while those charged with operation on the base fully recognised the value of all personnel involved, no matter what trade they were engaged in or what they had achieved in respect of supporting the Op Shader mission, it seems that many of those on the ground in support feel less valued by higher authorities in the MOD”.

“In terms of what has been achieved in Op. SHADER so far, it is quite remarkable that this has been achieved at a relatively low cost. The success of what has been achieved is clearly down to all the people involved and it is regrettable that motivation should have been impacted by the delay in MOD and Government recognition that the Op. SHADER medal will not be officially recognised and presented before May 2018. Worse is that while, if my understanding is correct, the Op. SHADER medal will only be presented to aircrew and that it is not intended to provide the medal to those that have made a vital contribution outside of the battlespace area including vast numbers of those deployed and engaged in support on the RAF Akrotiri base and also, Reaper pilots based at RAF Waddington and elsewhere. While there is talk of this disgraceful situation being looked at within the MOD itself I very much regret that I have felt obliged to mention the subject here and of how the lack of medal recognition has created an intense level of frustration and demotivation that I would very much have preferred not to witness. I do not wish to dwell unnecessarily on this but in respect of what those engaged on the ground and in the air in Op. SHADER do I firmly believe that this needs to be recognised without delay”.

While it may well be true that the risks involved in Op. SHADER are perhaps less in respect of the rigour required, the operation of this is no different to any other theatre based deployment. What I do find amazing, and this plays back into my comments in respect of the Op Shader medal needing to be awarded to all those deployed, is that it is almost as if those who make decisions related to awards for ‘recognition’ in Government and the Ministry of Defence consider that deploying to Cyprus to work on Op. SHADER at RAF Akrotiri is tantamount to sending them to a holiday camp.

Having spent time on the Sovereign Base looking at all work done and particularly by those involved in Op. SHADER at RAF Akrotiri and that includes all activities under the responsibility of 903 EAW under the command of Group Captain Simon Strasdin and who I would also like to thank for his support to me personally during my visit, and who together with other Royal Air Force personnel deployed at RAF Akrotiri, I can conclude that the work involved supporting Op SHADER is extremely demanding. In my humble view, those with the important responsibility for recognition need to understand that the amount of day and night activity required of personnel working in the base is formidable. This, after all, is an operational base that works 24 hours a day times 7.

Also based at RAF Akrotiri is the British Forces Cyprus helicopter support in the form of 84 Squadron and which is regularly employed on Search and Rescue (SAR) missions within the SBA together with providing integrated and enduring SAR cover to the Republic of Cyprus through the Cyprus Joint Rescue. RAF rotary support was also involved in assisting aircraft and ground support of the Republic of Cyprus in fighting the huge fire that broke out in Troodos in 2016.

I was also able to visit the Cyprus based elements of No 1 Air Control Centre who are detached to Cyprus to run the radar systems operations and datalinks systems. Deployed in a location that must be close to be the highest in Cyprus the detachment from RAF Boulmer works and lives all year round in the small base and that is often covered in very deep snowdrifts.

As mentioned, OP. Shader which as the UK military contribution to the global coalition against DAESH and for which 903 EAW based at RAF Akrotiri continues to have responsibility for delivering a significant contribution to the Coalition effort through the provision of RAF Tornado GR4 and Typhoon FGR4 aircraft delivering a wide range of air to ground complex weapons capability plus the various intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance capability including Sentinel airborne battlefield and ground surveillance aircraft, RAF Voyager air to air tanker refuelling aircraft, RAF C-130J Hercules and A400M Atlas capability.

While Royal Air Force Tornado GR4 capability has been the backbone of Op Shader operations, with the increasing number of Typhoon sorties taking place ahead of ahead of Tornado being stood down in March 2019, Typhoon has now been fully and effectively cemented in its role as the choice close-air support platform that is able to deliver precise and decisive effect on the ground whilst avoiding civilian casualties. However, ahead of Tornado GR4 being finally stood down on March 31st 2019, given that this superb aircraft capability has operated so long and so often on previous operations based at RAF Akrotiri and continues to be actively deployed delivering complex weapons capability so efficiently and effectively and that the capability has become part of the place, I do know that it would be very appreciated, just as it would be very nice to see, a fine RAF Tornado GR4 being left at RAF Akrotiri as a Gate Guardian.

As in all deployed operations, the logistics behind Op Shader is huge and the operation of the on base logistics operation by the Royal Air Force is very impressive. It is worth recording here the published figure of their having been no fewer than 2,335 Tornado and Typhoon combat sorties in 2016.

Training opportunities are maximised on base and through each year British Forces Cyprus accommodate various regular and reserve units from the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. SBA has been instrumental in providing training opportunities and in supporting overseas training exercises. In 2016 some 3,600 visiting military personnel took part in no fewer than 50 visiting training exercises and the Pyla range enjoyed 223 days of full use.

The Sovereign Base continues to play a very progressive role in defence engagement with programmes and visits from various foreign defence forces. And the on-island relationship was further strengthened in 2016 by the signing of the first Bilateral Defence Cooperation Programme with the Republic of Cyprus.

CHW (London – 23rd March 2018)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,

M: +44 7710 779785

Skype: chwheeldon

hwheeldon@wheeldonstrategic.com

@AirSeaRescue

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