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Defence Review 2021: accountability is the first victim of UK Special Forces expansion

Special Forces look set to become even more central to the UK’s military strategy, as the British government announced the creation of a ‘Ranger Regiment’ as part of its biggest defence review since the end of the Cold War, AOAV reports. 

The new UK Special Operations Brigade, which will encompass four infantry units, shall – according to the Ministry of Defence – “undertake roles traditionally carried out by Special Forces, [including] collective deterrence such as training, advising, enabling and accompanying partner forces.”

Based in Aldershot, £120m has been earmarked for the new force that will be made up of soldiers drawn from existing units. It’s likely their first deployment will be to east Africa early next year in response to a recent rise in Islamist violence, particularly in Mozambique and Somalia. The British military has been training Somali forces since January 2017, as part of Operation TANGHAM. UK Special Forces have been deployed to Somalia multiple times in the past decade, typically engaging in skirmishes with the al-Shabaab terror group. 

Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, told The Telegraph he believed the “best way to prevent conflict and deter our adversaries is to work alongside partners to strengthen their security and resilience” while adding that the “Ranger battalions will be at the vanguard of a more active and engaged armed forces”.

He also said that the Ranger units ‘would also free up special forces units for more discreet missions’.

The desire for more discreet, or covert, capabilities has been well documented amongst the UK military’s leadership. The framing of the ‘grey zone’, typically inter-state conflict that falls below the threshold of war, has been consistent in the months leading up to Defence Command Paper.  Recently, Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, the Chief of the General Staff, said that, in future, Special Forces “will be tracking the changing and accelerating nature of the threat.

“The most persistent and lethal threats are those associated with hostile state actors. So they’re tracking a different trajectory and what they leave behind is a vacuum where they need to hand off tasks, missions and responsibilities to a second echelon force… The Rangers will fit neatly into that.”

The chief threat within the ‘grey zone’ that the UK government has identified is Russia, meaning Special Forces will likely be focused on uncovering activity by Russian Military Intelligence (GRU) and the Wagner Group, a mercenary organisation thought to be hired to spread Russian influence across Africa. 

The new, more aggressive posture from Britain seeks to “restore our expeditionary reflexes and capitalise and electrify the international circuitry that we enjoy,” Carleton-Smith said. In an interview with Sky News, he mentioned East-Africa, the Indo-Pacific as well as Latin and South America.

The centralisation of Special Forces into British military strategy is a blow for those, such as AOAV, who have been calling for greater transparency around Britain’s secretive elite force. 

Currently, if MPs, the press or the public wish to know anything about a special forces operation they are met with a blanket policy of ‘no comment’. The only scraps of detail we are left with is leaks to the normally sympathetic media. Such leaks often relay tales of derring-do, indulging the elite forces in their own myth-making. 

UKSF’s sense of being unimpeachable is backed up by their current constitutional position. The most senior UKSF officer, the Director Special Forces, is only accountable to the Defence Secretary and the Prime Minister. There is no parliamentary oversight. There is not even a mechanism to conduct retrospective reviews, as there is for MI6 via the Intelligence and Security Committee. 

As Ben Wallace said in September 2020: “They [UKSF] are accountable to me and to the law, and where we see any issues, Ministers will of course intervene.” This is a tacit admission that what applies to the UKSF is a minister’s interpretation of the law. An interpretation that has the potential to be lenient when the breach of law may well have happened on an operation that the said minister approved and is ultimately accountable for. 

Such lack of oversight is a constitutional anomaly. But when we see that successive leaders have heaped political and financial patronage onto the UKSF, whilst cutting traditional forces, it vindicates the notion that the executive, when unchecked, will always seek to increase their power.

From this recent Defence Review, it appears that the government is absorbing more military operations under the banner of special forces, thereby camouflaging them from accountability and oversight on a ‘grey zone’ battlefield that is deliberately nebulous.

This move is unwelcome since an unchecked institution, without clear parameters or just cause for its operations, can easily become a corrupted one.