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The UK’s New Elite Regiment & the Evasion of Democracy

During a visit to the United States last week, British defence leaders set out in more detail the role of their newly established, elite ‘Ranger Regiment’. The 1,000-strong unit, modelled on the American Green Berets, will be deployed in east Africa by early next year, assisting national forces in Somalia and Kenya to fight Islamist militant groups. 

This is likely to be the first deployment of many. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace confirmed that the Rangers would “absolutely” be busy, with the specialist battalions becoming, as he said, “the vanguard of a more active and engaged armed forces”. It would fulfil many of the roles that Special Forces (UKSF) have traditionally taken on. 

First announced as part of the Integrated Review in March, the Rangers have been trailed by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) as a “rapidly deployable force… able to operate in complex, high-threat environments – supporting our allies and giving our political leaders the option of switching from training and assisting to accompanying and fighting alongside our global partners.”

They will act as an “interface” between regular regiments and Tier 1 Special Forces, such as the Special Air Service (SAS), Special Boat Service (SBS) and Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR). But, despite the recent update, a major question mark remains over the Regiment’s transparency and accountability. 

Special Forces are granted an extremely privileged position in terms of oversight. Their commander, the Director Special Forces, answers only to the Defence Secretary and the Prime Minister. Questions in Parliament about UKSF are met with a blanket policy of ‘no comment’, as are Freedom of Information requests made by journalists and the public. 

So while, militarily, the Rangers are being heralded as an extension of specialist capability, they also represent a potential expansion of institutional opacity.
If the Rangers are given the same exemptions from transparency, three aspects of democracy are eroded: popular will, legislative oversight and public transparency. 

Firstly, where is the democratic desire among the public for more active and interventionist armed forces? Polling of UK public opinion, published in February, found that less than a fifth of Britons (18%) say that they “trust the Government to take decisions on military intervention at their own discretion”.  

The report’s author concluded that “when we drill down into the reasons why Britons are becoming more hesitant towards military interventionism, the consistent refrain is that the UK should focus more on its issues at home, that we have no business fighting others’ battles, and that contemporary conflicts are increasingly abstract and without resolution.”

Yet we have recently seen British deployments to Mali, the very place that French forces are beginning to withdraw after nearly a decade of fighting without resolution. 

Popular Will and Democratic Scrutiny

Not every conflict or humanitarian situation can be predicted, so a general anti-interventionist attitude in the UK doesn’t mean that the public would withhold its support for future interventions, in particular circumstances. This is why the deliberative role of Parliament is so essential. And yet, when it comes to Special Forces deployments, there is no legislative ability to provide oversight. Unlike the intelligence agencies, which are scrutinised by the Intelligence and Security Committee, there is no parliamentary committee allowed to know what UKSF is up to. 

Parliamentary questions on UKSF are also stonewalled, with the Government claiming that this is a long-standing policy. Yet, prior to the late 1980s and the SAS scandal in Gibraltar, where the SAS killed three unarmed IRA members, the Government had been much more open about commenting on UKSF. 

Special Forces, by their very covert nature, require some degree of secrecy. However, the UK is very much an outlier when it comes to democratic countries. In fact, many of the UK’s closest allies, including the US, Canada, Australia, France, Denmark and Norway, have some level of oversight of their special forces. Denmark allows a parliamentary vote over their deployment. In other examples, it includes, at the very least, official statements to the legislature on their activities. 

Considering UK Government’s attitude to parliamentary oversight, it’s unsurprising, but no less concerning, that any details about Special Forces are also exempt under current Freedom of Information laws – and are never commented on by the MoD to the press. 

As well as being a blockade to truth, this policy also allows potentially false rumours about the UKSF to proliferate among an often sympathetic media that seeks to glamorise its actions.

What’s more, any potential wrongdoing by the Ranger Regiment that may be exposed by a whistleblower could land journalists in jail for up to 14 years if they handle leaked material, if the proposed update to the Official Secrets Act is passed.

These three democratic deficits mean that both parliamentarians and the public are without the requisite information to debate Britain’s foreign and military policy. Without an explanation, backed up by evidence, of the reasons for which the UK is entering a conflict – and its stated mission – it will leave the discussion open for unfounded motives to be projected onto Britain’s actions abroad. 

That said, the high degree of scepticism towards the UK’s desire to be “more active” abroad is not unfounded. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said last week that the Ranger Regiment could be used to boost trading and commercial defence opportunities. “We’re going to invest in our defence attaché network, improve their capabilities, improve their training, improve that quality, improve how they work with the Foreign Office, and other government departments in commercial [activity],” he said, adding that “they have to be our eyes and ears”.

He also said, according to the Telegraph, the network would seek to identify trade, security and defence opportunities. This proactive search for ‘defence opportunities’ (what some may call looking for a fight), in part to boost Britain’s arms sales, doesn’t appear to be the most scrupulous criteria for selecting military deployments and foreign forces to partner with. 

The first deployment of the Ranger Regiment will be in East Africa – most likely Somalia, Kenya and Mozambique. If we take the first from that list, this would mean deepening Britain’s partnership with the Somali National Army. The UN Secretary General’s most recent annual report on children and armed conflict highlighted the rise in grave violations against minors by state forces. In 2020, the Somali National Army along with other state forces recruited at least 262 children, killed or maimed 204 children and raped or sexually assaulted 56 girls and boys.

Defenders of Britain’s involvement with Somali state forces would argue that a major part of their mission, as part of Operation TANGHAM, is to give training on human rights and the laws of armed conflict. Indeed, two years after TANGHAM began, the Somali National Army’s civilian casualty rate had dropped by 71%, according to the UN

But if the Ranger Regiment is going on active operations with forces that regularly commit grave violations, there’s no guarantee that their presence will be a stabilising one. Hypothetically, if a rogue foreign soldier killed or maimed on a Ranger or Special Forces operation, this can all too easily be officially ignored or denied. If, for example, two years of British Rangers’ training on war crimes completely failed and did nothing to prevent an increase in civilian deaths, this would be inscrutable since we might not be allowed to know if these specialist forces were even there. 

Ostensibly justifiable counter-terrorism aside, it has been suggested that the Ranger Regiment will also engage in psychological operations to influence local populations. As the Government dives enthusiastically into this experimental ‘grey zone’ of conflict below the threshold of war, it must be subject to some checks and balances.

We cannot know or predict whether the Rangers will be a force for good in the world. One would hope so, of course. But the point is that, if they are given the same level of opaque protection as ‘Tier 1’ Special Forces, we will never know.

If Britain’s soon-to-be most active military force seeks to operate more and more under a blanket of secrecy, while journalists are threatened with the prospect of arrest for revealing the truth, and MPs’ questions are stonewalled, society at large is left with no tools to question the Government’s official version of events.