AOAV: all our reportsMilitarism examined

From mercenaries to trade envoys: what is Britain’s modern military role?

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace recently announced that the British military will help to police the football World Cup in Qatar this winter. 

“Making sure citizens from across the world can enjoy attending the World Cup, Britain and Qatar will join forces to provide air policing in the skies above the tournament,” he said, with the two nations’ Joint Typhoon Squadron to be deployed alongside the Royal Navy to coordinate the event’s security operation. 

It can be safely assumed that this ‘policing’ effort won’t involve investigating those responsible for the deaths of more than 6,500 migrant workers in the decade since Qatar won the right to host the prestigious tournament.

This is not surprising.

To challenge Qatar on its human rights record would be politically inconvenient for the UK Prime Minister, particularly as its Emirr, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, announced £10 billion of investment in the UK economy during a visit to Downing Street in May.

The exchange – cash for legitimacy on the world stage that an association with the UK can provide – is one the Emir has lifelong familiarity with. He attended the private Sherborne school in Dorset (with an alumni that includes the Prime Minister’s father Stanley Johnson) and Sandhurst, the British military academy. 

Every year, Gulf states send young men to the officer training school in Berkshire. A Freedom of Information (FOI) request submitted by the research charity Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) showed that Qatar sent the most foreign students to Sandhurst (50) before Bahrain (41) and United Arab Emirates (26) from January 2019 to December 2020. 

Over three years, the school collected nearly £18 million in international fees from 54 countries, including Azerbaijan, Egypt, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Palestine and Uganda.

Anecdotally, these attendees regularly perform below average, but are given an easy ride to avoid diplomatic embarrassment.

Qatar appears to be following the example of Saudi Arabia – that has for years received geopolitical immunity in exchange for money.

UK ministers avoid directly criticising the Saudi’s relentless bombing campaign in Yemen that has killed or injured at least 11,000 civilians. How could they, when UK arms manufacturers have sold £17 billion of weaponry to the regime?

The lines between global military trade and the role the British state are blurred, as an online job listing, since removed, for a civilian role within the Ministry of Defence Saudi Armed Forces Projects (MODSAP) admits: “MODSAP is in a unique position where it operates across the fringes and boundaries of public and private sector”.

“Our strategy is to capitalise upon the significant future opportunities within the defence and security relationship of both countries”, it adds.

Scrutiny of the Government’s position is often provided by the various relevant House of Commons committees. One can only speculate if this was a factor in the Saudi Foreign Ministry’s decision in September 2019 to pay £7,500 for three Conservative MPs – Tobias Ellwood (Defence Committee chair), Marcus Fysh (then member of the Committee on Arms Export Control) and Royston Smith (a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee) – to visit for a three-day trip. 

Over six weeks in 2021, Ellwood was also treated to more than £20,000 of flights, accommodation and food for trips to Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE. He is no stranger to criticising the Government, yet on the issue of the UK’s arms exports to Saudi Arabia, he is a clear-eyed defender

Silent Soldiers

Ultimately, deepening defence relationships without any serious condemnation of human rights abuses risks emboldening autocracies across the world.

The UK Foreign Office lists Saudi Arabia as one of its 31 human rights ‘priority countries’, citing concerns over women’s rights and clampdowns on political dissent.

But, as was revealed last year, five countries from that list (Bahrain, Bangladesh, Colombia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia) are also identified by the Department for International Trade (DIT) as key export markets for British arms makers. In fact, 80% of the countries under DIT trade restrictions had arms sales approved between 2015 and 2020.

As well as its weapons, Britain is far from selective when it comes to where it sends its so-called ‘Defence People’. A series of FOIs have shown that around 200 UK loan service personnel (LSP) have been provided to 20 foreign militaries over the past decade. 

Consistently, the greatest number (between 65 and 85) work for the Omani military, but Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Brunei all have received 30-plus LSPs annually. Other notable postings include Jordan, Kenya, Liberia, Ethiopia and South Africa.

Since they take their commands from foreign militaries, very little is known about what LSPs are instructed to do. In Oman, they must wear the uniform of the Sultan’s Armed Forces. The UK military rulebook for LSPs bars LGBT and unmarried personnel from serving in certain countries, though the MoD refuses to name them. 

The numbers in each country may seem small, but the MoD puts a lot of stock in their deployment, describing it as “an extremely important mechanism in which the Ministry of Defence provides military assistance to foreign governments”, adding that it “plays a key part in realising the MoD’s International Defence Engagement Strategy and security policy, including Her Majesty’s Government’s wider foreign policy objectives and the promotion of defence sales where this is appropriate”.

But loan service personnel pale in comparison to the global spread of Britain’s army of military diplomats: defence attachés.

As of January this year, there were defence attachés posted in 87 countries with another 80 countries covered by non-resident attachés. This represents a 25% growth in the past decade, with Belarus, Mali, Sri Lanka and Albania being among the most recent to have a permanent attaché established. 

The attachés role in Belarus was short lived after they were expelled in November 2020 for observing street protests following President Alexander Lukashenko’s disputed re-election.

Known as the ‘Ferrero Rocher’ club, due to its reputation for senior officers with large salaries and expense accounts, attachés cost the MoD in excess of £8 million last year, with expenses exceeding £6 million in 2019/20. 

Attachés in India claimed the greatest amount in expenses (£275,000) but those in China (£224,000) and Kazakhstan (£144,000) also claimed large sums. 

Their continental responsibilities contribute to the MoD’s global footprint. An FOI request by AOAV found that MoD personnel took 153,262 commercial flights to 156 countries in just one year (2019/20).

As with the UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, the role of state representative and arms salesperson blurs. 

In 2013, the Government produced a ‘market brief’ for Serbia, encouraging UK traders to enter the Balkan nation’s arms market.

The defence attaché, based in Belgrade, is offered as a point of contact – as a means of establishing contacts, hosting product presentations at the embassy or their residence, or arranging business receptions with Serbian officials.

Despite their ramping up, current political leadership may consider attachés a relic – they were not mentioned once in last year’s Integrated Review, that defined the UK’s military and foreign policy. 

Or, perhaps, the attaché’s role in enabling defence sales is not the kind of purpose that typically gets mentioned in these grandiose mission statements.

Imperial Nostalgia

The establishment of the ‘Ranger Regiment’ is another way that Britain is seeking to expand the influence of its shrinking military.

The Rangers will provide training to foreign special forces, focusing on Africa, leaving special forces to focus on covert operations, domestic counter-terrorism and further training. 

General Mark Carleton-Smith said the Rangers, “give us the capacity for raising, training, mentoring, advising and accompanying local surrogates in high-threat and hostile environments, a role that was previously almost the exclusive preserve of our tier one special forces, but we now need within the conventional force as well.”

He added that such operations were a form of “proxy management” – a “specialist sport” that the UK and US had developed into a “house style” from experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

The regiment’s first two deployments, in February, were to Ukraine and Ghana

There have been calls for the UK military to be more selective in the training it provides, after it was revealed by Campaign Against Arms Trade that it had trained the armies of two-thirds of the world from 2018 to 2020, including 18 of the countries on its human rights priority list. 

Training was provided to Chinese officers, despite the “systemic challenge that China poses to our security, prosperity and values” described in the Integrated Review. 

AOAV has also revealed that exports of nautical radar equipment worth more than £20 million were approved to China between 2015 and 2018. 

And last October, an expert, who was principal scientist at the MoD-controlled security company Qinetiq for 18 years, gave a lecture at a conference that was attended by leading figures in China’s weapons industry. The event was focused around “a new chapter in the development of artillery, shells and missiles”. 

A Government source told The Times: “It’s insane that we are doing nothing to stop the ludicrous practice of letting hostile nations get hold of our best tech.”

A few weeks later, the head of MI6 warned against China’s “large-scale espionage operations against us, targeting those in research of particular interest to the Chinese state.”

If Britain is serious about the threat China poses, it surely seems counterproductive to train their officers, equip their navy and lecture their missile experts. 


Those within the UK military like to laud its world-leading reputation. Undoubtedly, the various specialist British regiments will be able to impart useful knowledge to comparatively smaller fledgling forces like Moldova, North Macedonia and Mali. 

But it should remember that its failures don’t just make domestic headlines. From security breaches at bus stops and online, to billions wasted on the Ajax tank programme, to the callous valuation of Afghan life, both during the conflict and the evacuation, and buried evidence of alleged executions by special forces, the British military’s recent record is far from gleaming. 

And leaders must constantly ask themselves: what is the purpose of this endless mission creep? Is it growth for growth’s sake? Goodwill and soft power have their merits, but what is the expected return? Is it primarily to increase the likelihood of an arms contract from those forces we’ve trained, loaned troops or schmoozed? 

And, ultimately, since it has so recently been shown in Afghanistan that the UK is willing to publicly abandon its partners, our leaders must examine what the military’s commitment to these nations truly is. If it is purely transactional, perhaps we should start calling them mercenaries.