Supporting civilian authority: what role for the Military?

Speech by Sir Nick Harvey Minister for the Armed Forces.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Sir Nick Harvey


On the night of August 6th, and for three further nights, a small minority took to the streets in some of our urban centres looting, vandalising, burning, terrorising the law abiding majority.

I think everyone was taken by surprise by the manner in which the violence spread.

It seemed as if copy cat opportunism fuelled by digital communications had resulted in mobs gathering in places tens, sometimes hundreds, of miles apart, but bent on the same criminal end.

In response, the police adjusted their tactics and order was reasserted, but not before the cry went up from some quarters to put the army on the streets.

I shared the feelings of frustration and disgust that must have been behind such calls.

I also believe that in situations of such gravity there is merit in keeping all options available to you on the table.

It provides decisions makers with the ability to escalate response if necessary, which in itself can have a deterrent effect.

So the suggestion was not necessarily unhelpful.

But as the Prime Minister told the House of Commons, the Acting Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police said he would have all his management team out on the streets before he asked for the army.

There is much that defence can do to help facilitate the work of the police and other authorities providing niche capabilities or aiding capacity, even freeing up police in certain circumstances to enable more to take to the streets.

But putting military forces on the streets themselves in a public order role should only happen as a last resort.

Today I want to set out why that is the case.

I also want to set out how much our armed forces do, often unseen, often unsung, to defend the homeland and to make sure that, whenever they are needed, they can mobilise to save lives, protect people and safeguard our way of life.

The last resort

To do this let me set out a little of the historical background.

Between the formation across Europe of standing armies in the 17th century, and the advent of modern police forces in the 19th, the maintenance of order remained a primary role of national armed forces, whether regular or militia.

In Britain, the regional footprint of the army meant that when the local judiciary read the Riot Act, it was often the local regiment that responded.

The Royal Navy too operated in a law enforcement role against smugglers and pirates in much the same way as they operated against the navies of other states.

But the dangers of using the same organisation for national law enforcement as that trained and used for fighting wars against foreign armies were clear.

The Peterloo Massacre of 1819 is an infamous example of why this system was wholly inappropriate for a country embracing modern liberal democracy.

When a body of men on horseback trained in the cavalry charge and the use of lethal force against foreign infantry, came face to face with the confusion, chaos and provocation of a domestic mob bent on venting anger, inevitably mistakes would be made.

And those mistakes would likely be fatal.

As Richard Haldane, the reforming Secretary of War put it in 1908 “We want the army to be a popular institution and not a menace to civil liberty.”

It was only when, during the General Strike of 1926, the police proved themselves capable of maintaining order without assistance that the role of the armed forces in public order became that of last resort, the last defence against insurrection.

Since then, outside of Northern Ireland, the armed forces have not been used in the United Kingdom in a civil order role.

The wrong signal

The same reasons that led Haldane to resist the use of the military in law enforcement remain true today.

Those who are trained in the use of lethal force, trained for battle, trained to impose their will by force on an enemy, trained for the express use of defending the territory and citizens of the country against external threats, they should not be regularly used as an instrument of force against the citizens of that same country.

Many countries continue to maintain gendarmerie type forces specifically to deal with major riots or insurrection often under the command of interior ministries rather than defence ministries.

But crucially these gendarmeries, like our own riot police, are trained to deal with the circumstances they are likely to face, mobs of civilians, maybe even lightly armed.

They are also, like our own riot police, fully aware of the legal underpinning of what they are doing.

This is not what our armed forces are trained for, not what they joined to do.

They would of course have done what was asked, and they would have acted professionally and with self discipline, but it would not have been fair to ask them.

Take the recent history in Northern Ireland.

We learned that we need to prepare carefully for deliberate operations with thorough pre-deployment training, including an understanding of the social and legal context and very robust rules of engagement.

This would not have been the case if we had rushed the army onto the streets to deal with rioters this summer.

As both the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister have pointed out, policing in this country is traditionally undertaken by consent.

Our armed forces are built on an entirely different premise, they exist to defend the people of this country.

We have seen Armies set against citizens this year, in Libya, in Syria.

So think about the signal that putting the Army on the street sends?

It means one of two things has happened.

Either the police have been so overwhelmed by endemic disorder or factional unrest that emergency measures are required to protect people, in other words, a social collapse.

Or the government has lost its legitimacy, lost its popular support, lost its right to rule and rebellion even revolution is on the cards, in other words, a political collapse.

Neither of these were the case in the riots this summer.

This wasn’t social protest, it wasn’t revolution, it was criminality.

As a society and a government we have to learn the right lessons.

The security services too need to be sure they are better prepared for a new type of mob mentality enabled by digital communications that need not be geographically isolated.

But government has to maintain both a sense of proportion and a sense of propriety when responding to situations like this.

In circumstances where the police maintained the capacity to respond, putting the army on the streets would have been wrong and an over-reaction.

It may well have been satisfying for some but it wouldn’t have been satisfactory.

This brings me to my second theme today, when the scale or nature of the problem is sufficient to require extraordinary military intervention on home territory.

The standing tasks of Britain’s armed forces include a number of operations that could be described as homeland defence.

These include the protection of our air space, the control of our national waters and the protection of our interests in nearby international waters.

But the safety and security of citizens in the UK is primarily the responsibility of the Home Office, with the police the lead agency in most instances.

So what is the correct role for the military in safeguarding the safety of citizens on home territory?

When should the armed forces provide, to use its technical term, military aid to the civil authority?

Military aid to the civil authorities

The answer falls into two broad categories, capability and capacity.

Let me explain.

Many of you will remember the harrowing scenes following the 2001 Foot and Mouth outbreak when the military took responsibility for command and control and many of the other tasks fell to them too, including disposal of animal carcasses.

The country was not as prepared as it could have been to meet large scale events.

That is why the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 placed a duty on a number of national, regional and local agencies to plan and prepare for all manner of emergencies.

This is the resilience model in which an incident is dealt with at the lowest level possible, building on tried and tested local multi-agency working arrangements.

Under the Act, no statutory duty is placed on the MOD or the armed forces and, with a few exceptions, military personnel and other assets are not held at high readiness to provide support to the civil authorities.

But the armed forces are one of the only organisations in Britain that can provide, even at short notice, sufficient numbers of disciplined, organised and motivated personnel to carry out essential tasks, however distasteful, to save lives, to ensure the continuity of supplies and services, and to provide support when the civil authorities are stretched.

Let me be clear, the armed forces do not seek, and do not expect, to fill gaps that can and should more appropriately be filled by other government agencies or through the use of commercial operators.

The armed forces need to concentrate on core defence tasks to plan for them, train for them, and generate forces against them.

One of the positive effects of the Civil Contingencies Act is that it is no longer the default reaction among emergency planners to consider the armed forces an easy way out of difficult situations.

They are not cheap labour or simple brute strength.

These are highly trained men and women, highly capable and highly expensive to mobilise.

Consider search and rescue.

Royal Navy and Royal Air Force helicopters, aircraft and mountain rescue teams were called out over 1,900 times last year to respond to civilian incidents, an average of 5 times a day.

Military search and rescues teams do an amazing job in partnership with the Coast Guard and other agencies.

The reason we share this vital task at the moment is historic legacy and the lack of civilian capability to fill the role.

But there is no intrinsic reason why search and rescue in the UK should be a defence task.

That is why it is imperative that the principles behind military aid to the civil authorities are well understood by planners.

Capability and capacity

First, capability.

The military posses specialised skills and equipment that are sometimes required in an emergency situation that it would be unreasonable or prohibitively expensive for them to be developed elsewhere in government.

Where these are required, particularly at short notice, it makes sense for the armed forces to provide them.

This can be anything from expertise and specialised equipment to help in the search for missing people to engineering skills in an emergency.

During the 2009 floods in Cumbria, for example, when bridges over the Derwent were destroyed, 200 Army specialists, including from the Reserves, built what became known as ‘Barker’s Crossing’ to link the two halves of Workington that had been cut in two.

When it comes to specialist security capabilities, for obvious reasons I don’t want to go into specific details, but of course the armed forces are prepared to assist where necessary including in a counter-terror role.

I can say specifically that the Ministry of Defence provides the Bomb Disposal capability for the country outside London.

On this, the armed forces respond on average to about 7 call outs a day, although the majority are false alarms, hoaxes or remnant munitions from the 2nd World War.

Second, capacity.

The armed forces have the capacity to augment any emergency response, drawing on people and resources available at the time, if the scale or duration of any emergency threatens to overwhelm civil capabilities, particularly where the need is urgent and lives are in danger.

This includes responding to natural disasters or emergency situations created by extreme weather.

Last December during the blizzards across the country to armed forces assisted in clearing snow so that help could be brought to vulnerable people.

All told, in 2010/11, the Ministry of Defence provided operational support to civil authorities on 75 different occasions.

Earlier this year for instance, the MOD undertook extensive planning and training for the provision of emergency support to the Ministry of Justice in the event of a Prison Officers strike, not I hasten to add, to do the jobs of prison officers, but to help ensure that both prisons and prisoners remained safe and secure.

Over the years servicemen and women have been used by government to maintain essential services and supplies in the event of disruption, usually, but not always, as a result of an industrial dispute.

Think of the Fire Brigade strikes in 2002 when the Green Goddesses took to the streets.

On this I agree with Winston Churchill when he said in 1919 that “To use soldiers and sailors, kept up at the expense of the taxpayer, to take sides with the employer in an ordinary trade dispute…..would be a monstrous invasion of the liberty of the subject”.

“But” he added, “the case is different where vital services affecting the health, life or safety of large cities or great concentrations of people are concerned.”

It is this caveat, alongside the principles of capacity and capability, which underpins our modern approach to the use of the armed forces at times of industrial dispute.

Of course, most operations under military aid to the civil power contain a requirement for both capacity and capability.

Take the Olympics in 2012 for example.

This will be one of the largest international events to take place in this country for many years.

The security challenge is significant and competitors and spectators alike will want to be sure confident of their safety.

The world will be watching, our friends as well as our enemies.

The experience of other countries is that military assistance is required in a number of roles - including, but not restricted to, securing air space, maritime security, and contingency for rapid response.

So it is no surprise that the Ministry of Defence is involved in the formation and execution of cross-government plans for the Olympics and that the armed forces will be playing their part.

We expect to be in a position to set out details shortly.

The future

Am I confident that, as a whole, we have the got the role of the armed forces in civil contingencies system right?

Should there be a more formalised role for the armed forces in UK resilience?

I am certainly confident in the capacity, professionalism and commitment of our armed forces to tackle any task thrown at them.

The statutory duties set out under the Civil Contingencies Act continue to provide a sound foundation, but to believe that a system is perfect and cannot be improved is simple complacency.

That is why the cross-government approach undertaken by the National Security Council is so important.

In particular, as recommended by the independent review of the UK Reserve Forces, we are looking at how a greater contribution to UK resilience can be achieved by our Reserve Forces.


Ladies and gentlemen, in this discussion we should not lose sight of the primary role of our armed forces, to maintain the capability to apply lethal force against those who would threaten the citizens of our nation and the interests of our country.

This primary role is correctly outward looking, just as that of the Home Office is inward looking.

In this inter-connected, inter-dependent world threats that originate in one part of the world can swiftly impact here at home.

The ability to project power and protect our interests, often at distance, must be the driver for defence capability.

Back in August, when the crisis on the streets of Britain was the focus of our media, it was the streets of Nad-e-Ali and the skies over Tripoli that were correctly the focus of our armed forces.

These brave men and women truly represent Britain at its best.

Pump fire engine *[MOD]: Ministry of Defence

Published 14 October 2011