British Army to leave Canada after 50 years for new base in Middle East

The British Army is to leave Canada after 50 years, with its biggest training base set to move to the Middle East.

The British Army Training Unit Suffield (Batus) in Alberta, western Canada, has been in operation since 1972, training thousands of British soldiers in live firing exercises. 

More than 1,000 vehicles, including tanks and helicopters, are regularly used by regiments for weeks at a time at the 2,700 kilometre-square base, seven times the size of Salisbury Plain.

However, Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, is expected to announce later this week that plans to modernise the Army will include developing a training area in Oman.

The move to use the Omani desert, near Duqm airbase and port, as the main training ground for tanks and other armoured vehicles will mean the Batus camp, home to more than 400 permanent British staff, and the smaller Wainwright training area nearby, will close.

Defence sources said the shift to the Gulf would enable British forces to position hardware closer and more visibly to partner nations, such as Ukraine and Bahrain, and potential adversaries, such as Iran.

This would reduce the time necessary to respond to any crisis in the region and allow the Government to showcase British military technology to boost potential arms sales.

A defence source close to the plans told The Telegraph: “If you only have 148 tanks and 22 of them are stuck in Canada, that’s 22 tanks that are not at readiness and not available to do anything operational.

“If they are training in Poland or Duqm, the logic is that they are having a more operational and deterrent effect.”

Big tank exercises planned for the next two years

An MoD spokesman said Batus would not close before 2023, as big tank exercises were already planned over the next two years.

Beyond that, small numbers of military personnel would still be located in Canada, as defence attaches, liaison officers and on exchange with Canadian units.  

A British Army soldier takes part in a training exercise in Oman

Credit: Sergeant Benjamin Maher, RLC/British Army

The announcement is set to form part of a broader plan outlining how the Army will adapt to take advantage of digital technology while still maintaining forces available to Nato for battlefield scenarios.

Soldiers have been told to expect an announcement imminently about new structures and unit roles.

The announcement will include an update on the Ranger Regiment, detailing which units will form the new force and the selection and training courses required to join.

The Rangers were announced in March, and will be formed from four existing battalions before recruiting more widely from the Army. 

Ben Barry, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the new Rangers would be described as a special operations brigade and modelled on the US Green Berets.

As with their US counterparts, Mr Barry said the British troops could “work with resistance forces”, for example operating for months alongside Syrian or Afghan fighters against terrorist groups.

Risk in shrinking the Army

They will be supported by a security force assistance brigade, another new formation to be made up of existing units and designed to train and advise partner forces, but not be as exposed to as much potential harm as the Special Operations brigade.

However, Mr Barry said there was a risk in shrinking the Army and making it more specialised at the same time.

Soldiers build a bridge at the British Army Training Unit Suffield in Canada

Credit: Cpl Mark Webster, RLC/Crown Copyright

“If this Special Operations brigade becomes another elite organisation requiring people to compete to be selected into it like Airborne Forces and the Army component of 3 Commando Brigade, this becomes yet another elite force which, by definition, will compete against the other elite forces for highly motivated, self-starting people in an Army that’s getting smaller. 

“There’s a danger it will be difficult to find the people it needs, and if it does find the people it needs it will suck out of the conventional units the self-motivated people that are so important to keeping the unit going.”

The Army plans to reorganise to enable it to fight a major war, after decades in which it became specialised in fighting insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 forced defence chiefs to refocus on building a “heavy metal” warfighting division of tanks and armoured vehicles.

British forces are stationed in Poland as part of Nato’s mission to deter Russia, and training with tanks already takes place there.

The announcement of the move of the training base to Oman comes amid increasing tensions with the Kremlin as a result of the migrant crisis on the Polish border with Belarus.   

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