Crisis Response: An Underinvested Opportunity for the Military?

Main Image Credit Members of the UK Armed Forces taking part in the evacuation of personnel from Kabul airport during Op PITTING. Courtesy of Defence Imagery / MOD News Licence

The military offers a proven, first-responder capability to conduct crisis response, both at home and abroad. Given an increase in disasters globally, particularly due to climate-related factors, this commentary examines the experiences of the British Army, outlining why it should seize the opportunity to centralise crisis response as a force-driving capability, and suggests areas for investment.

While the primary function of the military is warfighting, the last decade has seen a marked increase in the need to conduct crisis response such as Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR), Non-combatant Evacuation Operations (NEO) and Military Aid to the Civil Authorities (MACA). The military was central to the UK’s national response to the coronavirus pandemic and, more recently, the NEO in Afghanistan under Op PITTING. Other deployments have seen support for flood relief in the UK in 2014 (Op PITCHPOLE) and assistance to the British Overseas Territories after Hurricane Irma in 2017 (Op RUMAN). With troops recently deployed again onto UK streets, to relieve the national fuel crisis, Defence should take the opportunity to prioritise crisis response as a force-driving, core capability.

The requirement for crisis response is greater than ever. The number of weather-related disasters hitting the world has increased five-fold over the past 50 years according to the World Meteorological Organisation, with more than 11,000 events related to water and weather extremes between 1970 and 2019. At the lowest level, the resultant instability plays out as looting and pillaging, such as that witnessed in New Orleans after Hurricane Ida; at the upper level, extremist militant groups seek to exploit their influence and bolster their legitimacy at the expense of the state, such as in Pakistan following flooding in 2010. With an increase in natural disasters, the British Red Cross reports that the military can be expected to play a bigger role, particularly in large-scale disasters and where the capacity of humanitarian organisations is overstretched. Under these circumstances, the armed forces are well placed to provide a ready workforce for general duties and specialists such as medics, engineers and logisticians.

Crisis response should not be mistaken for nation building. When tasked with crisis response, the military typically initiates and enables a relief effort as first responders, focusing on the preservation of life and offering short-term aid to both people and infrastructure, such as the restoration of Critical National Infrastructure, medical, logistic or communications services. The military mission should transition to a supporting role at the earliest opportunity, with responsibility handed to organisations such as the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) or NGOs. Defence is not appropriately configured or resourced to conduct long-term nation building, lacking the capacity, and in places the capability, to provide long-term expertise for establishing national institutions. In this time-bounded approach, the military will meet the humanitarian requirement to preserve life, achieving both political and moral responsibilities, without becoming critically engaged and running the risk of reputational damage.

Defence should take the opportunity to prioritise crisis response as a force-driving, core capability

Critics of military involvement in crisis response argue it is inefficient, inappropriate and expensive, driven by political imperatives rather than human need. It is often true that political imperatives are fulfilled through military means, and this can be classed as effective achievement of sub-threshold activity. The goodwill generated by effective disaster relief offers a powerful opportunity to increase influence in key states and gain increased access to areas over adversaries. For example, as part of its continuing soft power projection, China has engaged in disaster relief in an attempt to gain greater influence in certain countries, such as by providing support after the Nepal earthquake in 2015 and flood relief in Laos in 2018; the country now conducts annual Disaster Management Exchanges with the US in a search for greater international credibility. Russia’s provision of aid to Italy during the coronavirus pandemic is another example of a country seizing an opportunity to enhance its international status. Thus, disaster relief is an effective method of delivering sub-threshold activity, strengthening the case for UK investment.

Whatever the motive, when there is no available civilian alternative, the military offers a fast and proven capability. Even so, there has been limited investment in Defence’s ability to conduct crisis response; there are several areas where the Army could seek quick wins to realise this mission.

Networked Collaboration

There will be limited time for in-depth planning or Mission Specific Training (MST) prior to deployment. During Op PITTING in Afghanistan, 16 Air Assault BCT noted their NEO contingency plan provided a suitable handrail to deploy, yet they had to conduct short-notice MST with the FCDO to integrate effectively. Routine integration, contingency planning and training with multilateral and regional partners at home (emergency services, FCDO) and abroad (UNOCHA, NGOs) will pay dividends once deployed. This collaborative approach is currently limited to the strategic and operational level for bodies such as the Standing Joint Force Headquarters. Measures such as the introduction of unit Resilience Liaison Officers and mandated annual training would ingrain disaster relief at a tactical level. This will seek to develop civil-military relations that currently occupy a marginal place in the humanitarian sector on both sides, specifically through training, operational ways of working and a common lexicon, to cohere responses and avoid situations such as the criticism of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office after Hurricane Irma in 2017.

Mass vs Specialisation

Both generalist and specialist personnel are required for crisis response. Rapidly deployed mass can provide general duties and re-establish security, particularly in non-permissive environments, but specialists such as medics, engineers and logisticians are essential for repairing critical systems. The HADR effort during the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone in 2014 (Op GRITROCK) saw specialist Professionally Qualified Engineers from 170 Infrastructure Support Group construct six treatment centres, which were subsequently run by military medics from 22 Field Hospital; the operation was facilitated through the security provided by 3rd Battalion, The Rifles. However, while general duty personnel are readily available, specialists are often at a premium, with demand quickly outstripping availability. With a change to targeted recruitment, the Army Reserve could provide an additional source of specialist skills – and this would align nicely with RF30 and unlocking the full potential of Reserves – but, at present, mobilising these individuals at speed is difficult.

Evolution of the Integrated Review

Defence engagement-facing units such as Specialised Infantry Battalions, Ranger Battalions and the Security Force Assistance Battalion could assume a greater capacity for crisis response. These units will have existing understanding and in-country connections to plug into, subsequently enhancing the UK’s international standing. Specialist personnel such as medics, engineers and logisticians should be included within these units to diversify response capabilities. This proposal could realise the creation of Global Response Forces, although this seems unlikely at this point. Additionally, the proposal for regional hubs could provide mounting bases from which to launch disaster relief and forward-loading of stores (akin to Primary Equipment Packs for Readiness). Complemented by the continued use of Short-Term Training Teams to improve international relations and in-country intelligence, regional hubs could prove beneficial to any overseas response.

Disaster relief is an effective method of delivering sub-threshold activity, strengthening the case for UK investment

To conclude, warfighting must remain Defence’s core competency, but a greater incidence of crisis response operations should be anticipated. Further development of military response capabilities will strengthen national resilience and overseas relations, enhancing the Global Britain concept, while offering opportunities for the military to diversify.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Lieutenant Colonel Alistair Beard

Former Army Visiting Fellow

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