Crack British force braces for Timor role

ABOUT 10 days ago, just as the Indonesian army and its militias were embarking on their rampage in East Timor, a smaller and more controlled commotion was taking place in London.

Meetings were arranged in Whitehall between military officers and Ministry of Defence officials.

Satellite phones fitted with encryption devices were assembled, and the destroyer HMS Glasgow was quietly diverted from training exercises in the South China Sea. Within three days a team of British officers was in Australia.

The military operation in East Timor, which was given official sanction in the United Nations Security Council early yesterday, is a nerve-racking test for several international institutions.

Principally, it is a challenge to the credibility of the UN, in putting into practice the results of last month's overwhelming vote for independence. More pressingly, it will require a big humanitarian operation which will have to feed, shelter and protect hundreds of thousands of homeless East Timorese.

But it is also a military challenge for the new security arrangements which have come into effect since the end of the Cold War.

For the British military establishment the unit being tested is the mysterious Joint Force Headquarters. In military jargon they are known as JFHQ, the 200-strong "deployable element" of Permanent Joint HQ, Northwood. Unofficially, they are trouble-shooters, one of the newest and most ambitious ideas within the British military.

The JFHQ was quietly born in 1998, and the easiest way of conveying the kind of work it does is to list the places it has been before East Timor: Indonesia, Sierra Leone, Albania and the Democratic Republic of Congo - low-level conflicts in some of the most lawless countries in the world.

In May last year a small contingent discreetly made its way to Jakarta, where demonstrations and riots were about to bring down President Suharto. This year it turned up in Sierra Leone after embassies had been evacuated during the civil war.

"Expeditionary operations over strategic distances" is the phrase soldiers use to describe its role: the JFHQ might advise on the security of British embassies, lay plans for the evacuation of expatriates or, as in Sierra Leone, meet and talk to warring leaders in situations regarded as too dangerous for civilian diplomats.

Its staff at the headquarters in Northwood are drawn from all the armed services. Its East Timor operation, gathering this week in Darwin, will be its biggest so far.

The Glasgow docked here yesterday; tomorrow 220 Gurkhas, the core of the British contribution, will arrive from Brunei to be flown on to Dili in four British planes. The British contingent, expected to be under the command of Brigadier David Richards, will add up to no more than a fraction of the 5,000 to 10,000 troops which may eventually be deployed, led and dominated by Australia. But British military officials point proudly to the fact that they arrived in Australia before any other supporting nation.

They draw attention to the usefulness of the Gurkha troops - Asian soldiers under European command - in allaying Indonesian suspicion of a force dominated by white neo-colonialists.

All week the Gurkhas have been enthusiastically offering planning advice to their Australian commanders.

If their mission is a success, quite apart from the relief to East Timor, it will vindicate a new strand in British defence thinking.

Since the end of the Cold War the armed services have faced questions about their role and its expense. Since the handover of Hong Kong in 1997, that question has become particularly pressing in the part of the world described as "east of Suez". Senior officers have always argued that, despite the ebbing of the Soviet threat, Asia is a region of great uncertainty in which Britain must remain capable of playing a military role.

THE PEACE-KEEPING CONTINGENT

Of a total of 8,000 troops the largest contingents will be from

Australia up to 4,500

Philippines 600-1,200

Canada Up To 600

Portugal Up To 1,000

New Zealand offered 500

France offered 500

South Korea offered 500 Troops

Britain 250-300 Gurkhas

Thailand 30-40

United States c500

Other countries to offer: Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, Fiji , Pakistan Sweden China (civilian police).

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence