The British Army Training Support Unit Belize, or BATSUB, has been announced as the latest victim of the defence cuts, although some specialist training will continue in the country.
British Forces News reporter Charlotte Cross has been with British soldiers on the last large scale jungle training in Belize as the base prepares to be mothballed…
Second Lieutenant Sam Westlake takes off his helmet and shakes the sweat from his hair and eyes, gratefully dumping his daysack on the ground. It weighs a good thirty pounds, and he’s spent the last five hours carrying it on his back as he and his platoon race across rough ground, assaulting enemy position after enemy position. As always with British Army exercises, the enemy is positioned uphill, forcing the infantry soldier to overcome his weary limbs and straining, burning lungs, as he pushes on to the final attack.
This is the culmination of a three-week Platoon Commanders Course in the devastatingly harsh terrain of Belize. With access to nine thousand square kilometres of primary jungle and open plains, many thousands of infantry troops have undergone the tough training Belize is famous for… almost 9,000 of them in the last three years alone.
Second Lieutenant Westlake is impressed. “Just look around you, it looks like a Vietnam film, it’s pretty sweet really,” he says, “and it’s so challenging compared to anything I’ve experienced in the UK. You’ve got the heat to contend with, so it’s about managing your water, it’s basically something very, very different.”
But next year, as a result of defence cuts, British Army Training Support Unit Belize, or “BATSUB” as it’s known, will be mothballed. The seventy military personnel based at Price Barracks (the main British base shared with the Belize Defence Force) will be reduced to less than ten. Along with a few locally employed civilians, they’ll keep the real estate ticking over.
“The significant majority of BATSUB personnel will be moving on,” says Commanding Officer Lt Col Rob Lindsay, “and we will go down to a much smaller establishment that is able to maintain our presence within Price Barracks. Some limited training will continue.”
Britain’s Armed Forces has a long history with Belize. A former British colony known as British Honduras, the tiny Central American country changed its name to Belize on achieving independence in 1981. But British Forces Belize stayed on, to protect the country from the threat of a cross-border invasion by neighbouring Guatemala. That threat faded in the late 1980s, and in 1994 the main British force went home, leaving behind a small training unit – BATSUB. It’s been the home of the British Army’s jungle training for the last sixteen years.
BATSUB and visiting troops inject around three million pounds a year into the local economy, and employs one hundred and sixty local people, many of whom will now lose their jobs.
The support BATSUB has received from the Government of Belize has always been good. The land and resources are provided for free, with local people enthusiastically taking part in the exercises. In return, the British Army sends out specialist training teams for a few weeks at a time, to train the soldiers of the Belize Defence Force (BDF), who share the main base.
The Commanding Officer of the BDF, Brigadier General Dario Tapia says it’s important to his country’s security that his soldiers are properly trained. “We are surrounded by countries that have professional armies, and the BDF is the only defence this nation has,” he says, “so we have to remain professional, and we can only do that if we have the appropriate training, so it’s important right across the board.”
At Price Barracks, the two 212 Bell Helicopters of 25 Flight Army Air Corps have done their bit to support the BDF, ferrying the soldiers from their camps in the jungle, to their defensive positions on the border with Guatemala. Otherwise, it’s at least a day’s trek by foot. But 25 Flight has already begun scaling down what it does. And a few months ago, it also stopped responding as an air ambulance for the local population. By the end of January, the helicopters will be gone for good.
But the greatest void will almost certainly be the loss of the infantry training exercises that have been a regular fixture here. The Platoon Commanders Course, the very last large scale exercise BATSUB will support, is a perfect example of the high quality training the British Army has enjoyed in Belize.
This time it’s the turn of young officers, fresh from Sandhurst, on an exercise run by the Infantry Battle School. They spend the first six weeks learning tactics in the Brecon Beacons, but for the final three weeks they come to Belize. They learn what it takes to live, fight and survive in one of the most inhospitable places on earth.
When Salisbury Plain and the Brecon Beacons become too familiar to these young officers, it’s important they’re taken out of their comfort zone and forced to live and operate somewhere new and strange to them. That’s what they’ll be up against when they’re sent on operations for real. This is also the longest time any of them have spent living in the field. It’s as much about the psychology of being a soldier, as it is about tactics. The battle to carry on when faced with extremes of physical exhaustion and fear.
Within the next few months, twenty per cent of the young officers will find themselves commanding platoons in Afghanistan. Second Lieutenant Westlake will be serving with 2nd Bn The Parachute Regiment, and he knows how important this training is to prepare him for what he’ll face there. “I think certainly the heat we’ve had to contend with here has set me up nicely,” he says, “and to be honest it’s been hard graft for one month, it’s been constant, and I think it’s the first time I’ve experienced that, so fingers crossed I’m prepared.”
Commanding Officer of the Infantry Battle School, Brigadier James Stevenson, says Belize will be missed. “We’ve really clicked here in Belize, so it is a pity,” he says, “and we’re looking at alternatives because what we don’t want to do is just admit defeat and say, well, we can’t go to Belize therefore we’ll have to go back home. We are still looking for somewhere where we can present the same challenges.”
BATSUB costs the British Government ten million pounds a year to run, and mothballing the facility will save nine million. It’s a drop in the ocean compared to the thirty-six billion pound overspend by the Ministry of Defence, and the training will have to be done somewhere. Senior Officers are considering training areas in the United States, although they may not come free of charge.
Lt Col Rob Lindsay insists this is not the end for BATSUB: “If in due course we needed to come back, then we might be able to in strength, but we’ll continue to do some jungle training on a fairly routine basis, but less than currently is the case.”
One day it may well be needed again. But for now the Caribbean sun is setting on British Army training in Belize.
British Forces News