Calling in the military to monitor migrants in the English Channel

For the second time in 18 months, the Home Secretary formally requested assistance from the MoD to deal with migrants crossing the English Channel in small boats. Here we look at the background, recent actions and available options for government planners.


So far more than 4,000 people have crossed the English Channel in 2020, attempting illegal entry into Britain. Using small overcrowded inflatable boats to cross one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes is inherently dangerous, even in the benign weather conditions of recent weeks. The arrival of at least 235 people in a single day on 6th August was a new record and there is increasing pressure on government over their handling of the issue.

Any government department asking for help from the MoD must make a request under the provisions of Military Aid to the Civilian Authorities (MACA) rules. Although the Home Secretary may have mentioned the navy, it is up to the Headquarters Standing Joint Command (HQSJC) to decide what resources are best allocated to the task. In this instance, it would appear that the biggest gap in Border Force capability was intelligence and Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) to detect and monitor migrant boats. RAF aircraft have been employed in this role during the past week. Although always ready to do what is asked of it, perhaps to considerable relief within the navy, its vessels have been not be called upon so far, although additional RN personnel have now joined the Border Force team running operations.

The use of the military in a policing role can be controversial but it should be recognised they will be operating under exactly the same legal framework as civilian agencies. Former Royal Marine, Dan O’Mahoney, was appointed by the Home Office as Clandestine Channel Threat Commander (CCTC) on 6th August to run the migrant control operation in collaboration with the French. O’Mahoney was the former Director, UK Joint Maritime Operations and Coordination Centre (JMOCC) which was established in October 2017. JMOCC is primarily designed to manage the deployment of seagoing assets around the UK owned by the RN, UKBF the MCA, Association of Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities.

Soundbite solutions for complex problems

Migration is a highly emotive subject and there are plenty of misunderstandings and extreme solutions doing the rounds. At one and of the spectrum are those demanding we need the Royal Navy to protect us from this “invasion”, the best solution being to “sink migrant boats and let them drown”. Apart from the monstrous inhumanity of such actions, it would be asking sailors to contravene a foundational SOLAS regulation which requires mariners to come to the rescue of anyone in distress at sea. Participants would also be liable for prosecution under international law for crimes against humanity, not to mention making the UK a pariah state in the eyes of the world. Although the majority of the migrants are young men, they are mostly just ordinary people in desperate circumstances and deserve to be treated with care as human beings.

Others call for the UK Border Force or Navy to “push the boats back” or “return the people to France where they came from”. This is not viable without political agreement because UK vessels would need permission to enter French waters as they are no longer conducting ‘innocent passage’ under UNCLOS rules. Feelings are already running high in Calais where the assembling migrants are seen as a British problem that they have to live with. There is limited incentive for the French to prevent migrants attempting to cross the channel and they are very unlikely to welcome back any undocumented people delivered by British vessels. The perceptions around any naval involvement would be especially awkward. On hearing that the UK government was considering deploying the RN, the mayor of Calais, Natacha Bouchart, accused Britain of a “declaration of maritime war”.

The UKBF has four 42m cutters HMC Searcher, Seeker, Vigilant and Valiant. They were built in the Netherlands 2001-04, have a crew of around 16 and a top speed of about 26 knots. Another 50m Cutter, HMC Protector was acquired from Finland in 2013. Three of the cutters confusingly share names with RN vessels, indicating a lack of cross-departmental thinking. (Photo HMC Searcher, 13 June 2020 ©Kevin Kelway)

On the other side of the issue are those in ivory towers calling for the UK to implement ‘an open door’ migration policy. Perhaps they should first consider if they are personally willing to take migrants into their own homes. In reality, a further wave of migrants are either likely to become an exploited underclass, fall into crime or be dumped on resource-starved local councils. People need housing, jobs and public services which are already in short supply and overstretched, especially since the pandemic.

Genuine asylum seekers at risk from political or religious persecution have legal grounds to live in the UK. However many are technically ‘economic migrants’, they may have escaped terrible conditions but have no right to live here. The solution to poverty and failed states cannot be to facilitate large-scale and uncontrolled migration. The UK already has one of the highest population densities in Europe and the legacy of problems created in Germany by allowing mass migration in 2015-16 is not an encouraging example.

Once in the UK, it is challenging and expensive to care for, process and if necessary, deport large numbers people, most of whom have no paperwork to prove their identity. Even if their country of origin is established, that country may be unlikely to accept undocumented individuals who may also become violent or even self-harm when threatened with deportation. In truth, the authorities have a very thorny problem to deal with and few attractive options.

  • A400M RAD English Channel Binoculars

    If its flies, it’s a surveillance platform. Aircrewman on an RAF A400M Atlas cargo aircraft conducts visual search with Mk1 eyeball while deployed over the Channel on 10 August. The MoD justified the use of a heavy transport aircraft as ‘routine’ because the A400M based in the Falklands is occasionally is used to conduct a surface search in the absence of better alternatives.

  • Hunting for migrants with the UK’s most expensive ISTAR asset. Two RAF P-8A Poseidon Weapons Systems Operators conduct a visual search for migrant vessels in the English Channel. (12 Aug 2020)

  • RAF Shadow R1

    Following Atlas and Poseidon, an RAF Shadow R1 aircraft is also being deployed over the Channel. The Shadow is a specialist ISTAR aircraft based on the Beechcraft King Air 350CER twin-turboprop. Fitted with highly sensitive thermal imaging and synthetic aperture radars optimised for overland operations, they are often used in support of special forces. (Photo: ©Jerry Gunner)

  • Bristow is providing two Schiebel CAMCOPTER® S-100 systems to support coastguard operations following a rigorous, three-month test programme which began in March 2020. Both the RN and UKBF do worse than prioritising the purchase of a few S-100s (Photo: Bristow)

  • One of the two Beech King Air 200 surveillance aircraft on contract to MCA and based in Doncaster.

  • If the RN is called upon to become involved in the Channel, it is likely to deploy one of four available OPVs, HMS Tyne, Mersey, Severn or Tamar. HMS Tamar (pictured) commissioned this year and as one of the Batch II river class, is allocated to the new Overseas Patrol Squadron.

Sledgehammer to crack a nut

In a curious deployment pattern, the RAF sent an A400M Atlas transport aircraft to monitor the Channel on 10th August. It would be stretching credulity describe Atlas as an ‘ISR asset’, although anyone can look out of a plane window with a pair of binoculars. This was followed by Shadow R1 on the 11th and 13th while a Poseidon took a turn on the 12th.

Defence Analyst, Francis Tusa, estimates the cost per flying hour (CPFH) for an RAF Poseidon is at least £35,000. It is very hard to justify sending this expensive and highly sophisticated aircraft from Scotland to look for a few rubber dinghies in the English Channel and any ‘training value’ of such a sortie would be pretty limited. With a very small Poseidon force that numbers just two aircraft at present, precious flying hours should be focused on regaining high-end ASW skills for its core mission in the North Atlantic.

The RN has been involved in migration monitoring and rescue missions further afield in the last few years. Notably, HMS Bulwark saved thousands in the Mediterranean during 2015 and HMS Mersey was deployed in the Agean in 2016. HMS Echo and HMS Enterprise both served with EU Operation Sofia 2017-18, intended to break up people-smuggling operations from Libya.

Amidst much fanfare, HMS Mersey sailed to join English Channel migration patrols for a few weeks in January 2019. However, reports of how the ship was used are sketchy. It would appear she provided intelligence to assist the UKBF, rather than interdicting migrant boats herself. The £20,000 cost per day of running the ship was borne by the Home Office, an interesting comparison with Poseidon. With 3,230 km2 of territorial waters to patrol, the RN’s 3-ship Fishery Protection Squadron has its hands full and smaller civilian craft are both cheaper and better suited to migrant patrols.

The decision to use airborne assets this time around makes some sense, given political sensitivities with France and international perceptions. Although lacking the persistence of a ship, an aircraft overhead can cover a much wider area than sensors or spotters at sea level and are not perceived in the same way as a ‘gunboat’.

Supplementing the UKBF cutters are HMC Active, Alert, Eagle and Nimrod – 4 former Rescue and Recovery Craft that were used by the oil industry in the North Sea. These fast 18-metre craft were hastily acquired in 2016 and can achieve up to 34 knots. In calm seas, this type of vessel is much better suited to rescuing migrants in very small inflatable boats than RN OPVs. (Photo: ©Callum Reid)

Wot no drones?

It is something of an indictment of slow and chaotic procurement policy of both the civilian and military agencies that there are so few unmanned ISR assets ready to be deployed. Monitoring the situation in the channel, a repetitive task in uncontested airspace is the ideal employment for unmanned aircraft which are vastly cheaper than sophisticated multi-engine RAF aircraft or Royal Navy OPVs.

In July 2020 the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) began to deploy two Schiebel CAMCOPTER® S-100 systems for overwatch in support of search and rescue missions. Based in Wales, these unmanned rotary-wing craft will be used to develop regulator frameworks for Search and Rescue. The MCA expects UAVs to play a major role in the second-generation civilian SAR contract which begins in 2024. While the MCA has managed to procure theses excellent RUAVs and is pushing forward with this technology, the RN is only just about to bring its first small Puma UAV into permanent service. The MCA, RN, RAF (and potentially the Border Force) have separate ISR UAV programmes. Perhaps a joint procurement, testing and certification framework might save funds and duplication of effort where many requirements overlap.

2Excel Aviation has a 5-year contract with the MCA until 2023 to provide two Beechcraft King Air twin-turboprops based at Doncaster-Sheffield Airport in South Yorkshire. At least one aircraft is available for tasking 24/7 on search and rescue, fisheries protection and anti-pollution monitoring duties. It does not appear these assets or the RWUAVs have been sent south to contribute to surveillance in the Channel so far.


Military Aid to the Civil Authority will always be a key role for the armed forces in a crisis but fundamentally policing work should remain a job for civilian agencies. Arguably the MoD is being asked to clear up a mess created by the Home Office which has failed to manage and fund the Border Force adequately. Migration is an issue that will not be going away anytime soon but the Home Secretary cannot be on the phone the MoD whenever mild weather encourages migrants to cross the Channel.

This ‘crisis’ has again shown there is a shortage of low-end maritime surveillance and enforcement assets which needs to be addressed. Whatever measures are in place, the global problem of migration will not be easily solved and requires joined-up international agreements. The situation may also prove to be just a warm-up for additional pressures on maritime patrol when post-Brexit fishing disputes erupt. Whether it’s migration control or fishery protection, calls to send in the Navy with all guns blazing will not be the answer.


(Main image: Photoshop composite)