In 1968, in the depths of the Cold War and a financial crisis, Britain announced it was withdrawing from the world.
No longer would the Union Jack be a presence in Far East, the Middle East or the Indian Ocean – it would concentrate on Europe, the Atlantic and the Central Front.
For a nation that had fought, and won, two World Wars, a nation which had then only very recently administered the largest empire the world has ever seen, such a voluntary surrender of influence was unprecedented.
The decision was perhaps a symptom of era, of a time Britain was lost as it searched inside itself trying to figure out what it would become.
Alternatively, it was a short sighted measure which governments quickly minimised, if not reversed. For example, in the case of ‘East of Suez’, the government of Heath (that succeeded Wilson), signed the Five Power Defence Arrangement with Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore.
Of course forces also remained in Hong Kong until 1997, whilst Brunei, Diego Garcia, and a Royal Navy manned refuelling station in Singapore are still on-going. In fact since the decision the commitment has grown; due primarily to all the forces which were deployed during the First and Second Gulf Wars, the Afghan war, the West Africa/Indian Ocean counter piracy patrol, and ‘peacetime’ stabilisation forces that are now permanent presence – a presence which includes an RAF Expeditionary Headquarters, established in 2005, at Al Udeid in Qatar.
So what does this new base mean for Britain and its security?
Well, a big part of the East of Suez decision was that just as there would be no permanent bases, the remaining aircraft carriers (the RN at the time had four Centaur class carriers, two Audacious class carriers, and a heavy repair ship, HMS Triumph, a Colossus class carrier) would cease regularly operating East of Suez as well.
This base however, builds on the ongoing presence of ‘UK Maritime Component Command’ and MCMV squadron in Bahrain, to provide Britain with a new regional naval hub. Specifically, it will be able to accommodate even the new Queen Elizabeth class of carrier – meaning that spares and supplies for them will also be kept there.
These spares and supplies are the important thing. Thanks to ‘Replenishment At Sea’, naval forces can, with the aid of enough suitable auxiliary ships, be supported far away from home bases without them having to enter a port. Those auxiliaries though, need to get the supplies from somewhere.
Bahrain is therefore not just useful for supporting operation in the Middle East.
From a global strategic perspective, a base in Bahrain halves the distance auxiliaries need to travel if they are being used to replenish task forces in South East Asia, and cuts to a third the distance for those in the Indian Ocean.
Regionally, the base can be considered a calculated statement of commitment – a proof of ongoing interest in the events of the region that the decisions of the 1960s had undermined.
Britain could even be described as consolidating its position as a global player through the acquisition of bases.
The question is though, will Britain have enough ships, to take full advantage of strategic opportunity this base will grant it? The answer to that lies in the future, and the fates of various expensive defence programmes in the face of ceaseless spending cuts.