Reclaim the Bases

Presentation for the ESF Seminar
USA's military bases and the militarisation of the European Union in the service of "global war against terror". Strengthen our fight against them. Andreas Speck, War Resisters' International

Friday,5 May, 14.30-17.30 hrs


I want to talk about resistance to military bases in Britain, but will also say a few words about Spain. This might be surprising, but maybe it is less so when I explain my own role in this. I am not only working at War Resisters' International1 in London – an international network of pacifist and antimilitarist groups – but I am also part of the nonviolent direct action group D102, which was instrumental in setting up the network Reclaim The Bases3 in Britain. This network goes back to early 2003, before the start of the war on Iraq. The first call to reclaim the bases was taken up by War Resisters' International internationally, and was especially taken up by Alternativa Antimilitarista-MOC4 in Spain, with actions happening annually ever since.

When we talk about resistance to military bases in Britain, there are three main aspects to consider:

  • US bases in Britain, or on British territory. This includes the two US bases abroad capable of hosting B-2 bombers: Fairford in Gloucestershire, and Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. I assume that Rae Street from CND will talk more about these US bases.
  • Bases related to the British nuclear deterrent: This includes AWE Aldermaston and Burghfield, the British nuclear weapons factory, which is presently heavily extended for the new generation of nuclear weapons; and Devonport5 and Faslane and Coulport6 as main nuclear submarine bases.
  • Bases in relation to British military operations: This in theory includes almost all RAF, Navy, and Army bases, but obviously there are some more important ones, and a lot of less important bases.

When we discuss resistance to military bases, it has to be said that most of the resistance presently focuses on bases related to nuclear weapons: AWE Aldermaston especially, but also Devonport and soon a new and stronger campaign at Faslane, aiming to shut down the base for a full year, which will begin on 1 October 20067.

However, although resistance is not strong, and so there might not be much to report, I would like to focus more on the third category of bases: military bases in Britain used for British military operation, and here with a focus on the ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.Troops involved in military operations abroad:


The main contingents deployed to Afghanistan are The Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Light Infantry (RGBW LI), comprising of a Regimental Headquarters based at Custom House in Gloucester with a Branch at 'the Wardrobe' Salisbury, and one operational battalion, The 1st Battalion, which is currently based at Cavalry Barracks Hounslow8.

In addition, the RAF No 1 squadron deployed Harrier Aircraft to Afghanistan. They are normally based at RAF Cottesmore.

In addition to these home bases of British troops in Afghanistan, it has to be mentioned that the Permanent Joint Forces Headquarters in Northwood play in important role in planning and coordinating British operations in Afghanistan.


As Iraq is still a major military operation for the British military, it's hard to keep track of troops deployed in Iraq. In general, troops of the 1st (UK) Armoured Division (mostly based in Germany) are part of the British military contingent in Iraq. The 7th Armoured Brigade, the so called Desert Rats, and most of Britains Scottish regiments are also regularly deployed in Iraq.

Important home bases are: the Army HQ in Wilton, near Salisbury and Aldershot, also close by, and home to the HQ of the 4th division, which includes the 16th Air Assault Brigade, with HQ at Colchester. Several RAF bases are worth mentioning too: RAF St Athan, RAF Marham, RAF Lossiemouth, RAF Leuchars, and last but not least RAF Brize Norton, the main transport hub for all British air transport operations.

In addition, supplies will also be shipped via HMNB Portsmouth9, which is the biggest Navy base in Britain, and also home to the Navy HQ.


In the first years after 9/11, there was – first with the war on Afghanistan, and then with the war on Iraq – some resistance also focused on military bases, and not only on big marches in London. Groups from London organised nonviolent direct actions at PJHQ Northwood several times, the first on 10 December 2001.

Resistance grew especially strong in the run-up to the war on Iraq. There were several actions at Portsmouth10, at RAF Brize Norton11, RAF Leuchars, where plowshares activist Ulla Røder disarmed a Tornado fighter plane12, and of course PJHQ Northwood13.

Focus of base oriented activities became RAF Fairford, the base where the US B52 bombers took off to bomb Iraq14. There was for some time a permanent peace camp15, and the biggest action saw 5,000 people demonstrating in Fairford.

There were two attempts to coordinate activities at military bases, under the slogan Reclaim The Bases: A first Reclaim the Bases weekend of actions took place on 5 & 6 April 2003, with actions at 17 military bases throughout the UK. A second Reclaim the Bases weekend of actions took place on 17 & 18 January 2004, with actions at six military bases across the UK16.

However, attempts to consolidate resistance around military bases failed, and presently the Reclaim the Bases network is not very active.

Ongoing resistance

Very little is to report on ongoing resistance focusing on British military bases. Last year, there was a demonstration and a weekend peace camp at RAF Brize Norton, the main launch pad for material and personnel supplies to Iraq and elsewhere17.

Activities now focus on the nuclear deterrent in Britain. With regular blockades activists from the Aldermaston Women's Peace Camp18 and Block the Builders19 try to stop development work at the British nuclear weapons factory AWE Aldermaston. The nuclear submarine base at Faslane20 will become the focus of Faslane 365, a year-long blockade of the base. And the refit of the nuclear submarines at Devonport is also focus for actions from time to time, the next time with a disarmament camp from 18-21 May21.

State response

It is interesting that – although resistance focusing on military bases wasn't especially strong – the government attempts to clamp down on this resistance very strongly. The new Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 gives special powers to the police, and turns trespassing into a very serious offence, with penalties of up to 51 weeks imprisonment. So far, the sites covered under this act are22: Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde (Faslane), Royal Naval Armaments Depot Coulport, RAF Fylingdales, RAF Feltwell, RAF Fairford, RAF Lakenheath, Northwood Headquarters, RAF Menwith Hill, RAF Brize Norton, RAF Mildenhall, RAF Croughton, RAF Welford, Sea Mounting Centre Marchwood.

No surpise that this includes almost all nuclear sites, almost all US bases, and the most important British bases, especially Northwood and Brize Norton.


Unfortunately, military bases are not a focus of anti-war activities, neither in Britain, nor in Spain, and almost nowhere else, as far as I know. I think this is problematic – both countries are still part of the so-called “war on terrorism”, with both present in Afghanistan, and Britain still being the second-largest force in Iraq. Both also contribute troops not only to the new EU battle groups, but also to the European Union Rapid Reaction Force.

Where resistance exist, it is unfortunately strongest in relation to US bases (Spain, Britain), or in relation to nuclear bases (Britain). This might reflect a certain anti-Americanism within the population, but does not reflect the role of the two countries in the war on terrorism.

With a few to the increasing military role of the EU, this becomes even more problematic. From an antimilitarist point of few, it does not make too much difference when the bombers taking off from RAF Fairford in Britain, for example, have UK flags painted on them, when they take off to bomb Iraq, Iran, or whatever country might then be a target.

It is clear that EU troops develop their own intervention capacity, independent of the USA. PJHQ Northwood will also be the HQ for the British contingent of the EU battle groups23, and PJHQ Northwood might also play a role for the European Union Rapid Reaction Force. The EU satellite center is based in Torredo in Spain, and any air transport capacity will be of major importance to any EU intervention – with RAF Brize Norton in Britain as the important UK transport base.

More urgently, we might want to look at a possible attack on Iran, by US forces or some form of coalition. As this attach is likely to be short and airborne, the air bases in Britain and Spain will play an important role. The use of RAF Fairford by the US forces is highly likely, as is the use of Diego Garcia. Nonviolent direct action could play an important role in making this attack more difficult, or even impossible.

Appendix I: The role of military bases in Britain

Bases in connection with the UK nuclear deterrent: AWE Aldermaston/Burghfield, Devonport, Faslane. (covered by CND)

US Bases in Britain: Fairford and Welford (to be used for boming Iran?), Lakenheath, Menwith Hill, Filingdales, etc...

A very good briefing on US bases in Britain is available (PDF) here

RAF Fairford

The biggest bomber base in Europe, one of only three forward bases (outside the USA) for B2 Stealth bombers. It is a NATO designated stand-by base and from a low level of activity it can be 'turned on' overnight, receiving and deploying bombers. The base has had extensive refurbishment recently, the largest single NATO expenditure since the end of the Cold War. It was use for B52 bombers during the Kosovo and second Gulf war24.

RAF Fairford provides a forward operating location for US bombers, a 'special operations' training ground and aerial reconnaissance (including spying). It is 1.8 square miles in size with a US personnel complement of 214, which multiplies when the base is pressed into use. Its web site describes the base as 'Europe's premier forward operating location for the US Air Force and NATO' and 'a cornerstone of US bomber operations in Europe'. Fairford is one of three airbases outside the US designed for the long-range B2 £1.7 billion 'stealth' nuclear-capable bombers25.

Diego Garcia

Diego Garcia is a British territory mostly populated by the US military, the British colony that's been colonised by the Americans. Normally the island is home to about 1,700 military personnel and 1,500 civilian contractors. But only about 50 troops are British. The island is used jointly by the Navy and the Air Force. Though the Navy contingent is larger, the Air Force does the flying.

In mid-September 2002 it was reported that the US had requested permission to build special shelters for four to six B-2 bombers at Diego Garcia. The portable climate-controlled shelters take about a month to erect. According to American Spaceframe Fabricators, the contractor that designed and constructed the B-2 Shelter System, two shelters had been constructed by late November and two additional structures would not be completed until June 2003 due to lack of existing concrete foundation26.

British military bases:

PJHQ Northwood

Situated in the London suburb of Northwood, conveniently accessible for activists via the Metropolitan line, is the Northwood Headquarters, also known as HMS Warrior. From the outside it is not visible that Northwood Headquarters play a crucial role in the more and more interventionist military strategies of Britain - or more generally NATO and the Western countries.

Northwood Headquarters is not just one headquarters - it consists of several headquarters with specific roles. At present they are:

  • NATO Regional Command East Atlantic (RC EAST)
  • NATO Component Command Naval Forces North (NAVNORTH)
  • British Permanent Joint Forces Headquarters (PJHQ)27

RAF Strike Command at High Wycombe

RAF Strike Command at High Wycombe controls all of UK's frontline aircrafts (including transport and maritime aircrafts). It is also responsible for the Air Surveillance and Control System - providing early warning of air attacks, and as such a direct recipient of data from RAF Fylingdales. RAF High Wycombe also hosts NATO command centres28.

RAF Marham

No. 13 squadron reformed with the new Tornado GR1A at Honington on 1 January 1990, and moved to its current home, Marham, some four years later.

Developed during the 1930s, Marham has been used as a heavy bomber and fighter Station, before it became the RAF's major reconnaissance base in 1993. Currently operating from Marham are No II(AC) Squadron and No 13 Squadron, both equipped with Tornado GR4As, Nos IX(B) and 31 Squadrons with Tornado GR4s as well as No 39 (1 PRU) Squadron, which operates 5 Canberra PR9s and 2 Canberra T4s. No 2620 (County of Norfolk) Squadron, RAuxAF, is also based here29.

RAF Lossiemouth

RAF Lossiemouth, the largest and busiest fast-jet base in the Royal Air Force. Our Station is home to 3 operational squadrons of Tornado GR4s, the Tornado GR4 Operational Conversion Unit, a Sea King Search & Rescue Flight, an RAF Regiment Field Squadron and an RAF Regiment Auxiliary Squadron, as well as an extensive range of operational, logistic and administrative support functions. Our day-to-day task is to train and prepare for the projection of air power on operations world-wide. Our commitment of people and aircraft to current operations is wide-ranging and continuous: together with the rest of the RAF, we make a pivotal contribution to the defence and security interests of the UK30.

With its present Tornado GR4 complement of 3 operational units - Nos 12, 14 and 617 Squadrons and one operational conversion unit - No XV (Reserve) Squadron, its Sea King HAR 3A helicopter search and rescue unit - 'D' Flight, No 202 Squadron and 2 ground defence units - Nos 51 and 2622 (Highland) Squadrons RAF Regiment, RAF Lossiemouth is one of the foremost stations in the Royal Air Force.

RAF St Athan (near Cardiff, Wales)

RAF St Athan is the largest Station in the Royal Air Force. It is now the RAF's only aircraft maintenance base (DARA). It carries out maintenance and modifications on all the frontline fixedwing planes of the RAF and Royal Navy.

Defence initiatives in recent years has seen the workload at St Athan grow considerably as other bases have been closed. As more Servicemen have been transferred to front-line duties MOD Civil Servants have replaced them and the base now has around 1,500 Servicemen and approximately 3,000 civilians31.


  • DARA’s Fast Jets business at St Athan will close by April 2007,
  • DARA’s Engines maintenance business at Fleetlands in Hampshire will close by April 2007,
  • DARA’s helicopter repair and associated Components businesses at Fleetlands in Hampshire, and Almondbank in Scotland, together with DARA's VC10 work at St Athan, will be taken to the market to test whether sale might deliver improved effectiveness and value for money for our Armed Forces and a better long-term future for the workforce.
  • DARA's Electronics business, based at Sealand in North Wales, will be retained within MOD ownership while we optimise the Department’s future avionics support arrangements32


Special Forces Support Unit.


The new UK Special Forces Support Group (SFSG) has been formed in St Athan, near Cardiff, the Secretary of State for Defence, John Reid, announced to Parliament today, Thursday 20 April 2006.

The unit will provide direct support to UK Special Forces intervention operations around the world and will provide the UK with an additional counter-terrorist capability33.

RAF Leuchars

Again, Leuchars’ position made it ideally suited as a base to ensure the integrity of British air space. For nearly four decades Leuchars’ aircraft have policed the UK air defence region, demonstrating the ability to intercept unidentified aircraft and thereby providing an effective deterrent, a guardianship currently vested in the Tornado F3 interceptors of 43(F) and 111(F) Squadrons. Recent years have seen both squadrons have not just defending British shores, they have also seen action in both Gulf conflicts and policing of the Iraqi southern no-fly zone34.

Time continues to move on, and recently 56(R) Squadron arrived from RAF Coningsby. This move allows their previous home prepare for the introduction of the Typhoon fighter, Leuchars itself being the recipient of this aircraft in the next few years.

RAF Brize Norton

The largest RAF Station in the UK, Brize Norton is the nerve centre of the RAF's air transport capabilities. Opened in 1937, the Station was used to train airborne forces, before being handed over to the USAF in 1950. Strategic Air Command based B-29 and B-47 bombers at Brize, before the RAF reclaimed the Station for use as a tanker and transport base. Currently based at Brize Norton are the VC10s of 101 Squadron, the 8 Tristar K1, KC1, C2 and C2As of 216 Squadron, the 4 C-17s of 99 Squadron and No 2624 (County of Oxford) Royal Auxiliary Air Force Regiment Field Squadron and sister RAuxAF Squadron, No. 4624. Also based at Brize Norton is No 1 Parachute Training School, which includes the RAF Parachute Display Team, the Falcons35.

Wilton (Army HQ)

Wilton near Salisbury and controls about 75% of the troops in the British Isles and almost 100% of its fighting capability.

Land Command's role is to deliver and sustain the Army's operational capability, wherever required through out the world, and the Command comprises all operational troops in Great Britain, Germany, Nepal and Brunei, together with the Army's Training Teams in Canada, Belize and Kenya. Land Command has almost 70,000 trained Army personnel - the largest single Top Level Budget in Defence, with a budget of just under £3 billion. It contains all the Army's fighting equipment, including attack helicopters, Challenger 2 tanks, Warrior Infantry Fighting Vehicles, AS90 (the new artillery gun) and the Multi-Launched Rocket System (MLRS)36.


Headquarters of the 4th Division, which includes several units deployed abroad:

  • 16th Air Assault Brigade (HQ in Colchester)

16 Air Assault Brigade is a unique formation within the British Army due to the combination of airmobility and multinational links. Nationally it is administered by 4th Division. Operationally it is one of the Corps Troops elements of the Allied Commander Europe's (ACE) Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC), and can also be used as an Air Manouevre Brigade within 1 (UK) Armoured Division or 3 (UK) Division. Overall, however, it is under full command of HQ Land Command and can thus be tasked nationally to meet British operational commitments37.

Other units based at Aldershot can be found at


HQ of the 16th Air Assault Brigade.

Appendix II: British forces for a European Military38

Joint: Permanent Joint HQ (Northwood) if required, at least one mobile joint headquarters, including a Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC). Land: either an armored or a mechanized brigade, each of which could be sustained for at least a year, or 16th Air Assault Brigade, which could be deployed for up to six months. Combat support forces such as artillery, air defense, and attack helicopters could also be deployed, supported by logistics forces. Total 12,500. Navy: one aircraft carrier, two SSNs, up to four destroyers or frigates, and support vessels. An amphibious task group including one helicopter carrier and 3rd Commando Brigade could also be made available. The aircraft carrier, helicopter carrier, and submarines could not necessarily be sustained continuously for a whole year. Air: up to 72 combat aircraft, including naval fighters, with 58 associated support aircraft including 15 tankers, strategic transport aircraft, and Chinook and Merlin transport helicopters. This total would be available for an initial six months to cover initial theatre entry; for a longer term commitment the number would reduce.


10See for example: Anti war pledger arrested blockading Ark Royal naval base, 11.01.03,; March and blockade of Portsmouth naval base, 15.03.03,; Portsmouth Naval HQ closed down for the day, 05.04.03,

11Runway Protest Puts Brake On The War Machine at RAF Brize Norton, 20.02.03,

12Tornado plane disarmed at RAF Leuchars, 11.03.03,

14A small list of action at Fairford is available at

23The Times, 23 November 2004,