Supporting Civilian Authorities

In times of need, Armed Forces support for the emergency services increases, and the boundaries of what this entails are tested.

Although there were clear levels of discomfort with the idea of the Armed Forces patrolling the streets at times of national crisis, many we spoke to felt it is likely that they will play an increasingly public role in support of civilian services such as the police, the medical services, coastguards or fire brigade over the next decade. After all, “it’s not just about going to war,” they have a lot of useful capability. The Armed Forces are good at mounting big, complex logistical operations at short notice; they are trained to provide transport and engineering support, and their medics can operate with poor infrastructure and strained resources. Most recently, this was demonstrated by the 2021 vaccine delivery programme, the 2020 construction of the NHS Nightingale Hospitals, the involvement in the rescue work at Whalley Bridge during the 2019 flood, and stepping in to help during the 2012 Olympics.

The support of the Armed Forces to civil authorities in the UK is officially termed Military Aid to the Civil Authorities (MACA). Unlike some other democracies, there are strict legal boundaries around this which are already covered by the Civil Contingencies Act. This provides the government with powers to create emergency regulations at times of national crisis and threats to safety (including wartime), emergencies that threaten “serious damage to human welfare”, or to the environment or the security of the UK. This means that, in addition to the logistical support, the government can call on them to back up the police if there is widespread disturbance.

That said, almost everyone we spoke to felt that military involvement in domestic matters should be kept to a minimum, even at times of national crisis “The Forces are not for law and order, but can relieve the police of back-room tasks, so they can do front of house.” With the exception of Northern Ireland, there was also an acknowledgement that over the next decade, it is likely the number of crises may increase, as the UK deals with the consequences of Covid-19, Brexit, and other escalating issues. The Armed Forces will have to tread carefully when managing domestic issues. “The conflict we’ve already seen between crowds and the police – I think we are in for a sticky future.” And “we are short of 20,000 police officers, so we will not be able to cope with nationwide marches.” We heard concern that any increase in military deployment may not only challenge the constraints of the Civil Contingencies Act, but it may also shape public perception about the role of the Forces in general. “What people really understand the function of the military to be has already changed; it has been undermined by a lot of political bashing.” Looking ahead, as budgets are expected to be tightened, the Armed Forces may find it challenging to fulfil their primary role to defend the nation from attack, at the same time as supporting the police and emergency services at home. Too much involvement in domestic affairs may mean that “if the military’s role becomes less about foreign wars and more about support of the home nation …. you will just lose public backing and engagement.” Certainly, with more UK-based activities and an increasing public awareness and respect for others in uniformed services, including healthcare workers, veterans may well find that there is increased competition for public support.

Example Implication: An increasingly blurred understanding of the boundaries of accountability challenges public recognition of the role of the Armed Forces, particularly in domestic situations. This shapes their opinion of veterans.





Operations are changing. More contingency, more UK based activities – be it in Nightingale Hospitals or supporting with migrants in the English Channel, the Armed Forces are working with allied uniformed services – but that will mean a wider pool of people society respects is emerging – and that’s a source of competition for veterans in the future.


There is absolutely a challenge to keep the armed forces in the public eye and keeping them engaged in wider society.