UK ‘changes’ at CFB Suffield raise concerns in Medicine Hat

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The word that the British military will not carry out a complete withdrawal from CFB Suffield has come as welcome news to Medicine Hat companies benefiting from their presence.

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But there are concerns that troop levels will be reduced at Canada’s largest military training center, which would be a blow to the local economy.

Earlier this week, the British news media The Telegraph reported that their country’s military had ended its 49-year use of the huge training ground 50 kilometers northwest of Medicine Hat in favor of conducting exercises in the Middle East nation of Oman.

But that was quickly contradicted on Wednesday by British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, who told a British media outlet that the British Army Training Unit Suffield (BATUS) would remain, albeit with changes.

“Of course we want to change what we do there because some of the forces we can use elsewhere, but no, we are not closing BATUS,” he told the British Forces.net.

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“We are present where it matters and the Middle East matters.”

He said the country was seeking to deploy its military to Kenya in East Africa, where British defense officials say it would bring them closer to problems like Ukraine.

In a tweet on Wednesday, the British Ministry of Defense said BATUS “will continue to be a vital training base for the British Army.”

The ministry has not said anything about changes in its use of CFB Wainwright southeast of Edmonton and could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Any reduction in this Alberta presence could be felt financially, said Jeff Gyorkos, co-owner of Dayzoff Pub in Medicine Hat, which regularly counts British soldiers among its customers.

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“They definitely help us, so when you lose something, it hurts,” he said.

“They spend money in the city, not just in pubs – it would be sad to see (some of them) go… They are a staple around Medicine Hat.”

Another Medicine Hat business owner, whose livelihood depends in part on BATUS, said he fears Wallace’s comments could mean a significant withdrawal of troops who are reputable in the city.

The area of ​​undulating prairie, which stretches over 2,700 acres, has long been appreciated by the British military for its vast open spaces not available in Britain

The landscape allows them to perform live fire drills while training combined combat groups of infantry, artillery, armor, air defense, engineers and logistics.

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The BATUS website states that they employ 1,000 vehicles on site, including armor such as British Challenger 2 tanks and infantry tanks.

The UK presence also employs 400 permanent staff and 1,000 temporary staff, many of whom live in Medicine Hat and elsewhere outside the base.

Each battle group that rotates through BATUS includes about 1,400 soldiers, says the British Ministry of Defense.

Medicine Hat business leaders are eager to know more details about the UK government’s plans for the base and expect to hear more later this week, said Lisa Kowalchuk, chief executive of Medicine Hat and the District Chamber of Commerce.

“Hopefully they can clarify that,” she said.

But for now, the chamber sees on the bright side, with Wallace’s assurances, that BATUS is not pulling up the effort, Kowalchuk said.

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“I am quite pleased to see the public statement from the Secretary of Defense because we have had such a positive, long-lasting relationship, which has been shown to have a significant economic impact on our area,” she said.

“We hope to maintain that relationship for another 50 years.”

Another function of the base is Canadian military research, conducted by Defense Research and Development Canada, which assesses chemical and biological weapons and explosives.

Pvt.  Phil Jones from the British Army Training Unit Suffield on top of an armored ship on display at Spruce Meadows in Calgary on September 6, 2017.
Pvt. Phil Jones from the British Army Training Unit Suffield on top of an armored ship on display at Spruce Meadows in Calgary on September 6, 2017. Photo by Darren Makowichuk / Postmedia

According to 2016 statistics, the annual payroll from CFB Suffield, with BATUS a large portion of it, amounts to $ 150 million, while providing $ 8 million in goods and services, Kowalchuk said.

Local companies have contracts with BATUS for e.g. food catering.

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In recent years, concerns have been raised about the behavior of some British soldiers at Medicine Hat irrigation holes.

But pub co-owner Gyorkos and others said they have posed no more of a problem than any other patrons.

“They are like any other customer. There are good and bad and I have never had any problems with them,” he said.

Probably the most well-known trainee at BATUS in recent years was Prince Harry, who participated in live-four exercises there in 2007 before being sent twice to Afghanistan.

The then 22-year-old prince made headlines by visiting Calgary’s Cowboys Dance Hall, where he was reportedly attracted to a female employee.

British troops deployed to BATUS have often exhibited military equipment at Spruce Meadows during equestrian tournaments.

BKaufmann@postmedia.com

Twitter: @BillKaufmannjrn

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