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

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The news that the British military will not fully withdraw from CFB Suffield is welcome news for Medicine Hat companies that are benefiting from their presence.

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

Earlier this week, British news channel The Telegraph reported that their country’s military was ending 49-year use of the expansive training ground, 50 kilometers north-west of Medicine Hat, in favor of conducting exercises in the Middle East. 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’ll change what we’re doing there because some of those forces we could use elsewhere, but no, we’re not closing BATUS,” he told Britain’s Forces.net.

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

He said the country wants to deploy its military to Kenya in East Africa, while British defense officials say this would bring them closer to problem areas such as Ukraine.

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

The ministry did not say anything about changes to the use of CFB Wainwright southeast of Edmonton and could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

Any reduction in that presence in Alberta would be felt economically, 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 if you lose something, it hurts,” he said.

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

Another Medicine Hat company owner whose livelihood depends in part on BATUS said he fears Wallace’s comments could lead to a significant withdrawal of troops, who are well regarded in the city.

The stretch of rolling prairie extending over 2,700 acres has long been prized by the British military for its wide open spaces not available in the UK

The scenery allows them to conduct live fire drills while training combined battle groups of infantry, artillery, armor, air defense, engineers, and logistics.

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The BATUS website states that they have 1,000 vehicles in service at the site, including armor such as British Challenger 2 tanks and infantry fighting vehicles.

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

Each battlegroup rotating through BATUS is made up of about 1,400 soldiers, the British Ministry of Defense says.

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

“Hopefully they can clarify that,” she said.

But for now, the room is looking on the bright side, with Wallace’s assurances that BATUS isn’t raising bets, Kowalchuk said.

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“I am very pleased with the public statement from the Minister of Defense as we have had such a positive, long-term relationship, which has proven to have a significant economic impact in 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 of the British Army Training Unit Suffield atop an armored carrier on display at Spruce Meadows in Calgary on September 6, 2017.
pvt. Phil Jones of the British Army Training Unit Suffield atop an armored carrier on display at Spruce Meadows in Calgary on September 6, 2017. Photo by Darren Makowichuk/Postmedia

According to 2016 statistics, CFB Suffield’s annual payroll, with BATUS a large part of that, is $150 million while wasting $8 million in goods and services, Kowalchuk said.

Local companies have contracts with BATUS for food catering, among other things.

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

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

“They’re just like any other customer. There are good ones and bad ones and I’ve never had a problem with them,” he said.

Probably the best-known intern at BATUS in recent years has been Prince Harry, who took part in live-fire exercises there in 2007 before being sent to Afghanistan twice.

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

British troops stationed at BATUS often have military equipment on display at Spruce Meadows during equestrian tournaments.

BKaufmann@postmedia.com

Twitter: @BillKaufmannjrn

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