As the Royal Navy mark the centenary of Operation Red Trek, the defence and liberation of Estonia from Bolshevik rule, it is with a measure of professional pride which the UK can rightly reflect upon its continuous commitment to the Baltic region.
This article was submitted to us by Rob Clark (@RobertClark87), a Postgraduate Researcher and British Army veteran.
Solidified with Operation BALTIC PROTECTOR this summer, the UK has underscored its continued presence in this increasingly strategic region.
As part of the nine-member strong Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF), the Royal Navy worked in conjunction with some of its most trusted European partners to ensure British interests are maintained across the Baltic Sea.
Operationally, BALTIC PROTECTOR was about demonstrating credibility as a rapidly deployable military force, whilst signifying British commitment to and freedom of action within the region. Crucially, in the JEFs first operational deployment since its formation in 2018, it was about learning best practice, overcoming and adapting in order to how best take the organisation forward. The operational commander, Royal Navy Commodore Parkin, speaking exclusively to Robert Clark for The British Interest, asserted that this has all been achieved, whilst making “significant leaps forward in developing our interoperability as a military force”.
The interoperability throughout the three distinct phases of the operation has been fundamental to how the JEF can and must operate. Without a legally binding treaty, such as NATO, or a common political and bureaucratic architecture, like the EU, the key to the operational success of the JEF has been its ability to work with like-minded nations, all heavily vested in maintaining the rules-based order in northern Europe, particularly in the maritime domain.
The Minister for the Armed Forces, Rt Hon Mark Lancaster MP, explained this perfectly when he summed up the deployment; “From Denmark to Lithuania, from Sweden to Estonia, BALTIC PROTECTOR will leave potential adversaries in no doubt of our collective resolve and ability to defend ourselves. This force is a key component of European security, a force of friends that complements existing structures and demonstrates that we are stronger together”.
Remaining unshackled from the burden of bureaucracy, Commodore Parkin believes that an additional strength of the JEF is fundamentally found in its relatively small yet inclusive membership; “Having a smaller membership with no binding treaty or collective defence imperative means the JEF is able to think, decide and act quickly”. This ability to think, decide, and act quickly, was highlighted by the freedom of action and mission command afforded at various stages throughout the deployment, whilst all the while working at the interoperability with partner nations.
Some of this partnered work may seem laborious, but is crucial when operating within a multinational task force. Establishing common processes, adapting to a new command structure and understanding one another’s equipment was all part of the integration phase. For instance, the Royal Navy drilled their Royal Marines using every helicopter and landing craft within the force; each nation’s helicopters practised landing on each different deck supported by each ship’s aviation team; and each nation’s landing craft practised embarking and disembarking personnel from each ship. Such work is crucial when operating at a high operational tempo. This afforded the task force the opportunity to utilise other JEF members’ maritime capabilities which are optimised for this region, including the Swedish Visby class corvettes and Norwegian Skjold class fast patrol boats.
This led directly into the final phase, which allowed for the JEF to learn how the it could support the Baltic States during a crisis, and how to work into a larger NATO operation. The task force worked closely with the NATO Baltic Air Policing and enhanced Forward Presence, at one point bringing its collective assets to bear during an amphibious demonstration to senior dignitaries in Estonia.
Commodore Parkin described the success of the deployment as demonstrating that; “the JEF is more than just another security forum – it is also a credible military force. At both the operational and strategic level I think it offers those nations an increased degree of flexibility and variability in how to respond to crises. The JEF can be 2 nations working together to support a humanitarian crisis, or it can be a ‘full fat’ coalition of 9 nations for higher intensity operations”.
The force, comprising over 10,000 sailors, aircrew and Marines, can stand alone as discussed above, or significantly it can dock into NATO or UN operations, as appropriate. Thus the force provides political choice and flexibility not just to the UK, but to its norther European allies. According to Commodore Parkin, this can also “create doubt in the mind of any potential adversary”.
Whilst acknowledging Russia’s legitimate existence in the region, as demonstrated by the presence of the Russian Federation Naval vessel Fodor Golovin observing the task force, Commodore Parkin correctly points out that “94% of the Baltic Sea coastline that is not Russian belongs to either JEF or NATO nations, so as a JEF Task Group we have that inherent legitimacy that comes with sovereign territory and the freedoms granted on the high seas by the rules-based international system to which we are all signed up”.
As the Russian actions in eastern Ukraine since 2014, the Black Sea from last year onwards, and its continued subterfuge across the Baltic states demonstrate, threats to states abiding the rules-based international system are prevalent, shaping an era whereby great state rivalry is back. Sustaining the Royal Navy’s ability to confidently and professionally conduct regular deployments with regional partners and allies, and being able to come together in flexible and highly reactive task forces like the JEF, is clearly in the national interest.
Going forwards, Commodore Parkin accurately points out that media reports of ‘low’ troop figures presents a myopic view on the reality of warfare leading into 2020; “For example, a Type 45 destroyer has less than half the number of people of a Type 82 destroyer, but is an order of magnitude more powerful. The RAF would say the same about a two seat Tornado F3 vs a one seat Typhoon FGR4 – half the people but twice the capability. So when newspapers talk about the “shrinking Navy” by looking at headcount, the argument is completely specious”.
As an interesting nod to where capability in the Royal Navy can be developed, however, the Commodore ascertains that the future of naval warfare lies in maintaining the UK’s technological edge; “be that through unmanned/autonomous maritime systems or novel weapons and sensors”.
However, despite the level of automation and machine learning which is set to revolutionise warfare in the coming decade, Commodore Parkin reserves the most fundamental skill at the Royal Navy’s disposal to a much more human element; “I am consistently struck by the quality and commitment of our people across the whole of the Armed Forces, and they will remain our true fighting edge for some time to come”.
For the full interview with Commodore Parkin see this link to The British Interest