The article examines the important role of the United Kingdom and Estonia in NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence.
This article was submitted by Robert Clark and Christopher Gavin. Robert Clark is a postgraduate defence researcher at King’s College London, and previously served in the British Army. Christopher Galvin is an LLM candidate studying International Law at the University of Nottingham and has served in both the Royal Air Force and the British Army.
This month sees the culmination of Operation Baltic Protector, the UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) operating across the Baltic Sea Region (BSR). Beginning in May, this multinational force comprising approximately 2,000 Royal Navy personnel, augmented by a further 1,000 personnel and 17 vessels from allied partners across the region, have conducted various large-scale naval, air and land manoeuvres simulating a complex real-time operating environment.
The UK’s defence policy in the BSR is very much underpinned by close cooperation with allied partners and like-minded states with vested geopolitical interests in the region. This is exemplified by the multinational JEF; in addition to the UK, it comprises Lithuania, Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, the Netherlands, Norway, Finland and Sweden. Though not a NATO task force (Finland and Sweden are not member states of NATO), the JEF serves to reinforce NATO’s commitment to the Baltic region, the Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP), which is already a considerable deployment for the UK armed forces.
The EFP is NATO’s permanent military presence in eastern Europe. Designed to deter any external intervention, the EFP articulates clearly the true meaning of Article 5, in which the Allies view an attack against one as an attack against all. The EFP is formed of four main battlegroups, located in Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and the UK-led battlegroup in Estonia. With 940 personnel currently deployed, the UK provides the largest contingent of personnel to the combined EFP body, with the United States (US) following closely behind at 857.
The majority of UK personnel are deployed in Estonia, where they work seamlessly with their NATO Allies. Equipped with main battle tanks, mechanized infantry and air defence assets, this UK-led battlegroup is essential to discourage the persistent threat from the east. Its importance is compounded when one considers that around 25% of the Estonian population is of ethnic Russian descent. Due to this, Russia is provided with the means to manipulate (an albeit illegitimate) justification for intervention, similar to that witnessed in the 2014 illegal annexation of the Crimea; although in Estonia, with a far less sympathetic population.
Whilst EFP-Estonia seeks to ensure territorial integrity of the small Baltic state against a revisionist Russia, upholding the Treaty of Tartu which proclaimed Estonian independence, Estonia itself contributes significantly to its own defence and security. As a country still embracing military conscription as part of a wider ‘all of society defence’, Estonia is one of only seven member states to this year hit the 2% target of GDP on defence spending, Estonia has a defence budget reflective of 2.13% of its GDP, and is anticipating to spend approximately 40% on acquisitions over the coming year which, if achieved, would place Estonia as NATOs third largest defence acquisition member state per proportion of its defence budget.
Recently, the Estonian Ambassador to the US Jonatan Vseviov announced significantly large levels of defence equipment modernisation for the Estonian armed forces. This includes 16,000 new rifles from Lewis Machine Tools Company in the US, similar to the ones used by UK and New Zealand Special Operations Forces, replacing older Soviet models. In addition, Estonia has purchased 155mm howitzers from South Korean company Hanwha, and agreed to buy a short-range air defence system from the French MBDA Missile Systems for $59 million. The Army has also upgraded its dismounted anti-armour capability by purchasing the highly effective US-made Javelin anti-armour missile, and earlier this year the country received the final batch of 44 Swedish-made CV-90 infantry carriers from The Netherlands, giving the Estonian army one of the world’s most sought-after armoured troop carriers.
It is for these reasons that Estonia is considered a country which takes seriously its responsibility and duty as a NATO member. Not only does Estonia exceed the required 2% of GDP spending on defence, but it provides a great deal more which strengthens NATO’s capability as a whole, making it far more a contributing state than a receiving one. Due to the impressive construct of its national defence infrastructure, Estonia has been able to furnish NATO forces with well-placed runways from which to launch air-policing missions, something essential to maintain air supremacy across not only the Baltic region, but eastern Europe more generally.
Marking NATO’s 70th anniversary this year, the organisation’s annual summit is taking place in London this December, offering a prudent time for reflection. Proving the most successful military alliance the world has ever known, with 52% of global defence spending guaranteeing the continued security of nearly 1 billion people, there is much work still needed to safeguard the alliance in an increasingly unpredictable international environment, characterised by revisionist powers seeking to challenge the global rules-based order; something NATO has been instrumental in upholding these last 70 years.
One such pertinent issue is the case for NATO member states to meet the agreed 2% target of GDP for defence. At present, only seven states meet this requirement, including Estonia. Indeed, with the new 2020 Estonian defence plan due to be released next year, it is anticipated that details will begin to emerge before the NATO summit this winter, including announcements of increased acquisition. As a model example of a how a small nation with a big heart can become a net contributor, not a net receiver, NATO states have no further to look than the tiny Baltic state which punches above its weight in the continued defence of Europe.