Since 2016 following on from the NATO Warsaw Summit the British army has continuously deployed an armoured battlegroup to Estonia, known as Operation Cabrit.
This is Britain’s primary contribution to a wider NATO operation known as the Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP). A multinational force based in NATOs eastern most countries, to act as a conventional deterrent and reassurance from any possible aggression towards these states. However, while impressive this article will argue, at least in terms of Britain’s forces, why the current approach towards EFP is not necessarily correct.
This article is an opinion piece and was submitted to the UK Defence Journal by Harry Bulpit.
This article is the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the UK Defence Journal. If you would like to submit your own article on this topic or any other, please see our submission guidelines.
Before we can understand how best to tackle the threat, we must first understand the threat itself. There is a common perception that any threat to the Baltics will come in the form of a major Russian armoured push, however, this is extremely unlikely and politically impossible. Even in Crimea the presence of significant Russian forces, officially or otherwise, only occurred relatively late in the crisis. With the corner stone of Russia justification for this intervention in Ukraine being the Putin Doctrine. This is the idea that Russia maintains the right to protect ethnic Russians living abroad from persecution and threats. This has indirectly led to an increase risk of similar Russian action to those in Crimea, in Russia’s other neighbouring states.
As a result of both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, ethnic Russians make up a large percentage of Russia’s neighbours’ population. Indeed 24% of Estonia’s population is considered to be ethnic Russian. As such if Russia want to gain control over the Baltics, it would do so through a deliberate and slow escalation of anti-Russian sentiment, directed towards the “Ethnic Russians” of whatever nation falls into Putin’s sight. until such time that a significant military intervention can be “justified”. This would be achieved through aggravating any existing ethnic tensions through multiple avenues from miss information and political intervention to creating ethnically motivated violence and possibly even false flag terrorist attack. Therefore, the best way to prevent such an altercation is to break the chain of escalation, as opposed to preparing to confront the extreme end of this slippery slope.
As such the best and easiest way to prevent a conflict is through counterintelligence and tackling misinformation. This would be best achieved through a range of organisation both militarily such as 77th Brigade, SRR, and ISR brigade, and civilian such as GCHQ and MI6. Indeed, it is very likely that these organisations are already actively involved in such missions. However, due to the very nature of these units and their role their involvement will likely remain classified. As such for the sake of public demonstration and reassurance, Britain will still need to deploy a sizable and visible military force. However, instead of deploying an expensive and valuable armoured battlegroup. It would seem the Baltics security would be best served through the deployment of a light Protected Mobility Battlegroup.
Equipped with vehicles such as Foxhound and Jackals. Similar to that deployed on Operation Toral. Such a deployment would have multiple benefits compared to the current arrangement.
The time between any initial Russian Involvement in the Baltics and a full-on military invasion. Would be a time of civic violence and insurgency style warfare. Either against groups of local “Ethic Russians” indirectly supported by Russia through military arms and training, or against Russian forces themselves disguised as the latter. With both types of insurgencies being seen in the Crimean conflict. As such a force designed and equipped to handle counter insurgencies and internal security threats, would be the most practical way to counter this level of escalation. Further still the deployment and possible use of lightly equipped forces would have a positive effect on both Britain’s and NATO public image. Russia has made a big deal of the deployment of heavy armoured force by NATO near to the Russian border.
This is not only used to justify their own military build-up, but also plays into Russia’s attempts of creating fake news against the alliance, portraying it as the provocative element of any deterioration in relations between Russia and the West. Therefore, by replacing the current EFP force structure with that of a lighter and less provocative force would not only have a more practical deterrent to the likely threats NATO is to face but would also lead to an instant de-escalation of tension. All while denying Russia possible munition for their miss information campaign.
This is all the more beneficial when looking specifically at Britain’s current force structure. Currently Britain has only six armoured Infantry battalions, held in three armoured brigades within the 3rd Division. However, under SDR 2015 one of these Brigades is to re rolled into a Strike Brigade leaving Britain’s military with only four armoured Infantry battalions in two armoured brigades.
This means with one forth of Britain’s armoured force continuously committed to the EFP, Britain can at best only deploy a brigade plus armoured force. Far below the expectation laid out by SDR 2015 that Britain would be capable of deploying a warfighting division of three brigades. This is in stark contrast to Britain’s “Adaptable Force” which contains a surplus of light Infantry and Cavalry units, many of whom don’t have any specific taskings and are currently sitting ideal between exercises. Indeed, one of the roles of the “Adaptable Force” is to fulfil any of Britain’s long-term military commitments. As such not only would the deployment of a light protected mobility battlegroup to Estonia have multiple practical benefits to NATOs mission, but it would also relieve a great deal of pressure on Britain’s heavily strained armoured force.
This is not to say that Britain’s armoured force have no place in the defence of NATOs Eastern members. As I have previously written about, If Britain is to maintain a significant military presence on the world stage it must maintain the ability to deploy heavy armour. However, in relation to the security of NATOs Eastern nation Britain’s armoured force would serve best as a strategic reserve. Able, along with American, Canadian and French Armoured Forces, to conduct a counterattack to any major Russian incursion. In addition to this if Britain maintains the ability to deploy a sophisticated and heavy warfighting division consisting of two armoured brigades, internationally outside of Europe borders.
It Would not only be a substantial resource to the coalition but would also help maintain Britain’s vulnerable position as the 2nd major nation behind America. It also has to be said that the combined strength of the EFP, even in its current form, would soon be overpowered by any determined Russian military force. As such if NATO strategy were to fail and any altercation was to escalate to the point of a major Russian military invasion. Then a significant percentage of NATO armoured forces would be lost early on, which would significantly hamper any attempt of a NATO counterattack. As opposed to lighter forces which are not only admittable more expendable, but also more able to conduct a fighting withdraw over a long distance.
As such Britain’s armoured forces, and those of other member states, would serve both the security of NATOs Eastern partners and the collation on the whole by being safety kept away from any possible initial attack. Keeping them free not only to conduct a counterattack in case of all out conflict, but also to deploy on any operation around the world.
At the end of the day, the decision to deploy Armoured Forces to the Baltics and Poland lays in the hands of those with much better knowledge of the situation than I or many others will ever know. Indeed, the main task of the EFP is to present an image to Russia and the alliances members, and little sends a more powerful image then a large formation of tanks and other heavy AFV. But from what is publicly understood of the situation. It would seem that the goals of Britain in both the Baltics and NATO as a whole would be best served through the deployment of lighter forces, capable of quickly and effectively dealing with any civil unrest or insurgency.
Which coupled with ISR assets and positive public imagery, would block any possibility of Russia escalating tensions until such a point that heavy armoured formations are required. Leaving Britain armoured forces free to take a leading role in any future major NATO operation, in both Europe and around the world.