Amidst an increasingly complex world, with national security crises emerging across the globe from the Gulf to the Asia Pacific Region, the possession of armed forces capable of working together in a multi-national manner and being able to deploy globally has never been more important.
Even as the UK changes the nature of its political relationship with Europe, it remains determined to build and enhance the strong existing links between different military forces.
To that end, 2019 has seen the first major demonstration of the so-called ‘Joint Expeditionary Force’ (JEF) on an operational deployment to the Baltic region to test how amphibious forces, supported by a variety of other RN warships can work with allies to conduct operations in the littoral environment.
Op Baltic Protector has seen the deployment of more than 2,000 UK personnel based around a naval task group into the Baltic region to work closely with nations in the region.
The operation has seen several major exercises occur throughout its deployment, testing the full range of UK military capabilities, both from the force, and other UK assets based in the region.
Historically the UK has a long military association with the Baltic area – in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Royal Navy provided active support to help the Baltic republics establish themselves.
During the Cold War, there was significant co-operation between the UK and many nations in the region, particularly against the clear threat from the Soviet Union, and its Baltic fleet.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the re-emergence of the Baltic republics, Russia retained a small foothold in the Baltic, both through the enclave in Kaliningrad, and also further north near St Petersburg.
To this day the Russian Baltic Fleet remains one of the more capable Russian forces, and has received a number of new ships and aircraft recently to replace older Soviet legacy equipment.
The challenge posed by Russia in the region is not inconsiderable, due to a combination of highly aggressive exercises and military activity near the borders of a number of nations in the Baltic. Also, Russia felt aggrieved by the manner with which these nations, which it considers part of its essential sphere of interest, were accepted into NATO, and feels threatened by the presence of NATO forces so close to its national borders.
In recent years there has been growing tension between Russia and the Baltic states, which has seen increases in flights towards their airspace and efforts by Russian warships to enter their waters.
At the same time increased Russian military activity further north, near the borders of Finland and Norway, and increased reports of covert activity within Swedish waters has seen tensions rise elsewhere in the region.
There are increased concerns about the nature of Russian activity, and growing support for higher defence spending and a change to military postures – for example Sweden and Finland have both raised their defence budget in recent years.
This uncertainty is coupled with a rising sense that more needs to be done multi-laterally to increase co-operation and capabilities, to deter not only Russia but also play a more active part on the world stage.
In Sweden for instance, there is a growing interest in doing more with NATO forces, although at present NATO membership remains off the table. Similar conversations are being held in Finland, who has long remained strictly neutral following their defeat by the Soviets in WW2.
Given this uncertainty, it is timely for the UK to look to deploy forces to help emphasise these relationships and help reassure about regional security issues. This desire to help reinforce regional security was the key reason for devising Op Baltic Protector which has been a key part of a much wider UK presence in the Baltic region in 2019.
The overall goal of the deployment was to send a clear message of UK capability and support to allies in the region, and to test a variety of specific capabilities too including that of the so-called ‘Joint Expeditionary Force’ (JEF), a multi-national military HQ that is led by the UK, but designed to integrate and operate with units from several different countries including the Netherlands and all of the Scandinavian nations and Baltic states.
It draws on resources from both NATO and non-NATO nations and is intended to provide a high readiness rapid reaction capability to support nations in times of crisis. While not aimed at deterring any specific nation, it does provide a useful capability in the Baltic region against the threats posed by Russia.
The deployment was intended to help test the force and ensure that it can operate effectively together.
Military integration is a complex business, requiring people from many different countries to be able to work together effectively on shared systems to shared standards and be able to talk and operate together in wartime. It is important to test on exercises what works, and what may require further refinement.
This work needs to be done alongside other allies too, so the plan for Baltic Protector was to conduct these operations alongside the newly formed US 2nd Fleet – a US Navy force intended to enhance maritime security in the North Atlantic and Baltic areas. This helps to test both the JEF capabilities, but also its ability to work with the US as well.
To that end the core of the group was built around the Commander Amphibious Task Group (COMATG), a one-star led battle staff designed to plan and conduct amphibious landings. This team embarked onboard HMS Albion, a Royal Navy amphibious assault ship, led the work to bring these groups together.
Throughout the exercise the UK deployed HMS Albion as the main amphibious platform, testing both her command and control capabilities, and her ability to land the full range of UK military hardware ashore. For example, this included the Challenger Two Main Battle Tank and other military hardware used by both the British Army and the Royal Marines.
Supporting HMS Albion was the Bay Class landing ship RFA Lyme Bay and the aviation training ship RFA Argus. These vessels provided a lot of additional storage space for amphibious vehicles, and a large flight deck to conduct aviation operations from.
Argus may be one of the older vessels in the force (she is one of the last Falkland War era vessels left in service) but she remains remarkably potent. During this deployment she embarked both Merlin Mk4 helicopters (the so-called ‘Jungly’ force) intended to conduct troop lifts, and the Lynx Wildcat which is used for recce and intelligence work.
This is in addition to her possessing a substantial hospital below decks that allows her to be used as a ‘Primary Casualty Receiving Ship’ (under international rules, she can’t be called a hospital ship due to her carrying weapons).
This operation was a very useful reminder of the flexibility of Argus as a platform following an extensive refit. Although she is getting on now in age, she remains a vital ‘second deck’ to conduct aviation training and work from, which as the Fleet Air Arm regenerates for carrier aviation, will prove vital for training the helicopter squadrons.
The Lyme Bay is a large auxiliary Landing Ship Dock, similar in size and appearance to HMS Albion, but without the command and control facilities. She was used to embark troops and equipment and provide support to a variety of exercises during this operation and is a vital part of the UK amphibious landing force capabilities.
Although the UK possesses three of the Bay Class, for the last few years one has been in the West Indies and another in the Gulf working as an MCMV support platform. To that end, the Lyme Bay is currently the only additional LSD(A) available quickly for amphibious operations.
Supporting this force was a single RN escort vessel, the Type 23 frigate HMS Kent. Optimised for ASW warfare, she provided valuable general-purpose escort and support work to the force.
This capability was invaluable in a region that plays home to Russian submarines, which remain one of the most potent capabilities left in the Russian military arsenal. The Kent can provide a range of capabilities including surface warfare, tracking submarines and close in protection using her anti-aircraft missiles systems.
Supporting this main task group was a wider deployment of eight Royal Navy P2000 class vessels for their spring deployment.
Although these are some of the smallest vessels in the RN, they are invaluable in the Baltic environment. This is because the shallow waters, the complex littoral environment and ability to operate in places where larger RN vessels cannot go makes them extremely valuable assets.
During the Cold War many of the nations in the region invested heavily in small fast attack craft able to operate close to land and shelter in the many inlets and bays. The Baltic was an ideal operating space for these vessels which could shelter and operate far more effectively than larger escorts could.
The P2000 force was ideal to use then in this way to emulate this sort of craft in various exercises, and also reach ports not normally visited by RN ships due to their size and draught. An invaluable platform for defence engagement, they also serve as a great training environment for URNU members (students who are spending their spare time learning about life in the Royal Navy) and a great command for junior officers too.
Supporting the Royal Navy contingent was also several foreign warships who integrated into the wider force on a regular basis.
One of the great advantages of operating in a coalition is the ability for nations to pool resources like this and work effectively as one force.
It is a concept long tested through NATO operations and one which works extremely well. The value in operations like Baltic Protector is that it is a good chance to test how these links work, spot issues that need tweaking and build a strong working relationship.
For the UK working in coalition like this is helpful as it reduces the need to deploy escorts (freeing them up for work elsewhere), while ensuring that the investment in highly capable amphibious forces ensures the UK is a leading player in the operation. The outcome is the best of both worlds – the UK gets to take a leading role, but also doesn’t have to provide all the assets for the job at hand.
The operation itself saw several different exercises carried out to help further hone operational skills and experiences and refresh areas not tested for some years.
For instance the Royal Marines are in the process of regaining experience in the maritime domain after many years of operating in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the operation helped them rebuild experience in conducting amphibious operations using the full range of assets from landing craft to the new Fleet Air Arm Merlins to practise raids and landings alongside allies.
The experience gained here is critical in ensuring that were the JEF to be called on for real to conduct this sort of mission for real, there would be a lot of experience to draw on in order to carry it out properly.
The exercises carried out will also help strengthen the deterrent message towards potential aggressors in the Baltic region too. At a time when concerns are growing about Russia's increasingly aggressive posture, and the threats being made to the Baltic States, it is helpful to send a clear message that NATO members and other nations can exercise and operate together in the region.
This message is reinforced by the growing British ground presence on the ground in the Baltic, where on a daily basis nearly 1,000 personnel are permanently deployed across the region as part of Op Cabrit.
This force includes British Army light cavalry units as well as other land elements to work as part of a multi-national force to deter attack.
For example, this year an Apache helicopter detachment has been deployed for four months in Estonia. The Royal Air Force regularly provides detachments of Typhoon fighter jets to provide air defence for the Baltic states as part of NATO air policing.
This is a good example of NATO co-operation and recognising that not every state has the resources or ability to fill every military role. This year there are four Typhoons deployed for about four months in Estonia. By deploying the Typhoon, the RAF can provide effective ‘Quick Reaction Alert’ (QRA) support, while freeing up the Baltic nations to spend money on other defence needs instead.
The Typhoon force is regularly kept busy due to the highly assertive Russian pattern of activity in the region. There are regular scrambles to meet unexpected visitors – between May and June this year at least 8 missions occurred to intercept Russian aircraft operating nearby and monitor them in a safe and professionally appropriate way.
The long-term impact of both OP Baltic Protector alongside the Army and RAF deployments in the Baltic are significant. They send a clear message of reassurance to friends and allies in the region that the UK is prepared to support them, while Russia has to factor in that any attack on a Baltic state is likely to include attacking other NATO forces, which would trigger ‘Article 5’ and bring NATO nations into the conflict too.
This can provide a strong deterrent effect, as Russia knows that it cannot meddle without risking open conflict with NATO.
For Sweden and Finland these deployments help serve as a means of keeping their armed forces integrated with NATO and EU partners. While neither country is likely to join NATO soon, continued close co-operation helps make the ability to operate together on other operations abroad far more likely. For example, deployments on peacekeeping work or support to global crises like the response to Ebola.
There is a wider industrial co-operation message here too as close co-operation now opens the door to future wider defence co-operation in other areas. This makes sense as if you are working closely together, then why not try to build and own the same equipment to increase commonality, reduce costs and make joint working far easier?
This has already been realised in part by the announcement that Sweden intends to join the ‘Tempest’ fighter programme, a UK led project to develop the next generation of fighter aircraft in the 2030s and beyond.
Meanwhile, Finland is actively in the market for a next generation of fighter aircraft to replace its existing F18 force, with the Typhoon firmly in the running. There are potential opportunities here then which would mean closer collaboration between the UK and these nations, providing both an operational benefit, and a win for the UK defence industry too.
For the UK more widely Op Baltic Protector has been a useful exercise on several fronts. It has served as a timely reminder of the UK’s continued commitment to Western security through NATO, providing reassurance at a time when Brexit poses wider questions about the relationship between the UK and Europe.
It has enhanced the defence relationship with many different partner nations and helped the operational focus shift onto support to NATO after many years of relative neglect compared to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. This renewed commitment will sit well with Governments across the region who will be grateful for the significant commitment, particularly when sitting alongside the enhanced US presence in the region as well.
There is a clear message being sent that both the UK and USA, the two leading NATO member states in terms of military capability are taking Baltic defence very seriously indeed.
For the Royal Navy the operation has been a useful chance to demonstrate the ongoing utility of the amphibious force, which in recent years was looking at risk of being scrapped. The demonstration of how force can be lifted and landed as part of a wider multinational operation in the region will be a timely reminder of just how valuable the Albion and Bay Class are for UK defence capabilities.
The chance to use these platforms in the manner intended and exercise landing a force ashore and conducting amphibious raids has helped showcase their utility across a range of operational roles.
Similarly, the opportunity to use Argus as a ‘mini LPH’ helps remind the importance of getting the Queen Elizabeth Class into service in this role, where both carriers will be able to deploy with Chinooks and Apaches embarked too.
The future looks very bright for the UK and its ability to conduct ‘ship to objective manoeuvre’ using landing craft and helicopters.
Finally, the operation has helped demonstrate the value of maintaining operational planning staffs capable of organising large-scale operations and exercises. While less glamorous than discussing ship numbers or weapons, the existence of the one-star led COMATG HQ is a vital force enabler for the UK.
The HQ has proven itself capable of commanding a major operation involving over 3,000 UK personnel and a force of nearly 20 multi-national warships.
This takes a lot of skill and experience to do effectively and ensure that the balance of capabilities available to the force are used to the best possible effect. Baltic Protector, coming on the back of Exercise Saif Sareea 3 last year in Oman has helped hone these skills and ensure that the UK retains an extremely impressive ability to both command, and conduct, amphibious operations that is arguably second only to the USA.
Overall, Baltic Protector has been an extremely valuable operation to help test a wide range of capabilities and skills and ensure that the Royal Navy remains able to conduct challenging operations with allies.
The message to Russia and other erstwhile aggressors is clear – the UK not only takes the security of the Baltic states very seriously indeed, but it is also prepared to deploy troops to protect them and has demonstrated that it can work well with allies to do this. This message is likely to be heard loud and clear in Moscow and read as a clear sign of UK capability and intent to stand firmly alongside its allies.
This article is the latest contribution in our Lima Charlie columnist section.
This is part of a series featuring unattributed contributions from experts and insiders providing opinion, insight and analysis on today’s Armed Forces, the wider politics of the military and observations on military life.
Under the pseudonym Lima Charlie, our contributors aim to explore the issues facing today’s military and their comment remains unattributed to allow our writers to present their analysis candidly and under one editorial voice.