Feature: The world's scariest dress rehearsal (1)
On Sunday NATO member forces rehearsed for the final staged battle of the 2016 Sabre Strike exercise. The demonstration is to take place today in the Estonian Defence Forces' central training area close to Tapa in Lääne-Viru County. As artillery, anti-tank units, infantry, and air support unloaded their guns, Nicholas Marsh stood on "TV Hill" and watched in awe.
The skies are low and leaden as we approach Tapa army base. Two US service personnel stand in fatigues at the entrance ready to greet the arriving visitors along with an Estonian woman dressed in casual civilian clothes. After an awkward moment of not knowing whether to opt for my passable Estonian or my native English our ID cards are checked. Once through the gate we are driven to nearby barracks. Our lift speaks excellent English with a North American accent; a Canadian-Estonian who first returned home after the country regained independence. Since then he has been involved in the Estonian armed forces, including tours in Afghanistan, when not running a business here or back home.
Once in the barracks we see American uniforms everywhere, each being one of the 1,000 or so US troops presently in the Baltics. With English being spoken all around us a sign outside the showers: “SAUN kl 20.00” serves as a gentle reminder that this is nonetheless Estonia.
Once in the press coordination room I first meet Maj. Crighton who would, for the rest of our day, be showing us and explaining in considerable detail all that we would be seeing. The reason for our visit is to witness the dress rehearsals for the NATO Sabre Strike demonstrations being carried out before an audience of generals and ministers from regional NATO members and partners. Far from being new, Sabre Strike is in its 6th year, each time building on the previous year's experiences but with additional dimensions.
Now our motley group are ushered onto a minibus with military correspondents from Minnesota and Germany as well as Latvian and German freelancers before starting a 15 minute drive into the Estonian Defence Forces’ central training area close to the town of Tapa in Lääne-Viru County.
Once there we are shown mobile M777 howitzers and M142 HIMARS missile emplacements in the forest. As we watch and wait in anticipation, it is clear that the troops we are observing are very familiar with the job at hand, each fitting very well into the duties of the other. Actions are precise and swift but not rushed although perhaps not to everyone's eye as one soldier beside me barks to the team before us to look sharp and to look like soldiers. Before long we are all standing with fingers in ears as these cannons deafeningly launch projectiles at their targets some 4 kilometers away.
A little later we are directed back to the bus for another 10 minute drive to what will be the viewing platform for all visiting dignitaries the following day. There, again, a calm efficiency is felt in what we see and hear. Over the next 30 minutes we observe the enactment of a C.E.A.D. or Counter Enemy Arial Defence operation as part of what Maj. Crighton described as the Deep Fight whereby overlapping weapon systems and capabilities allow for engagement of targets at signficant distances in order to neutralise threats to other components of NATO forces fighting closer targets.
Apache attack helicopters swoop low above our heads and down into the valley, armoured personnel carriers pass on the road below and after some broadcasted radio chatter all hell breaks loose as once more we hear the howitzers distantly firing as this time we are at the destination. Soil and vegetation are sent pluming into the air as shells repeatedly strike the same spots in the land ahead of us, the shells' passage an audible whine through the air, their impact and explosion felt on the ears and the chest in simultaneous shockwaves. Not long after mortars, HIMARS and Javelin missiles join the chorus with finally the small arms fire from entrenched Estonian and Latvian infantry; the noisiest of all given their proximity. When the noise ceases another announcement tells of incoming A10 Warthog close air-support warplanes and they soon bank over the arena. Only once they've started moving off does the rapport of one of the gatling guns reach us, sounding like a deranged hammer drill.
When all eventually returns to calm my mood is certainly one of “shock and awe”, despite knowing that this has been just a toned down, safe and abridged version of what might happen in a real conflict zone. All the while two speakers have been addressing the crowd in turns, describing what it is they are seeing. One Estonian, one American, both in English and rehearsing the script they will be delivering to the VIP audience the next day. Their audience today, in stark contrast to the controlled devastation I've just witnessed, has been one of families and other members of the general public, perhaps from the local population. Children have left their parents's side to look around the small area they are permitted to stand in, giddy with the excitement of what has just happened.
As I once more talk to Maj. Crighton as well as other US soldiers, I find there is nothing in the way of the caginess one might expect from soldiers trying to guard their military secrets. On the contrary, the answers have been open and forth-coming regarding the objectives and components of these exercises. Perhaps my surprise is written on my face as one officer explains that the NATO forces are aiming to further embrace a policy of openness and transparency about their training operations and the motives for them in keeping, I learn, with the Vienna Document 2011 on Confidence and Security Building Measures (VDOC11). As a militarily untrained observer, this certainly seemed to be the case. Questions were not side-stepped and when no answer was available the response was a simple “Sorry, but I don't know the answer to that.”. Beyond that, regular soldiers, whether American, Estonian or Slovenian that I spoke to all had a willingness to share with me and one another; one female Estonian soldier pointing out how useful it was to see foreign equipment and capabilities up close.
I am therefore inclined to agree that in this respect this group of NATO forces have been doing just that. Whether this will allay concerns or lessen the likelihood of accusations of secrecy or ulterior motives by others, time will tell, but certainly the offer of transparency seems willingly made.
Beyond the goals of public relations lies the serious business of effective defence and thus, one would hope, deterrence. Here too, there were well-defined objectives: including not only NATO member states but also partner states. Whilst troops were predominantly American, there were others from Canada, Germany, the Baltic States, Croatia, Great Britain as well as Finns, all helping make the deadly choreography we saw come to life. The reason was to allow these troops to experience an operation with a pooling of resources from different militaries and allowing them to see, understand and ultimately utilize what each of those resources can do. For example, it was Estonian and Finnish “JTACs” (Joint Terminal Attack Controllers) directing the targeting of US artillery and A10 strikes, despite Estonia having no such aircraft of its own. A fluid intermingling and exchange of utilities was the aim and ostensibly that aim was met.
I left this day with a mixture of feelings about what I'd watched unfold. The first, felt in the moments after the display I had seen, was of respect for the job of a soldier which ever nation they serve but then there was also an admiration for the professionalism that I had witnessed, without any exception that I can recall and finally one of anticlimax as I drove away, the adrenaline in me ebbing away, returning me to my own quieter existence. That existence is quite possible more secure because of events such as what was seen today