French NATO force traverses Europe to Estonia amid coronavirus challenges

Wooden anti-roll wedges being hammered in place.
Wooden anti-roll wedges being hammered in place. Source: ERR

Incoming French Air Force (Armée de l'Air Française) and supporting personnel were the first to have to negotiate life after coronavirus, meeting even more logistical challenges than units which preceded them. The decision was made to transport equipment and four heavy vehicles by rail rather than road, with most personnel flying in separately.

The equipment took almost a week to arrive, according to a report on ETV current affairs show "Aktuaalne kaamera" Thursday, with challenges along the way including changes in rail track gauge on reaching the Lithuanian border, and variations in European countries' coronavirus restrictions.

The train started its journey in France on April 16, reaching the Estonian border on Wednesday afternoon. Unloading started early morning Thursday in Paldiski, west of Tallinn, whence it traveled on to the nearby Ämari Air Base.

"There are 45 rail containers bearing different equipment making up the train, as well as four transport vehicles - three fuel machines and one fire truck," said Maj. Lauri Kiviloo, Commander of the Estonian Defense Forces' (EDF) movement and transport service.

The plant arrived almost simultaneously with a French Air Force unit due to take over NATO air policing duties at Ämari. Military personnel are generally exempt from the 14-day quarantine requirement for arrivals in Estonia, though the French contingent was quarantined at home ahead of travel, instead; other precautions are still taken, including the wearing of facemasks, which the personnel were pictured doing.

"We were quarantined for 15 days before entering Estonia to ensure that we did not bring any viral cases," said the unit's commander, Lt-Col. Mathieu Courtaban, Commander of the French Contingent.

The difference in rail gauge in the Baltic States and the rest of Europe also had to be negotiated, with the entire complement of equipment having to be lifted from one train to another at Šestokai in Lithuania, with wooden blocks needing to be nailed to the platforms while this was in process – a Soviet-era requirement which caused some excitement among the NATO troops, the report said – as an anti-roll measure.

The journey also required crossing Poland, whose border closures at the start of the coronavirus emergency measures installed in most European countries saw dozens of Estonian citizens stranded while returning home, requiring several specially laid-on sea voyages.

While rail circumvents most transport issues anyway, there are even restrictions on NATO military transport in parts of Europe, Maj. Kiviloo said.

"These restrictions vary from country to country in Europe. In some countries, it is permissible to move only at night and avoid highly populated areas. There are no such restrictions in Estonia itself."

The French Air Force unit is to officially start its NATO air policing duties on May 1, with 200 French personnel based at Ämari.

NATO air policing is separate from, and pre-dates, the Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) battlegroup based in Tapa, east of Tallinn, though French personnel have been involved there too.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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