Estonian and NATO military personnel have been taking advantage of the cold, snowy winter that 2021 has brought, with opportunities for greater cooperation, tactical training and the use of heavy armor in the snow and ice all in abundance.
Exercise Talvelaager ("Winter camp") takes place annually and this year sees personnel from the British Army's 5th Battalion, the Rifles (5 Rifles), an armored infantry battalion which also has Challenger 2 Main Battle Tanks (see video below) and other kit in its panoply in Estonia (from armored regiment the Queen's Royal Hussars' D Squadron - ed.), being able to get some real cold weather experience, in cooperation with their Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) partners.
The EDF's Scout Battalion (Scoutspataljon) has been particularly active, while all levels of command have been taking part in the exercise, ERR's online news in Estonian reports.
Lt. Col. Eero Aija of the EDF said of the cooperation that: "We are acting as a united fist in Estonia's defense, making it important to be able to think how to best integrate the capabilities of the NATO allies into different units' plans, as well as how to iron out any weaknesses in heavy equipment."
5 Rifles on their second tour of Estonia
Lt. Col. Jim Hadfield, 5 Rifles' commander, noted that this was in fact the second tour his unit has been involved in in Estonia, since the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) became a reality in early 2017.
"This is the seventh rotation for the eFP battlegroup – Brits, Danes and French soldiers – and for my battalion, this is the second time we've come to Estonia," Lt. Col. Hadfield told ERR's Sergei Stepanov.
"This cooperation has been going on for three-and-a-half years now, and not just in Estonia but across the wider region, so for us it's been great to come back, see old friends, rekindle old relationships – and that cooperation is just getting better and better, deeper and deeper, and stronger and stronger, and I think you can see that from all the training that you've seen in these conditions," he went on.
Coldest winter since eFP started work
Recent weather conditions have seen temperatures plummet well below the -20C-mark, at nighttime, while daytime temperatures have only been slightly higher. Daytime temperatures at Tapa, home of the eFP, and the EDF's Central Polygon where the exercise is taking place on Thursday were around -12C or colder, on top of the heavy snowfall that has covered much of the country – in other words the harshest winter in Estonia since the eFP took up its place in Tapa.
Lt. Col. Hadfield was confident his soldiers would take that in their stride.
He said: "Soldiers always face challenges, and the best soldiers – and I believe I've got a lot of the British Army's best soldiers – will always rise to those challenges and figure out new ways of training, new ways of equipping themselves, such that we can face those challenges and continue to do our job. So the soldiers are really enjoying the challenge, and we're still delivering against all of our outputs."
Useful integration training between eFP and EDF
One such soldier was Cpl Chris Barrowman of 5 Rifles, who said that: "I've been out here once previously (in the earlier 5 Rifles' rotation – ed.), but it was in the summer, so we've not experienced such low temperatures or the snow. It's the first time I've been out in the tanks in the snow like this."
Since the 5 Rifles use heavy armor, this was particularly useful experience, he went on.
"It's definitely a new experience for a lot of the commanders out here and the crews, we're learning an awful lot from the Estonians about how they use their vehicles, and we're trying to adapt it that with our heavier tanks, we can do the same, and support them in such a good way," Cpl Barrowman added, noting that the surrounding forest and countryside was looking pretty picturesque under the snow cover as well.
Over 600 personnel involved in exercise
Lt. Col. Hadfield noted that the conditions were not ones which the British Army would often encounter, but the opportunity gave even more scope to integrate with the EDF and train together.
"We've been learning from the Estonian scouts, who are the experts in these conditions … and we've certainly been learning a load of tactical lessons about how to integrate and how to better train together," he said, adding that while this hadn't included any military skiing, during down time the unit had been able to get some Nordic skiing practice in as well.
Exercise Talvelaager started last Sunday, with integrated training between units ongoing, culminating in battle scenarios Thursday and Friday, with the Estonian and British soldiers getting conventional combat operations rehearsals underway.
A total of over 600 personnel are taking part in the exercises, including those from the air force (Õhuvägi – organizationally a part of the EDF) and intelligence company as well as the Scouts Battalion and eFP troops.
Editor: Andrew Whyte