Today Estonian, United Kingdom and French troops are busy preparing for the annual Spring Storm exercise, the highlight of the training year, where we will be able to will reap the benefits of all the hard work we have put in to integration.
This is always the primary task of each NATO battlegroup. For example, we are now able to lay down joint fires and to synchronize operations. We have integrated training programs so that soldiers are constantly interacting and practicing their skills together, and we have developed deeper understanding and appreciation of each other´s procedures.
Looking to the future, we aim to bring additional capabilities to Estonia and give more soldiers the opportunity to experience the high-level of integration achieved here. For this year´s Spring Storm, officers from the headquarters of the British Army´s 20th Armored Infantry Brigade, including the brigade commander, will observe the exercise and plan for an increased level of participation next year. This is in addition to showcasing the French tank company, and the return of the British attack and reconnaissance helicopters, Apache and Wildcat.
The genesis of the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) came as the result of a decision taken at the NATO Summit, Warsaw, in 2016 to deploy forces to the Baltic States and Poland, as a clear demonstration of solidarity among members of the NATO Alliance. It was taken as part of NATO's response to Russia's illegal actions in Ukraine in 2014. NATO´s deployment thus sends a clear signal of deterrence to Russia, and also serves as a powerful message to the people of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, that the alliance will respond to any aggression against these countries. Today we see that the threat from Russia remains the biggest security challenge, not only for Estonia and the other Baltic States, plus Poland, but also for various states in Eastern Europe.
Ever since the first NATO forces arrived here in 2017, they have stood side by side with their Estonian counterparts, committed to the collective defense of Estonia. As I am now leaving my post as Commander of the NATO eFP Battlegroup after a two year deployment, I am proud to say that these troops, be they from U.K., Denmark or France, are fully integrated into the 1st Infantry Brigade of the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF).
Building a cohesive force out of military units from different nations means integrating procedures and communications, as well as ensuring that command and control can function under pressure. But the most important element is the human connection - and therein lies the strength of the long-term commitment; as different units from the U.K., Denmark and France rotate through their deployments, an ever-increasing number of soldiers and officers are coming for the second and even third time to Estonia, seeing familiar faces and reestablishing professional relationships with their Estonian counterparts.
As a stalwart member of NATO since 2004, Estonia has contributed to numerous missions that the Alliance has undertaken. Under the NATO flag, Estonian soldiers and officers from the Scouts Battalion served together with their British colleagues in the U.K.-led taskforce in Southern Afghanistan, as part of the ISAF operation.
At the national-level, the EDF leadership and the Estonian Ministry of Defense have presented well-developed plans to bolster the military´s deterrence capabilities, aiming to improve artillery systems and coastal defense. For example, the procurement of the K9 Thunder Howitzers from South Korea is a massive increase in capability. In my view, the most important element of these plans is the increased emphasis on procurement of equipment and military cooperation with the other Baltic States. Regional coordination is key in defense planning; the Baltic States are relatively small, and individually they will not be able to develop significant capabilities that would alter the strategic calculations of a much bigger adversary due to cost. But together they could change and improve the security of the region.
As Defense Minister Kalle Laanet said recently in an interview with ERR: "Close defensive cooperation between the Baltic States serves as the cornerstone for strengthening the region. By acting together, we are sending a clear message to our Allies and the aggressor that we must be viewed as a whole." In my opinion, this is the right approach, and the right step to take at this time; success in this endeavor will have great benefits for the future.
I believe that a similar principle should also be applied to all of NATO´s eFP forces in the Baltic States and Poland. Progress has been made in recent years, but more effort is needed to share practices and procedures with the aim to improve the integration and cooperation of the NATO Battlegroups with each nation´s military forces. This effort is already underway. A good example is Exercise Iron Spear, held annually in Latvia, where crews from tank and infantry fighting vehicles come together to train and conduct friendly competition. Later this year, we will host a similar exercise, called Bold Spear, here in Estonia. Focusing on anti-tank weapons, Bold Spear will bring together troops from the NATO forces in the Baltic States, as well as Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian soldiers. The U.K. is also the lead on conducting quarterly air-land integration exercises, such as Furious Wolf, where we use the aircraft from NATO's Baltic Air Policing mission to train army Joint Terminal Attack Controllers.
It has not all been plain sailing, however. Like any other sector of society, the NATO battlegroup at Tapa has been affected by the COVID-19 outbreak. Despite precautions, a number of troops have tested positive for the coronavirus, but we have managed to mitigate this situation by closely following and going beyond the advice and guidance issued both by the U.K. and the Estonian authorities. As a responsible ally, we are doing all we can to limit the spread of infection within our ranks and to and from the local population. At the same time, our operations and capabilities have not been limited by COVID-19. Since the beginning of the pandemic more than a year ago, nearly 4,000 NATO soldiers and officers have moved to and from Estonia. Our integration with the 1st Infantry Brigade continued as planned and we have taken part in exercises in Latvia and Lithuania.
As the commander of eFP, I am proud to report that during my time here, we have increased our interaction and training with the Estonian Defense League (Kaitseliit) dramatically. Our first exercise with the Defense League, Exercise Hunt, took place in 2019, in cooperation with the league's Northern District. Now we are interacting with all the districts in Estonia. Recently, each Company in the NATO Battlegroup was partnered with a Defense League regional command, with the aim of providing support for training. This spring, the battlegroup began sending instructors to the Defense League units, to teach things such as the tactical employment of weapons and battle procedures. In the near future, we also aim to develop opportunities for members of the U.K. military reserves, to take part in Defense League exercises here in Estonia.
I have been incredibly impressed by the dedication and professionalism of all members of the DF. The quality and high training levels of your conscript cycle deliver your nation a truly capable force. Each time there is a snap exercise to test mobilization, I have been astounded by the swift reaction, widespread participation and high standards of equipment maintenance. The level of readiness achieved by your reserve forces is phenomenal and something that I will take back, and push for the U.K. to try and emulate.
Over the last two years, I have emphasized the importance of public outreach; to inform and educate Estonians about the presence and purpose of NATO forces here. In March, I took part in a lecture series called "Tagasi Kooli" (Eng: "Back to School"), where I had the pleasure of talking to, and taking questions from, about 1,400 teenagers in more than 80 classrooms across all parts of Estonia; teenagers who were keen to know more about NATO and the battlegroup activities in Tapa. This was done via live stream, and I was really impressed by participants´ knowledge and enthusiasm for the subject. This was the first time I took part, but I´m certain that future eFP Commanders will want to participate as well.
NATO soldiers at Tapa have organized conversation classes with young people who want to improve their level of English, we have taken part in various ceremonies on public holidays and we were present at the Song Festival in Tallinn in 2019. We have also brought soldiers and equipment to rally competitions, the Tartu Motor Show and numerous other events in Estonia and we have always been well received.
Last year, with the participation of Estonian, U.K. and Danish soldiers and officers, we organized a 1,100 km cycling tour from Tartu, through Pärnu, Saaremaa, Hiiumaa, Haapsalu, Tallinn and Narva. During this tour, President Kersti Kaljulaid took part by cycling with us from Pärnu to Saaremaa.
The public outreach is certainly not the primary task of NATO´s eFP in Estonia, but it is an important part of it – and it allows us, your guests, to experience and enjoy being in your beautiful country.
Overwhelmingly, the people of Estonia support the EDF, NATO membership, and the presence of allied forces in Estonia. Countless polls, taken over the last decades have shown this, and the friendship and positive attitudes demonstrated to me personally and the soldiers and officers, both in Tapa and in Tallinn, are further evidence of this.
This spring the British government published its Integrated Review, laying out the vision for a global Britain and integrating foreign, defense and development policies. Defense is central to this vision; the U.K. aims to be more active and globally engaged, and despite us leaving the EU, we are not tilting away from Europe. We are the leading European ally in NATO and we will continue our leading role in the NATO eFP, reflecting our enduring commitment to European security and to the security of Estonia.
Earlier this year, the U.K. and Estonia celebrated 100 years of friendship and diplomatic relations, established in 1921. But even earlier than that, in 1918, the British government made the brave decision to assist Estonia and the other Baltic states in their struggle for independence. Fast forward almost a century, to 2016, when the U.K. decided to become the leading NATO nation to establish the alliance´s deployment in Estonia – continuing a lasting friendship.
On May 21 I will leave my post as commander of the eFP, and my successor, U.K. Colonel Dai Bevan, will formally take over. I am very proud to have served in Estonia and to be part of our shared history. Thank you.
Editor: Andrew Whyte