With the presence of the NATO battlegroup at Tapa, its in-progress expansion into and integration with an Estonian Defense Forces divisional structure, and major commitments at sea and in the air as well, Estonia is now in fact the British military's largest overseas deployment globally.
Speaking Wednesday, battlegroup commander Brig. Giles Harris told ERR News that: "I'm pretty confident in saying that has already been the case for some time. Even without the spikes in numbers during exercises like Spring Storm, it's already a big commitment."
Brig. Harris put the figure at around 11,000 in terms of the number of British soldiers to have already passed through on rotation to the battlegroup, based at Tapa and with headquarters in Tallinn.
This is well over 10 percent of the total regular British Army's current personnel strength, while that figure will continue to rise given the open-ended commitment the U.K. has made and the fact more and more personnel will be deployed to Estonia for the first time, in addition to returnees.
eFP will become the FLF
The changes mean the battlegroup, since its formation in the aftermath of the 2016 Warsaw Summit, will be changing its name from the moniker used hitherto – the enhanced Forward Presence (eFP).
"It's a name in transition. The badges haven't changed, but within NATO circles it's already known as FLF, or Forward Land Forces. You'll see references to both variants, but increasingly it will be known as the FLF," Brig. Harris said.
The battlegroup in any case has been pared down to two allied nations: France joins the U.K. in making up the unit. Denmark has been the main past contributor from among other countries.
Ambassador: UK-Estonia military, other relations remain strong
The continuity and the passage of time has led to a crystallization of relationships, militarily and in other areas, Britain's Ambassador to Estonia H.E. Ross Allen notes.
"We have a very, very positive relationship between the UK and Estonia at all levels," he said Wednesday.
This is evidenced by the number of high level visits going in both directions, but taking Estonia alone, the current prime minister, other government ministers, several high-level military guests and, perhaps most notably, at least two Royal visits, have all come to Estonia from the U.K. in the past couple of years.
Transition from deterrent to defensive posture
While visits of these kind had happened plenty of times before, there has been a definite surge in frequency since the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine by Russia.
This has meant the battlegroup, and Britain's other military presences in Estonia, have moved from a deterrent to a defensive posture.
Brig. Harris said: "Certainly the military awareness, if you were to rewind to 2017 (when the eFP battlegroup became a reality – ed.), was fairly low-key then, but since then it's been 180 degrees – largely because people have been serving here."
This has brought with it challenges, he noted.
"Institutionally there's been more continuity than there was in the beginning, in understanding the region and the challenges here."
As time passes, this has become more and more manageable, however.
"That's an ever-decreasing challenge; in terms of practitioners, it's still a challenge – we have established a layer of two-year appointments; I'm a good example of that as I'm back for my second two years, and others are on their second tour also. So we are addressing the practitioner aspect, too."
Madrid, Vilnius NATO summits prompted UK-Estonia military road map
"At the tactical-integrational level there will be challenges along those lines, for instance with artillery, using different systems – but these have been addressed, and the longer you partner people, the better those things become. So on the tech side there is always going to be a challenge but it's getting better," Brig. Harris went on, noting that the fact that there are only two core nations involved in the battlegroup – in contrast with the multinational Canadian-led battlegroup in Latvia, where the figure is around a dozen – makes for smoother integration and inter-operability.
The two most recent NATO summits, in Madrid in 2022 and in Vilnius last month, have also served to both put in place and tweak a road-map, involving Estonian and British input.
Another key change has been a rise in what are known as lethalities – assets such as the Multiple-Launch Rocket System (MLRS), the participation on exercise of elite outfits such as the Royal Marines and the Parachute Regiment, and, perhaps most obvious to the general public, the deployment of Chinook, Apache and Wildcat helicopters, are all expressions of this.
The number of British military personnel in Estonia also moves with the seasons – quite literally, as Exercise Spring Storm (Kevadtorm) this year saw a spike of around 2,300 personnel in-country specifically for that purpose.
Last year also saw the temporary deployment for several months of a second battlegroup, the Agile Task Force, which, while it is currently not in Estonia, hints at the rationale which is being used as the numbers of personnel and equipment rise.
UK brigade to be on high readiness
While a British Army brigade, usually a formation whose personnel number in the thousands, is in the process of being appended to an Estonian-led division – usually comprising multiple brigades – the balance of the U.K. brigade will remain in that country, albeit at high readiness to deploy when needed.
For this purpose, the eFP headquarters are being up-scaled, commanded by a brigadier (Brig. Harris at present and on a two-year stint) rather than a colonel, and with British staff officers and advisory and liaison teams to be embedded, again often on rotations of a couple of years.
Back home in the U.K., the armored brigade combat team remains under the command of a brigadier-general – who was himself on a visit to Tallinn on Wednesday.
This is somewhat in contrast to the Lithuanian and Latvian models, where in-country forces are more the focus.
Fortunately, Ambassador Allen says, finding those willing to serve in Estonia has not been an issue.
"I've noticed people actually want to come here, for instance a senior RAF officer I spoke to who had been here at the headquarters in a different role the first time, and he said as soon as he saw there was an opportunity to come back in another def role here, he wanted to come, bc he'd enjoyed being here the first time," the ambassador said.
RAF planes intercepted 50 Russian aircraft in five-and-a-half month Ämari tour
While the temptation might be to focus on land forces, this hints at the importance of the other two dimensions.
Britain's Royal Air Force recently concluded a five-and-a-half month tour at Ämari Air Base, where half-a-dozen Eurofighter Typhoons constituted the NATO Baltic Air Policing Mission for that period of time – the RAF has now handed over the baton to the Ejército del Aire, Spain's air force.
The RAF found plenty to keep them busy, too. Not only were they involved in training flights but also a total of 19 live scrambles, intercepting 50 Russian Federation aircraft.
British planes, including Typhoons and Lockheed-Martin F-35B Lightnings, will also still be able to deploy from longer range, from the U.K. itself, even as they have left Ämari, with the help of refueling tankers.
Royal Navy playing its part in safeguarding NATO's 'lake'
The Royal Navy, too, has been much in evidence, most notably with the presence of HMS Albion, an amphibious transport, whose deployment involved around 550 personnel including a complement of Royal Marines.
At the time of writing, in mid-August 2023, at least one Ukrainian drone strike on a Russian vessel in the Black Sea had been in the news – so what are the lessons which could be drawn there, and applied to the Baltic Sea?
The British Embassy's Defense Attaché, Cdr. Rob Steadman, said: "The lessons from Ukraine are quite clear, and much as the Russians are doing on land in terms of the density of landmines per square meter, you can read the same into maritime; but of course it's a lot more difficult with regard to the sea, since this tends to move around quite a bit."
"The Baltic sea is a difficult place to operate in the maritime sphere. There is an entry force element to it; whether that originates from the land or from the sea itself."
This makes the accession of Finland, and the imminent accession of Sweden, to NATO, as the key, final pieces of the jigsaw in creating a "NATO lake," one which nonetheless brings with it challenges, in part given its hemmed-in geography, not to mention its depth (an average depth of 55m, compared with over 1,200m in the case of the Black Sea – the Baltic was indeed literally once a lake – ed.).
But uncrewed weapons like drones, underwater vehicles, sea mines etc. are key to the region, as evidenced by the Estonian Defense Forces' commitment to state-of-the art sea mines even as antiquated, mostly World War Two-era mines are in the process of being neutralized and sometimes detonated, bit by bit.
The Finnish Navy is in fact one of the largest in the world by numbers of vessels, even as these are mostly small, patrol-type boats which, Cdr Steadman says "are perfect for this area. What you don't want here is a particularly large vessel, a capital ship, in the Baltic sea – one could probably look out of the window on the shores of most countries in the region and perhaps see one with a pair of binoculars, if it were present, so that would not be very helpful, particularly if there's capability on board, which is something you don't want to lose."
Brigade-level participation in Spring Storm 2024, 2025
Looking ahead, the Spring Storm commitment continues; 16 Air Assault Brigade is due to take part in 2024, a "good stress test for the division," Brig. Harris added, while the year after that, 2025, is set to see a full brigade participation and further staff integration involving the aforementioned divisional structure.
New weapons systems such as the Swedish-made Archer Artillery System, and the under-development General Dynamics Ajax armored fighting vehicles, are "fairly certain" to be seen in Estonia at some point and perhaps before they are on exercise anywhere else, Brig. Harris goes on; this will also necessitate the training facilities to accommodate them.
Ambassador Allen said: "From our point of view, the greater the opportunities for training here, the better; that applies to all domains. Having good training opportunities here enables us to do more."
Other significant British Army deployments include Iraq, where training local security forces is among the tasks, Somalia, including contributions to UN and EU missions, South Sudan, where the army has deployed nearly 400 troops to the UN Mission aimed at obtaining peace and stability in that country, and Mali (Op Newcombe).
Deployments to British overseas territories such as the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar, and to other countries which Britain has strong historical links to, including Belize, an important training destination, are ongoing, while, closer to Estonia, British Army personnel are also deployed to the NATO eastern flank nations of Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.
The Royal Navy and Royal Air Force operate out of numerous bases overseas.
Britain's armed forces, including the elite Royal Marines Commandos, have been extensively involved in training Ukrainian personnel, particularly since the 2022 invasion began.
Editor: Andrew Whyte, Marcus Turovski