• Toby Irwin

Assessing UK Response Capabilities in Estonia.

NATO is often regarded as the most formidable and successful security organisation in the world, with a jurisdiction extending from Canada to Eastern Europe. The UK, a founding member, had had a significant role to play since its inception. One particular deployment epitomises the nature and purpose of the Alliance: Enhanced Forward Presence.


NATO's EFP is an extension, or rather continuation, of the original security alliance's doctrine. Note, while the USSR's influence no longer proliferates into Central Europe, the security threat still remains on the very Eastern edges of Europe. The Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) and Poland all share extensive boundaries with Russia. In the case of Poland and Lithuania, this border is on two fronts being Kaliningrad and the Russian heartland. NATO's presence is one of pure deterrence, largely a reaction to Russian aggression in Georgia and Ukraine. NATO maintains: "It represents a significant commitment by Allies and is a tangible reminder that an attack on one is an attack on all."


The UK maintains two battlegroups as part of the deployment, one in Estonia and one in Poland. Around 800 personnel are in Estonia, constituting around 70% of all NATO troops in that country. The latter deployment has 140 troops and represents 13% of NATO troops in Poland. Each of the four host nations represents one battlegroup, each with a lead nation. The UK is the lead nation in the Estonian battlegroup and works alongside troops from Denmark and France. The Latvian group is headed by Canada, Lithuania by Germany and Poland by the United States. It is for this reason that 140 odd British troops in Poland, made up of a Light Cavalry Squadron and bolstered by Royal Military Police, Intelligence Corps, Royal Signals and Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers, are subordinated to the 2nd US Cavalry Regiment.


Analysis of current Russian deployments reminds one of the need for such forward deployments. Not far from Estonia's Eastern Border is the Russian city of Pskov, which is host to a significant military deployment. Commanded from the 76th Air Assault Division HQ are a number of units. The 237th, 104th and 234th Air Assault Regiments all are composed of over 1700 troops each, with each also containing over 110 infantry vehicles and 40 APCs. Bolstering this is the 1140th Artillery Regiment, a Recon Battalion and Tank Battalion. Pskov Air Base is nearby, home to the 334th Military Transport Aviation Regiment. There are reportedly 29 I1-76MD heavy transport aircraft at this base. It is thus likely that any strike into Estonia would be conducted from the air, utilising paratroopers as well as being supplemented by possible tank group, air strikes and artillery. The state of play differs in Kaliningrad, which thanks to its position has inter alia a naval base (with 1 destroyer, 2 frigates and 19 corvettes) as well as infantry groups and a mechanised division. This might explain the US' preference for a more 'cavalry' based defence approach to Poland.


The UK battlegroup thus appears at face value outnumbered. This concern is poorly alleviated by the fact that Estonian ground troops currently only number 1400 regular soldiers and 2500 conscripts. Further concerns arise from the fact that were Russia to initiate a preemptive strike, they would also have the luxury of manoeuvring in reinforcements at a far quicker pace than the allies could. It is perhaps this concern of an air assault that led Estonia to call for greater US presence on the region. In particular, there needs to be more personnel as well as an upgrade to air defences such as procurement of the MIM-104 Patriot missiles. Of course a number of other factors exist such as professionalism, combat readiness, technological edges and communication/logistics. This persists as a topic that will likely be addressed at the forthcoming Defence review 2020.


Sources:

Rondeli Foundation: Russian Military Forces Interactive Map: https://www.gfsis.org/maps/russian-military-forces

IISS Military Balance 2020

NATO: https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_136388.htm

British Army: https://www.army.mod.uk/deployments/baltics/

At the time of writing, Toby Irwin is a third year student at the University of St Andrews. He is studying International Relations. Areas that interest him the most are UK foreign policy and the defence/aerospace industry.

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