Tuesday, 2 March 2021

Operation Baltic Protector: An interview with Commodore James Parkin

In this interview, Robert Clark talks to Commodore James Parkin, the Commander of the Royal Navy’s Amphibious Task Group, about Operation BALTIC PROTECTOR and the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF), a multinational force comprised of the United Kingdom (UK) and a number of Northern European nations.

RC: As Task Group commander for Operation BALTIC PROTECTOR, what was it that you set out to achieve, and how successfully was it implemented?

JP: First and foremost, this was about the JEF, a year after it was declared fully operational with a Memorandum of Understanding in London. Given that its nine members (the UK, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) are from Northern Europe, we all have a vested interest in security and stability within the High North and Baltic Sea region. 2019 is also the 100th anniversary of the Royal Navy’s crucial role in supporting the independence of the Baltic states, especially Estonia and Latvia.

So we set out to demonstrate our credibility as a rapidly deployable military force; to demonstrate our commitment to, and freedom of action within this region; and to learn lessons about how to take the JEF forward as an organisation. I am confident we have delivered that in spades. We have exercised with 44 ships and submarines from JEF partner nations during BALTIC PROTECTOR, visited or trained in all nine countries (plus Germany and Poland), and made some significant leaps forward in developing our interoperability as a military force.

Mark Lancaster, the Minister for the Armed Forces, explained this perfectly when he summed up the deployment recently:

From Denmark to Lithuania, from Sweden to Estonia, BALTIC PROTECTOR will leave potential adversaries in no doubt of our collective resolve and ability to defend ourselves. This force is a key component of European security, a force of friends that complements existing structures and demonstrates that we are stronger together.

RC: As a maritime force distinct from the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the alliance’s political differences, how do you see the JEF being utilised in the future? As a stand-alone force of like-minded regional states? Or in a close working partnership with NATO?

JP: You have hit upon the key strength of the JEF with that question – it can do any of those things. Having a smaller membership with no binding treaty or collective defence imperative means the JEF is able to think, decide and act quickly. It is an ‘opt in’ framework led by the UK, so the nine nations can decide what and how to contribute. Its other key strength is that all nine nations have a vested interest in the security of this region. So in a crisis the JEF nations would come together quickly; perhaps initially, they might deploy as a stand-alone force. But the JEF is also designed to ‘dock’ into a larger NATO, European Union (EU), or United Nations (UN) operation. So if that crisis escalated, you would see JEF nations merge into a wider coalition. That is exactly what we did during Exercise BALTOPS 19, which took place in the middle of our BALTIC PROTECTOR deployment. The JEF Amphibious Task Group (ATG) slotted under command of Vice Admiral Andrew Lewis and United States (US) 2nd Fleet; and alongside approximately 50 ships from 18 different nations.

To answer the second part of your question, the JEF has a very close relationship with NATO, and seven of the nine JEF nations are NATO allies; but we are mutually supporting, not subordinate. During Phase 3 of BALTIC PROTECTOR we worked alongside RAF Typhoons from NATO’s Baltic Air Policing and British Army Apaches from NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) in Estonia. We even moved a Challenger II Main Battle Tank from NATO EFP onto HMS Albion by landing craft, and back on the Estonian shores the same way.

Penny Mordaunt, the former Secretary of State for Defence, captured this dynamic perfectly when she visited us for the JEF Defence Minister and Chiefs of Defence Conference aboard HMS Albion in June. Standing alongside Mr Raimundas Karoblis, the Lithuanian Minister of National Defence, she said:

A year on from signing the memorandum of understanding we have provided reassurance, we have also shown that we are aligned and we are ready. Russia is becoming more assertive, we see her deploying more forces and new weapons and you can imagine the scenarios that may play out. It is important and right we stand together with our allies. That gives us an adaptable force, the ability to deploy more than 10,000 people on a whole variety of missions, independently or as part of NATO operations as we saw in Exercise BALTOPS. The UK is very proud to be part of this.

RC: Are there at present any plans to increase the membership of the JEF, or to enlarge its remit, to cover areas neighbouring the Baltic Sea region, such as the Artic?

JP: That is probably a question for the politicians. But the remit of the JEF is not just about the Baltic Sea region anyway – it is designed to operate worldwide, should the partner nations so desire. For example, in discussions with other nations, we have discussed the JEF doing humanitarian aid in the Caribbean, or maritime security off West Africa, or operating in the Mediterranean – all of these places are a long way from the Baltic!

But to answer your second question, the High North (or European Arctic) is already a key area of interest for the JEF, given that the JEF includes four of the eight ‘Arctic states’: Denmark (because of Greenland), Norway, Sweden and Finland (the other four being the US, Canada, Iceland and Russia); a further two JEF nations, the UK and Netherlands, are also observers on the Arctic Council. So, although it has not previously been designated as JEF activity, the Royal Marines conduct a Winter Deployment each year in Norway alongside Norwegian and Dutch Armed Forces, and this year we have also trained with Sweden and Finland during Exercise NORTHERN WINDS. So the JEF nations are already well-established and well-integrated in that region, and the JEF is very much focused on supporting security and stability in both the High North and Baltic Sea, as well as anywhere else the governments decide.

RC: What are the main challenges to operating in Northern Europe, and the Baltic Sea region more specifically? As home to the Russian Navy’s Baltic Fleet, it is already a contested environment – the Russian vessel, Fodor Golovin, even approached the Task Force. How did this affect your mission?

JP: In terms of the operating environment for a Maritime Task Group, the challenges are well known. Not only does the Royal Navy regularly send ships to this region, as part of Standing NATO Maritime Groups or to participate in BALTOPS, but we are fortunate to be partners with nations for which the Baltic Sea is their backyard. So the UK has learnt a huge amount from nations whose military capabilities are optimised for the geography and hydrography of the Baltic Sea. And, as I said, we have the historical angle as well – and the BALTIC PROTECTOR deployment is the largest deployment of British maritime power in the region (it peaked at 16 British warships and auxiliaries in the Baltic in late June) since 1919.

Russia is, of course, an entirely legitimate power with territory that borders the Baltic Sea, and we treat it with the professional respect that we give everyone operating in international waters and airspace. However, 94% of the Baltic Sea’s coastline that is not Russian belongs to either JEF or NATO nations, so as a JEF Task Group we have that inherent legitimacy that comes with sovereign territory and the freedoms granted on the high seas by the rules-based international system to which we are all signed up; so, I do not recognise the term ‘contested’ in that respect, as we all know the borders, and we all know the rules, including our Russian counterparts. So while the Russian Navy and Air Force units have closely watched our activity, and we have closely watched them back, our interaction has been conducted in a safe and professional manner throughout. At no point did the actions or proximity of Russian naval or air units disrupt, delay, or contest a single activity during the deployment.

However, we are also ready and able to defend ourselves should this situation change. Penny Mordaunt made this point quite clearly following a House of Commons question on Friday, 12th July 2019, when she said (in response to a question about the size of the Russian Armed Forces):

…yes we could defend ourselves. Just the other week, I was with HMS Albion and others from the nine Joint Expeditionary Force nations. There were 44 ships and submarines. It was the largest Royal Navy deployment in that region – just off Lithuania – for 100 years. Yes, we could defend ourselves, and the size of our trained and untrained strength is growing.

RC: Given both the size and the scope of what BALTIC PROTECTOR set out to achieve, what was the main challenge, as a commander, and what was the biggest reward?

JP: The main challenge of command and control within any multinational coalition, but particularly one as large as BALTIC PROTECTOR, is communications. In line with the construct of the JEF, the Task Group was a fluid entity, with different ships and forces joining and leaving throughout the deployment, not to mention the requirement to dock into the US-led construct during BALTOPS. So we were constantly tweaking and adjusting our communications plan, and ‘Task Group interoperability’ remained one of my priorities throughout.

The reward is always watching a deployment like this come together, after months of hard work and preparation by a huge amount of people. There were two iconic moments during BALTIC PROTECTOR when this was brought home. The first was 28th June 2019, when HMS Albion hosted nine defence ministers and chiefs of defence from the JEF for a conference marking one year since the Memorandum of Understanding was signed. There was a tangible sense of purpose, and it was great to provide the platform for that kind of political commitment to occur. The second was an amphibious exercise we did in Estonia on 3rd and 4th July 2019, which was visited by Estonia’s president and prime minister. It was a true expression of ‘Jointery’ with Royal Navy warships, Royal Marines and British Army Commandos, Fleet Air Arm helicopters from Joint Helicopter Command, RAF Typhoons, and British Army Apaches all contributing to a seamless demonstration of capability. The iconic moment was when the Royal Marines reconnaissance team commander, having ‘heli-casted’ into the sea and come ashore, linked up with an Estonian Defence League soldier on the beach and shook hands. Again, you got a tangible sense that the JEF has real utility and purpose within this region.

RC: Building on the success of the Exercise Unmanned Warrior, the Royal Navy’s display of unmanned and autonomous vehicles in 2016, in particular mine-laying and anti-submarine operations, were any of these capabilities deployed or otherwise utilised during BALTIC PROTECTOR?

JP: Although those particular projects were not part of the UK Order of Battle in the deployment, the training facility off Denmark that we used (known as ‘MULTEX’) allowed us to practise our trade against unmanned underwater, surface, and air vehicles in a tactically realistic setting. In a broad manner, BALTIC PROTECTOR was always planned as framework in which to conduct innovation and experimentation, and we took every opportunity to do so, across the months of the deployment, from both UK and multinational perspectives. For example, using the venerable RFA Argus as an Aviation Support Ship generated some important lessons on how to deploy aviation from our future Littoral Strike Ships, especially given the new airframes operated by the Commando Helicopter Force (Merlin HC4 and Wildcat AH1), and the introduction of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles operating from the same deck. So, there is definitely space for unmanned aerial vehicles in particular for Littoral Strike, and the Future Commando Force are absolutely in that space already, let alone in the future, when we will see it combined with augmented reality systems to deliver all round situational awareness to the commando on the ground.

RC: What were the three main lessons learnt from BALTIC PROTECTOR which the task force can take going forwards, particularly from our allied partners across the JEF?

JC: Phase One was all about learning to integrate a JEF Task Group, including establishing common processes, adapting to a new command structure and understanding each other’s equipment. As part of this integration we made sure the marines practised using every helicopter and landing craft within the force; each nation’s helicopters practised landing on each different deck supported by each ship’s aviation team; and each nation’s landing craft practised embarking and disembarking personnel from each ship. It sounds laborious, but this kind of integration training is crucial when you have to do it at night, under pressure, with full kit and in adverse weather.

Phase Two was all about interoperability and communications, with so many nations participating under a newly formed US headquarters and a new command and control model. We also learned a lot about how to utilise other JEF maritime capabilities that are optimised for this region; for example, the Swedish Visby class corvettes and Norwegian Skjold class fast patrol boats.

Phase Three was a great opportunity to learn how the JEF might support the Baltic states during a crisis, and how we would dock into a larger NATO operation. We worked closely with NATO Baltic Air Policing and the EFP, at one point bringing our collective assets to bear during the amphibious demonstration to senior dignitaries in Estonia.

To sum up, we learnt a huge amount about how to deploy, how to integrate and how to operate the JEF during a crisis scenario.

RC: Has BALTIC PROTECTOR set the conditions for future success with the JEF, both operationally, as a model for increased regional partnerships, and strategically, as a tool for UK foreign policy?

JC: BALTIC PROTECTOR has been a significant expression of commitment from the UK and its partners to regional security. It has also demonstrated that the JEF is more than just another security forum – it is also a credible military force. At both the operational and strategic level I think it offers those nations an increased degree of flexibility and variability in how to respond to crises. The JEF can be two nations working together to support a humanitarian crisis, or it can be a ‘full fat’ coalition of nine nations for higher intensity operations. It can stand alone, or it can ‘dock’ into NATO, EU or UN operations. Those factors work in many different ways – it provides political choice to the UK and its allies and partners; but it also creates doubt in the mind of any potential adversary.

RC: Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions!

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