Richard Reeve

6 June 2019

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This primer describes the new UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF), situating it in the context of other European rapid reaction forces and the UK and NATO’s expanded military presence in the Baltic Sea region.


The development of flexible, multinational military forces capable of mounting rapid operations overseas has been a defining feature of European security cooperation in the 2010s. Drivers include financial and manpower constraints since the financial crisis, the drawdown of most NATO forces from Afghanistan, the French experience of intervention in Mali and the Sahel since 2013, and the perceived need to respond to threats from Russia and the Islamic State group since 2014. The JEF is the principal UK initiative, partnering with eight other northern European countries. It aims to leverage British expertise in amphibious operations and to reassert the UK’s Cold War role as the primary European player in NATO’s northeast. A series of military exercises in summer 2019 will bring a multinational JEF Maritime Task Force of 20 or more vessels into the Baltic Sea for the first time. This follows a significant expansion of NATO’s presence in the Baltic region since 2017, with the UK matching the United States as the most active external military actor. Indeed, for a few weeks in 2019, the Baltic Sea will temporarily rival the Eastern Mediterranean and Persian Gulf for the largest overseas concentration of British military forces.

Key points:

  • The JEF is intended to be a flexible, UK-led force of up to 10,000 personnel available for overseas deployment, including combat, peacekeeping and humanitarian operations.
  • Other participating countries are Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Norway and Sweden. Of these, Dutch forces are easily the most capable and integrated with British forces.
  • JEF is a sovereign British capability that could be used as a stand-alone force or to lead or support NATO, UN, or EU operations.
  • European states and organisations have been trying to develop rapid response intervention forces for over a decade. There are currently overlapping initiatives from the EU, NATO, France and Italy as well as the UK.
  • Since 1990, the strategic geography of the Baltic region has shifted radically from a “Soviet lake” to a primary area of NATO-Russia contestation. Six of nine Baltic states are now NATO members. Since 2017, NATO has established a brigade-strength “Enhanced Forward Presence” spread thinly across Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.
  • The UK has over 1,000 troops deployed indefinitely in Estonia and Poland. With the JEF naval presence, two units of Typhoon fighter aircraft and additional armoured and helicopter units deployed for training exercises in summer 2019, this presence has increased to over 3,000.

 Image credit: Defence Images/Flickr

About the author

Richard Reeve is ORG's Chief Executive and the Director of the Sustainable Security Programme. 

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