It is possible that you know all about the UK Joint Expeditionary Force. On the other hand, you might be like a few of us here at TMT who knew surprisingly little about it. So what is it and what does it do?
The JEF was initiated at the end of 2012 after the demise of the Joint Rapid Reaction Force (JRRF), which was itself proposed in the 1998 Strategic defence review. The JRRF was a solely UK force able to deploy at short notice, either within a multi-national formation or independently, on a world-wide basis. Initially intended to be able to deploy two separate “small divisions” of about 15,000 troops, it consisted of various elements such as “Spearhead Forces” etc. that might be considered as the forming the conceptual basis of the current “Army 2020 Refine” plans.
The JRRF was very much a Tri-Service effort, with much of the early force projection being provided by the navy. After the SF Spearhead Elements were in place, Ist Echelon follow-on forces were to be landed by ship under the protection of an Amphibious Task Group, with the 2nd Echelon being moved by both ship and transport aircraft using the RAF’s new heavy lift capability in the form of the C-17s that were being acquired from the US.
The JRRF died partly as a result of the British focus on Afghanistan, but also as the experience of coalition operations made it clear that a UK-only force was somewhat unaffordable and also increasingly unacceptable from a global political viewpoint. The new JEF was announced in 2012, but formally launched in 2104 at NATO’s Wales Summit. It was to come under the auspices of the new NATO Framework Nations Concept in which three lead nations (Germany, the UK and Italy), were to take a few countries under their wing, providing Command and Control (C2) etc. to their respective groups. On the ground, in the air or at sea, the UK’s contribution would comprise the lead commando, airborne, armoured, aviation, air and maritime task groups.
The UK soon signed a letter of intent with Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway, aiming to have a force capable of deployment by 2018. It seemed logical to have Sweden in the team and by late 2015 rumours of this had reached such an extent that the Swedish parliament asked their defence ministry if they were having unauthorised and secret talks to this effect with the UK! Matters were settled in June 2017 when the Swedes joined at the same time as Finland at an official signing ceremony in Stockholm.
In his speech to RUSI in 2012, General Sir David Richards explained the operational thinking behind the intended role of the JEF:
“a. act jointly and with allies, but able to act alone, b. be well equipped, but not tied to platforms, c. adapt as the environment changes.”
Some accused the CDS of overseeing a re-invented version of earlier, foreign force structures. He denied these suggestions:
“The JEF is neither the 1980s Canadian model nor, whilst there are some apparent similarities, is it a British version of the US Marine Corps.”
It might be assumed that the JEF effectively formed the North European NATO flank protection team. However, from the outset the CDS made it clear that this was not necessarily the case:
“JEF will be capable of projecting power with global effect and influence. Nowhere is more important to us than our friends in the Middle East and Gulf and in line with clear political intent we would expect, with other initiatives, for JEF elements to spend more time reassuring and deterring in that region.”
The 2018 deadline has been met. The UK Defence Secretary signed the Joint Expeditionary Force Memorandum of Understanding at the end of June this year at Lancaster House, formally confirming that the JEF is capable of deploying 10,000 troops from the nine member nations. His statement included the following:
“Our commitment today sends a clear message to our allies and adversaries alike – our nations will stand together to meet new and conventional challenges and keep our countries and our citizens safe and secure in an uncertain world. We are judged by the company we keep, and while the Kremlin seeks to drive a wedge between allies old and new alike, we stand with the international community united in support of international rules.”
At one level, the JEF has provided a marvellous platform for the UK to become more involved in the Northern European grouping in a way that might act as a partial foil to its imminent departure from the EU. As an example, the Estonian government has made it clear that they view the JEF as confirmation of growing and important ties with the UK. In the words of their Minister of Defence, Jüri Luik:
“The United Kingdom has become one of Estonia’s most important and closest allies, and therefore Estonia joining the Joint Expeditionary Force was a natural sequel to our good long-term cooperation. We wish for the exercises of the Joint Expeditionary Force would be connected to the security challenges of our region.”
In some cases the national contributions will be fairly limited, but these should not mask the commitment of the partners. For example, according to the Lithuanian Ministry of National Defence:
“Lithuania plans contributing a company-sized unit; moreover, a Lithuanian officer will be assigned to the JEF operational headquarters in the United Kingdom as of 2016. Participation in the JEF will provide Lithuanian troops with additional opportunities for national forces to train in a multi-national environment, sharing knowledge, skills, and, where appropriate and seek better interoperability and operational readiness.”
The timing of the UK’s new aircraft carrier commissioning could not be better for the UK’s standing in the JEF. As General Sir Richard Shirreff’s book, World War Three, touches upon, the sight of a large and relatively poorly-protected RN carrier heading into the North Sea would make a fine target for those peskie Russians. To do so as part of a JEF maritime component makes much more sense and might be regarded as a win-win for both the UK and the North European NATO states forming the UK-led JEF. As explained by the current Commander of the UK’s Amphibious task group assigned to the UK’s JEF (Maritime) component:
“This is an exciting time for the Royal Navy, with our carrier strike capability about to come on stream, and littoral strike capability continuing to perform its role as the nation’s conventional deterrent force, both of which are happening against a backdrop of an uncertain world”
It now remains to be seen whether the JEF will carry out its stated aim of working around the world, and especially the Middle Eastern region, or whether practical and tactical considerations will prevail and its main area of responsibility will actually be the defence of the Baltic states against a resurgent Russia. Either way, the JEF serves as a reminder that other nations recognise that there are things that we Brits do rather well, military command and control and rapid deployment being good examples.