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Since 2017 the UK has led a multinational battlegroup in Estonia. The battlegroup is one of several established by NATO in 2016 to “enhance” its military footprint in the eastern part of the Alliance.

The UK has regularly deployed an armoured infantry battlegroup, equipped with Challenger 2 tanks and Warrior infantry fighting vehicles, on a six-month rotation, numbering around 900 personnel.

In February 2022, in response to the build-up of Russian forces around Ukraine, the UK doubled the number of personnel deployed to Estonia with the deployment of an additional battlegroup on a bilateral basis.

However, in October the Ministry of Defence (MOD) announced that the additional battlegroup will not be replaced in 2023. The UK will continue to lead the NATO battlegroup. Instead of the additional battlegroup, the UK will hold at high readiness the “balance of a Brigade” in the UK, available to deploy if needed. The UK will also “surge” forces throughout the year for exercises, enhance its headquarters and provide support to Estonian armed forces. In addition, RAF Typhoon aircraft will provide Baltic Air Policing in Estonia from March to July 2023.

As of October 2022, the UK has two separate battlegroups in Estonia:

  • The King’s Royal Hussars, which leads the NATO enhanced forward presence multinational battlegroup
  • 2 Rifles battlegroup, which is deployed on a bilateral basis

Why are UK forces in Estonia?

In the aftermath of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, NATO adopted a series of measures designed to both reassure those allies who border Russia – like Estonia – and to deter any potential Russian military aggression against NATO allies.

In 2016 NATO agreed to set up an “enhanced Forward Presence” (eFP) in Poland and the three Baltic countries. This takes the form of a multinational battlegroup in each country. They were established in 2017.

The UK leads the battlegroup in Estonia. Since 2017 the UK has deployed an armoured infantry battalion equipped with Challenger 2 tanks and Warrior infantry fighting vehicles, numbering around 800 to 900 personnel, on rotating six-month tours. The UK deployment is based in Tapa and is known as Operation Cabrit.

Denmark and France also contribute to the battlegroup, which is integrated with the Estonian 1st Infantry Brigade.

Forces doubled in 2022

In response to the build-up of Russian forces around Ukraine in early 2022, members of NATO announced plans to increase their military presence along the eastern flank of the Alliance.

On 10 February 2022 Boris Johnson, then Prime Minister, said the British presence in Estonia will be doubled.

This was achieved initially by bringing forward the deployment of the incoming Royal Welsh battlegroup and extending the tour of the outgoing Royal Tank Regiment so that they overlapped. 

The Royal Welsh battlegroup assumed leadership of the eFP battlegroup in March 2022. Following the end of their six-month tour in September 2022, the King’s Royal Hussars are now leading the eFP.

An additional battlegroup

2 Rifles battlegroup deployed to Estonia in June 2022, replacing the Royal Tank Regiment.

2 Rifles is not a like-for-like replacement for the Royal Tank Regiment. They are light infantry – they are not equipped with the Challenger 2 tanks of the Royal Tank Regiment. 

A doubling of personnel

The overlapping of the Royal Tank Regiment with the Royal Welsh in spring 2022 meant that the number of army personnel in Estonia increased from around 800 to 900 personnel deployed in previous rotations to around 1,700 personnel.

This includes both those attached to NATO’s enhanced forward presence and those deployed on a bilateral basis.

James Heappey, the Minister for the Armed Forces, differentiated between the two deployments when responding to a written question about troop numbers in Estonia:

As of 29 June 2022 there are 833 members of the UK Armed Forces deployed to Estonia as part of the UK’s contribution to enhanced Forward Presence. Additionally, the UK has deployed a further 652 personnel to Estonia on a bilateral basis.

The paper includes a comparison of the battlegroups in February and June 2022.

Deployments in 2023

In September 2022 the Times reported that only the King’s Royal Hussars will remain in Estonia from January 2023. A source told the Times troops would instead be held on standby to head to Estonia, rather than being based in the country. The MOD is quoted in the article as saying that the additional battlegroup “was always a temporary deployment.”

James Heappey provided more details in response to a written question on 21 October. He confirmed one battlegroup will remain, with additional forces deployed throughout the year, with “the balance of a brigade” held at high readiness in the UK:

The UK’s future force posture in Estonia will be comprised of a rotational permanent Battlegroup, an enhanced Headquarters, and surge deployments of additional personnel and capabilities throughout the year, including on exercise SPRING STORM in May.

[…]

In addition to the Force Elements deployed forward to Estonia, the UK will hold the balance of a brigade at high readiness in the UK, ready to reinforce in the region as required by SACEUR.

The Minister also said that personnel numbers will fluctuate throughout the year. 

The Defence Secretary has confirmed the second battlegroup (2 Rifles) will return to the UK in December 2022.

This paper discusses existing deployments and the UK’s additional defence support to Estonia. 


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