A decade done: What next for the Joint Expeditionary Force?

“The Joint Expeditionary Force exists not to undermine NATO but to complement its goals and activities and, more generally, to collaborate with any organisation working towards the safeguarding of European security.” – The CHACR considers the need for, and likely role of, a Defence ‘brand’ deserving of a publicity boost.


AS it approaches the tenth anniversary of its establishment, the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) struggles to attract much interest outside of defence communities – remaining largely unknown in Britain and throughout its ‘participant nations’. Last month’s leaders’ summit, held in Visby, Sweden, is testament to the coalition’s ‘grey man’ status. The event highlighted the enthusiasm which exists at the most senior political and military levels but the lack of media coverage it garnered is the latest chapter in a sparsely reported story. This absence of a tangible public profile is perhaps a reflection of the confused and confusing security environment and architecture that provide the backdrop to the JEF’s activities and against which the impact of war in Ukraine has become a critical theme.

Of course, attaining and maintaining a strong identity is difficult if you are operating in a crowded space and defence agreements which emphasise the importance to Britain of joint, expeditionary capabilities are not uncommon. Perhaps the best known example is the Combined Joint Expeditionary Force, a 10,000 personnel-strong Anglo-French coalition that has enjoyed robust military endorsement and, in 2020, achieved full operational capability. It has, however, struggled in identifying a clear role for how it can best be used. There have also been sometimes strained political relations between London and Paris, although British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak appears to attach considerable value to strengthening relations with his French counterpart President Emmanuel Macron which may have positive implications for the Combined Joint Expeditionary Force. Other groupings have also emerged alongside more informal arrangements; the Gulf War was fought more than 30 years ago and was an exemplar of an ad hoc coalition forming to conduct a specific activity.

Then, of course, there is the behemoth that is the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Although frequently described since it was founded in 1949 as the ‘cornerstone’ or ‘bedrock’ of British security, the purpose of NATO became less clear post-Cold War and its lead role in the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force that failed to create conditions in which the Afghan government could exercise its authority raised doubts over the power of its punch. However, while NATO member states have deliberately not sought to cross perceived escalatory lines that could result in an expansion of the war in Ukraine, Russia’s invasion has undeniably provided a restorative effect to the Alliance. But with its regeneration and re-energising there comes the risk of added questions about the value of membership to other frameworks.

In addressing such challenges, a common response previously put forward was that the JEF and similar initiatives can potentially provide structures which could be more reactive, responsive and dynamic than NATO. These were “new coalitions… of countries that share similar perceptions of the threat, and trust each other to contribute speedily and effectively in dealing with it” and which are not “vulnerable to vetoes and delays from stroppy or squeamish members”. For some commentators there was an urgency for such alternatives as NATO appeared to be in terminal decline, under assault from critical leaderships in both Washington and Europe. President Donald Trump was particularly vocal in his criticism but it was President Macron who, in November 2019, provided what became the most wounding assessment of an organisation he considered so lacking in direction that it was suffering “brain death” (this description he subsequently argued acted as an “icebreaker” and a catalyst for the Alliance to regain its composure).

Another defensive ‘line to take’ in arguing for the JEF’s preservation relates to the links between its role and a post-Brexit imperative. As one influential writer put it, Britain needs to retain “European friends” and an obvious strategic region in which this could occur is “the new cockpit of Europe: the Baltic Sea region”. Fellow JEF members have also noted that, in addition to being a visible demonstration of commitment to European security, there is a benefit to ‘Global Britain’ ambitions. Elsewhere it has been suggested that the ability to stage significant military exercises has a demonstration effect and offers diplomatic leverage. A detailed US think-tank analysis has highlighted how the JEF, and its increased prominence since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, meets most of the key themes contained within the 2021 Integrated Review, Global Britain in a Competitive Age. Specifically, it provides evidence of continuing the long-standing mandate to be a force for good, offers a renewed commitment to multilateral solutions and, perhaps key amongst these, displays a more robust position in security and deterrence.

The latter observation is perhaps closest to the underpinning reasons behind the JEF’s creation.

Its origins can be traced to a speech given at the Royal United Services Institute in December 2012 by the then Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir David Richards. In his description, it was intended to be a means of targeting limited resources to create much greater levels of integration, leading to an integrated joint force with capabilities across the then three domains. It would be “the building block to future alliances and independent action”, providing a framework into which partners could fit. With the recent Libyan campaign cited as influencing thinking, it was also pointed out that the JEF was “neither the 1980s Canadian model nor, whilst there are some apparent similarities, is it a British version of the US Marine Corps”, presumably to provide reassurance that this would not lead to a fully joint force with no clear service distinctions. As General Richards put it, the JEF would have “the capability to ‘punch’ hard and not be a logistical or tactical drag on a coalition”. He added: “The JEF won’t mean we can do more with less; it will mean, through the synergy it provides, that we get the most from what we have”. Describing this new organisation as “the teeth of our forces after withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014”, the very limited media interest focused on the potential cost benefit.

Its formal establishment dates from September 2014 and the letter of intent which Britain signed with Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands and Norway. This took place during the Wales NATO Summit and was portrayed as the UK’s contribution to NATO under the newly adopted Framework Nations’ Concept, an initiative for “pragmatic defence cooperation” which had been proposed by Germany the year before. The UK media now linked the JEF to Russian aggression and a deteriorating security situation on Europe’s eastern flank. There was also reference to the reported shortcomings of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, described as “obsolete” because NATO member states would not make troops or equipment available. In this narrative, JEF was created to complement existing options, possibly acting as a ‘follow-on’ force. Indeed, General Adrian Bradshaw, who had recently been appointed as Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe at the time, spoke of the need for a credible ‘spearhead’ force which could deter and ensure there was no “dangerous miscalculation” by the Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Although not designed as a “tool”, with all the initial members also part of NATO the JEF was seen as offering reassurance to eastern Europe. With the vague and ultimately inadequate security guarantees which preceded the outbreak of the Second World War, it could be argued that here was a more forceful and effective modern equivalent.

The summit’s geopolitical background is important in understanding the drivers which supported the JEF’s subsequent development. This meeting was described initially as an opportunity for the then 28 member states to discuss how to manage the withdrawal from Afghanistan. There was, however, a more general sense of uncertainty about what could be expected from the United States going forward with President Barack Obama’s obvious hesitancy about military intervention. As one assessment described it, Obama’s comment that Ukraine was not a NATO member and the failure to extend air strikes against Syria and the ISIS jihadi group were sending worrying signals. There was also the tilt towards the Indo-Pacific and its regional security, a move later followed more broadly by European states. Taken together, these American actions/inactions were seen as creating a confidence vacuum and the potential conditions for a failure of deterrence. The annexation of Crimea, which had taken place earlier in the year, turned it into a reflective exercise on the changing security environment and the Alliance’s future.

It was with this as its immediate background that the JEF subsequently embarked on an extended force development phase. Since Baltic Protector, held in 2019, annual Joint Protector exercises have allowed participants to better understand how resources, knowledge and expertise can be used to conduct potential future operations. With a mixture of command post and live exercises, a subsequent focus has been on the challenge of deploying and operating for a sub-threshold or grey zone mission. The most recent exercise was Joint Viking 23, a large-scale land-focused training event led by the Norwegian Armed Forces in the High North and coordinated with the spring Joint Warrior exercise. As this concluded in April, the ten JEF Chiefs of Defence met in Finland and agreed to continue with an enhanced programme of exercises. Joint Protector 24 will be a large-scale command post exercise which will rehearse the JEF’s operational headquarters role and relationship with NATO in a regional security scenario. This will feed into a large-scale mission rehearsal exercise the following year.

An important activity has been messaging and a key theme is that the JEF exists not to undermine NATO but to complement its goals and activities and, more generally, to collaborate with any organisation working towards the safeguarding of European security, such as United States European Command. In recent official documentation issued by the UK Standing Joint Force headquarters in Northwood, it is described as “a multinational force made up of like-minded, northern European nations coming together as a coalition of the willing”. Commonly repeated media lines are that it is “filling a hole in the security architecture of northern Europe” and that “the JEF can act while NATO is thinking”. Major General Jim Morris, the current Standing Joint Force Commander, has reportedly described the JEF as having “a laminating effect”; and a member of his senior team refers to a platform for “making sure all the right people are talking to one another”.

The Helsinki meeting was only one example from 2023 of senior leader engagement. In June JEF defence ministers met in Amsterdam and, in addition to announcing a new air defence package for Ukraine, there was particular emphasis on discussing protecting underwater and offshore infrastructure and an announcement of greater sharing of tactical intelligence. The same month’s ASGARD 23 was the “most ambitious” headquarters exercise yet conducted. Held at Keflavik Airbase in Iceland, the exercise saw the first deployment of the headquarters and – in addition to testing operational capability – allowed for further work on current critical actions, which are reported to include expanding the existing operating framework and developing the Combined Joint Interagency Task Force Concept. There has also been ongoing revision to the 72 JEF response options, which are spread across six thematic areas that include the three traditional domains (maritime, air and land) along with more expeditionary themed lines of activity (theatre preparation, theatre entry and site protection).

The year’s key political event has been the October 2023 Visby Summit, held on the strategically vital Baltic island of Gotland. This followed Finland and Sweden’s accession to NATO (the latter was only confirmed later in the month), which is clearly significant for the JEF and it was noted that building on this to bring together “greater operational synergies” will be vital. The published nine paragraph joint statement and new key document, The JEF – Working Together as One, contained a series of additional conclusions and effectively set out the future operating framework and conditions for the next ten years. The key points agreed by the respective leaders were:

  • The JEF is an important forum for political consultations on defence and security challenges affecting its core regions (the High North, North Atlantic and Baltic Sea);
  • It provides a range of credible military options to respond in scenarios ranging from sub-threshold peacetime responses through to full-spectrum interventions;
  • These can be drawn upon during times of crisis or conflict which could be both in its core regions and beyond;
  • There was specific reference to JEF being able to respond to hybrid security challenges;
  • It seeks to ensure “a seamless interface” across a range of actors’ responses and is designed to complement other international frameworks and avoid duplication;
  • The founding ‘opt-in’ principle offers an agility of response;
  • There will be investment in capabilities that enable it to plan, exercise and operate effectively together.

Although outside the geographical boundaries of the JEF’s primary area of interest, prominence was again given to reaffirming broad support for Ukraine. Seven of the partner nations – the UK, Sweden, Netherlands, Denmark, Lithuania, Norway and Finland – are supporting Operation Interflex and the training of Ukrainian volunteers. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been an invitee to JEF summits since the invasion of his country and at Visby it was announced that Ukrainian observers will attend the next two years of exercises to strengthen interoperability. Britain has been particularly keen in promoting this link since Boris Johnson revealed in an interview in March 2022 that there had been agreement within the JEF that it “would seek to deter further Russian aggression” through exercises and ‘forward defence’. This has led to increased political interest in the JEF’s role; Hansard includes fewer than 100 references to expeditionary forces since 2014 but the majority have appeared since the Russian attack. The JEF seems particularly attractive to Ukraine; Zelenskyy has commented previously that so long as membership of NATO is not available, working with “communities that will help us” is the next best option. It in turn appears to see its highly vocal support of Ukraine as an extension of attempts to deter any future Russian hostility and a key activity.


Recent events in the Baltic, again apparently targeting important underwater infrastructure, suggest the region remains of considerable interest to Russia. The headlines published by the Prime Minister’s office following Visby led with the commitment to deploy 20,000 troops across Northern Europe. In addition to supporting existing air policing commitments and cold weather training, these will predominantly be taking part in the planned exercises conducted by JEF and, much more significantly, NATO’s Steadfast Defender, which will run through February and March in Germany, Poland and the Baltics. The latter is the largest live joint command exercise since the Cold War and will reportedly involve 16,000 British troops deploying to Estonia and Norway. This highlights the importance attached to a region that was potentially vital during the Cold War and, as numerous recent official publications have made clear, remains of great importance now.

Reworking the frequently shared argument that the JEF can act more quickly than NATO, it has been described as being “especially useful in murky circumstances”. While the concept of ‘hybrid warfare’ has recently become a subject for academic scrutiny, in the current security environment there clearly exists an ambiguous zone where adversaries – either acting on their own or through proxies, and employing means that makes it difficult to conclusively identify them – can achieve potentially significant military outcomes. The JEF’s ability to undertake rapid expeditionary responses in such situations offers a valuable contribution to NATO’s more broader resurgence both due to a perceived ability to operate in a manner which does not have an escalatory tone but also as an enabler for potentially broader subsequent responses.

Such steps cannot entirely tackle an environment dominated by uncertainty and ambiguity. The Russian attempt to emulate Adolf Hitler’s incorporation of the rump Czechoslovak state immediately prior to what became the most recent pan-European war failed. Ukraine survived and continues to fight with Western support but it increasingly looks like a war without end. With this reality comes the conditions for growing apathy and the fragmentation to external support this can cause. Add to this the potential for a second presidential term for Donald Trump and renewed speculation about the ebb and flow of American engagement with European security. The result is not just uncertainty about the future levels of support for Ukraine’s military but also questions about NATO itself.

In June 2023, in celebrating the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Joint Amphibious Force, Britain and the Netherlands confirmed future collaboration on amphibious exercises and training. There was also agreement to review whether collaborating on building new landing platforms would be mutually beneficial. Such bilateral discussions between two JEF participant nations offers positive evidence of resilience in preparing for possible future military operations. Having returned to its Cold War role, the currently re-energised NATO will hopefully continue to lead in opposing Russian territorial ambitions. It may be that the JEF was created to provide contingency and this is an implicit but also critical function it will continue to offer.

AUTHOR: Professor Andrew Stewart, Research Director CHACR.