British tanks making their way to Estonia in spite of logistical hurdles

British tanks in Tapa.

PHOTO: Vladislav Musakko

Tapa military campus, late Monday morning. A clean-shaven young Englishman pops his head out of the tank. The machine’s turret and main gun are facing rearward. A fellow soldier, wearing a safety helmet and a high visibility jacket, signals that it is safe to drive the tank off the railcar it’s been sitting on.

The young driver gives the 60-ton tank some gas, causing puffs of black smoke to burst from its exhaust. A derelict building from a bygone era some way off still reads “Soviet Army”.

The tank’s tracks start moving, making a clicking sound under the heavy chassis. Minister of Defense Jüri Luik is keeping an eye on the process from a nearby platform. He points his hand at the tank and is answered by two representatives of the U.K. armed forces.

The minister is interested in the tank’s qualities. How quickly can it be offloaded, what are the technical concerns. His questions cover almost everything the Tractable exercise does.

The aim of the exercise is to rotate almost everything the Brits have here as part of the battle group in Estonia, both troops and machinery. The King’s Royal Hussars will hand over to the Queen’s Royal Hussars.

Today’s exercise also evaluates the role of Estonia as the receiving country in a crisis. Different units of the Estonian Defense Forces, from the support command to military police, are standing ready, with the Defense League in charge of security. Everything needs to be as close to the real thing as possible, so that lessons would be learned should a real crisis occur.

The Tractable exercise that started earlier this month is complicated in nature. One of its greatest challenges is to keep an eye on convoys and coordinate their movement with countries they must pass through. Customs also needs to be taken care of. Luckily, most countries on the convoys’ route have joined the EU’s so-called military Schengen agreement.

It is nothing new for the Brits. They have staged such logistics operations all over the world, although, things are a little more complicated this time. Equipment is being moved by road, railroad, sea and air.

Machinery stationed in Germany will be put on a train and sent directly to Estonia. Equipment will follow two paths from the U.K. One part will be put on a ship in Southampton that will make its way to the port city of Emden in Germany, from where the equipment will be moved to Estonia by road and railroad. A part of the equipment from the U.K. will take the Eurotunnel and come straight to Estonia, accompanied by soldiers of different countries who will coordinate movements. British troops will fly to Estonia, landing directly at the Ämari airbase.

Postimees got the chance to witness the logistics operation in Emden the Saturday before last. The port mainly caters to German exports. The parking lots were full of cars covered in white plastic. There were also a couple of containers in which the 17th Port and Maritime Regiment of the Royal Logistics Corps, totaling over 100 men, went about their business. Their task was to get the machines off the ship, check and service them and bring them back to life if necessary.

Dangerous munitions

Tensions were highest first thing in the morning when ammunition in containers was unloaded from the ship. The entire pier was evacuated to avoid casualties in case of a potential explosion. After a few dozen minutes of bustling, the dangerous shipment was sent on its way.

The explosives were placed on the top deck of the ship in the interests of the crew’s safety, so the shockwave of a potential explosion would be sent up and not damage the entire ship.

The port at Emden sent 20,000 tons of machinery Estonia’s way, including Challenger 2 tanks, Warrior infantry section vehicles, FV107 Scimitar armored reconnaissance vehicles, AS90 (L131) self-propelled artillery, Starstreak SP HVM surface-to-air missile systems on Alvis Stormer armored vehicles etc. The Tapa campus will host 200 units of machinery and 800 troops.

Planning for the exercise started in Estonia and the U.K. in early 2019, with the operation phase mapped out over the past three-four months.

Things have gone more or less according to plan so far. The goal of going from Germany to Estonia in ten days has been achieved. Major Jordan, responsible for the logistics operation in Emden, said that the aim of the exercise is to demonstrate the United Kingdom’s ability to boost the security of the Baltic region by rapidly moving a lot of additional units to the area.

Estonia, as the receiving country, must ensure the Brits smooth entry and passage to their destination. The country’s mobility control team helps. Its commander, Lt. Mark Hendrikson, said the Valga and Tapa railway terminals had to be prepared for the operation, as well as the Ikla border point and the Ämari airfield. Documentation will be checked on location. Once that is done, the equipment will be handed over to units that will move it to its destination.

Hendrikson said accidents cannot be fully ruled out on such a journey. Movement of people is strictly regulated during the convoys’ trips.

Soldiers can handle everything

Back to Tapa. British mechanic attached to the NATO battle group in Estonia Cpl. Drury says there is still a lot of work to be done. The machines need to be serviced and recalibrated as sights might be off after the long voyage.

“It takes a lot of behind the curtains effort to prepare these machines for battle. Blood and sweat. But it is worth it,” Cpl. Drury said.

He admits that an unfamiliar language environment is a challenge but says he is not too worried as his fellow soldiers have helped him out in the past. “If I could master a few local expressions, everything would be tip-top and my stay here that much more pleasant,” Drury adds. The rather poor weather at Tapa does not dampen his spirits. “Our regiment is stationed in Germany, so we’re used to continental weather. We can handle everything.”

The Tractable exercise will be concluded in the second half of next week.

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