The Joint Expeditionary Force: Global Britain in Northern Europe?

Last week several European leaders gathered in London, hosted by Prime Minister Boris Johnson at 10 Downing Street and Chequers (his official country residence). They were addressed by Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, who urged them to increase their support to resist Russia’s invasion: “Everything will be directed against Europe if Ukraine does not survive. Therefore, I ask you: help yourself by helping us.” The nations represented committed to “the restoration of peace and security in Europe in light of Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified military aggression” and their “role in contributing to defense and deterrence in the region, keeping our countries and our continent safe.”

But this wasn’t a NATO or EU summit—it was a meeting of a newer name in European security: the Joint Expeditionary Force, or JEF.

What is the JEF, what role has it been playing, and how does it fit into the established architecture of European security? And given the meeting was convened by the prime minister and the United Kingdom is the lead JEF nation, what does it say about Boris Johnson’s flagship Global Britain agenda?

The JEF—More Than a Joint Expeditionary Force

At first glance—and as its name suggests—the JEF is a multinational force. But it is fast becoming more than that. The JEF was established at the 2014 NATO summit in Wales, where allies agreed to develop “framework nations,” or smaller groups of countries (including non-NATO partners) that could be used flexibly, with a lead nation providing a command and control framework. The purpose of the framework nation concept is to use existing groups of nations that already cooperate with each other—perhaps because they are neighbors or share close historical military ties—to develop military capabilities, doctrine, interoperability, training, and exercising. Doing so improves their ability to operate together and helps solve burden sharing through bottom-up collaboration between like-minded allies. All of this boosts collective defense and security in Europe.

The JEF is the UK-led framework nation construct (others are led by Germany and Italy). While there are no JEF-dedicated standing forces, the United Kingdom provides command and control through its deployable Standing Joint Force Headquarters (SJFHQ) based in Northwood, England. The JEF is based on a political-military agreement—signed in 2015 by the original seven members and updated last year—between 10 northern European nations: Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Under an “opt-in” arrangement, every nation can provide capability and expertise as it sees fit, depending on the nature of the task and the partners involved. Fully operational since 2018, the JEF’s initial deployments have mainly focused on Baltic security. Forces under the JEF banner have deployed several times in support of the BALTOPS exercise, a NATO-led exercise held annually since 1972. Last year the JEF conducted its first maritime task group deployment on security patrol in the Baltic Sea to reassure allies in the region, in addition to conducting Exercise Joint Protector in Sweden.

Strong and United on Deterrence and Defense

While the JEF has been taking on military tasks since 2018, in recent weeks it has come to the fore of Europe’s response to Russia’s invasion in a wider role. It has provided a flexible multilateral forum to help northern European nations coordinate and emphasize their support for “significant economic and humanitarian support in response to the deteriorating situation in Ukraine and the region,” measures which have been taken “directly, and through multilateral organisations.” From Great Britain to Sweden, the JEF nations have been at the forefront of providing military, economic, and humanitarian aid to Ukraine—for which President Zelensky conveyed his gratitude at the meeting in London, saying, “Our people will always remember who came to the rescue at the most difficult time for our state.”

Given its military roots, JEF armed forces have also been working together to reassure allies and partners and deter Russia from wider aggression in their region. In broad terms, this is done through “a series of integrated military activities across our part of northern Europe—at sea, on land and in the air.” Specific examples include joint patrols between the British Type 23 frigate HMS Richmond and Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian, and Danish ships, as well as exercises with Swedish and Danish fighter aircraft. As the Lithuanian Armed Forces stated in a tweet about a JEF exercise, “Our message is clear—we are strong and united for the deterrence and defence.” From assistance to Ukraine to military presence, in the words of Prime Minister Johnson, “the JEF is a very, very useful, dynamic format.”

Filling a Hole in the Security Architecture of Northern Europe

The JEF is not the first “minilateral” grouping in European security that sits outside NATO and EU structures. Others include the Nordic Defence Cooperation (NORDEFCO) structure, defense and naval cooperation between the BENELUX nations (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg), the UK-France Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF), and the Visegrad group of Czechia, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia. Such groups have proliferated in recent years as nations hedge and diversify against shifting balances in regional and global power. This trend can also be seen further afield, for example in the AUKUS pact announced in September between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States and in the “Quad” alliance of the United States, India, Japan, and Australia.

There are also other rapid-reaction multinational forces in Europe besides the JEF. The most prominent is NATO’s response force, which was activated for the first time ever in a collective defense role two weeks ago in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The European Union’s new Rapid Deployment Capacity, announced as part of the just-released Strategic Compass initiative, will also be capable of deploying up to 5,000 troops (although not until 2025).

But the JEF is distinct from existing European groups and crisis response forces, in at least three ways.

First, it includes members outside NATO (Finland and Sweden) and EU defense structures (the United Kingdom, Denmark, Norway, Iceland). Given its flexible opt-in model, this means it could contribute to a range of operations under both institutions (or complementary to them) under UN auspices, or simply as a coalition of willing JEF nations. As its policy direction states, “The JEF is designed with flexibility at its heart.” Proponents of this model argue it provides a more pragmatic solution to boosting deployable European defense capacity than strict institutional initiatives.

Second, unlike NATO and the European Union, “the JEF is not a group that requires consensus to conduct operations and deploy forces; this is designed to add considerably to its responsiveness.” This means it can play a viable “first responder” role to crises. As Prime Minister Johnson has put it, in the Ukraine crisis, JEF members have been “the countries that were fastest off the blocks.” This flexibility also means the JEF can act against ambiguous hybrid threats that fall under the threshold of NATO’s Article 5 or the European Union’s Article 42(7) protection guarantees. Hybrid threats are still the most likely form of Russian aggression against NATO members given their conventional superiority. As one British officer has described this feature, “the JEF can act while NATO is thinking.”

Third, the JEF is uniquely focused on northern Europe—an increasingly important and contested part of regional and global geography. According to the JEF policy direction, “As befits its membership, the principal geographic area of interest for the JEF is the High North, North Atlantic and Baltic Sea region.” Although NATO and EU member states include those with interests in the region, the varied interests of allies inevitably dilute any focus on specific regions. For example, the communiqué from last year’s Brussels NATO summit did not mention the Arctic and only referred to the High North once, in the context of “necessary, calibrated, and coordinated activities.”

While Exercise Cold Response 2022, taking place during March and April along Norway’s northern coastline, is one of the biggest exercises in Europe since the end of the Cold War, it is not a NATO-led exercise. Instead, it is organized by Norway and features non-NATO partners. This shows the value of flexible coalitions like the JEF that can focus more on training, exercising, and responding to crises in the High North and the backyard of JEF nations. As the Lithuanian president Gitanas Nausėda puts it, “The Joint Expeditionary Force is a military force of countries which can respond quickly and efficiently when needed. They could be the first to respond to any crisis in the Baltic Sea region.”

In summary, while NATO will always be the cornerstone of collective defense in Europe, formations like the JEF can complement and strengthen it by offering flexible and deployable forces, in a first responder role below the threshold of war, focused on the specific regional security concerns of its members. As one senior Royal Navy officer has described it, the JEF is a “force of friends, filling a hole in the security architecture of northern Europe between a national force and a NATO force.”

Global Britain in Northern Europe

The JEF has clearly been useful to its members in recent weeks, meeting several times in various high-profile formats: between military chiefs in Sweden, defense ministers at Belvoir Castle in England, and JEF leaders twice (a virtual meeting in February and last week in London). In particular, being the lead nation of the JEF also gives the United Kingdom an opportunity to lead from the front in shaping European security—something the Johnson government is keen to emphasize in its new role outside the European Union. For the prime minister, the JEF provides an example of his flagship approach to foreign policy: “Global Britain.” Yet many observers have struggled to pin down exactly what Global Britain means. As the United Kingdom’s own integrated review of security, defense, development, and foreign policy—titled “Global Britain in a competitive age”—suggests, “what Global Britain means in practice is best defined by actions rather than words.”

In this sense, the JEF may provide one of the clearest articulations of the Global Britain concept to date. It directly demonstrates three of the four features of the policy listed in the review: “a more robust position on security and deterrence,” “a renewed commitment to the UK as a force for good in the world,” and “an increased determination to seek multilateral solutions.” (The fourth is “sustaining the UK’s openness as a society and economy,” which is also relevant—not least as the United Kingdom’s JEF partners are more likely to interact and trade with the United Kingdom if it is playing an active role in their security.) The JEF also features in “Defence in a Competitive Age,” the Ministry of Defence’s contribution to the review, in the context of a renewed commitment to security in the JEF region: “The High North and maintaining security in the defence of the North Atlantic remains of great importance, underlining the value of our strong relationship with . . . our Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) partners.”

A Network of Liberty—and Security

More broadly, the JEF might also be viewed as an example of what the UK foreign secretary Liz Truss recently called the United Kingdom’s “network of liberty.” As she put it in December, “We are building a network of security partnerships to protect our people, our partners, and our freedoms, including on the high seas.” The JEF already seems set to take its place alongside the United Kingdom’s other security networks in Europe, the Indo-Pacific, and beyond.

Perhaps Ukraine can also benefit from the addition of the JEF to Europe’s security architecture. As Secretary Truss also said, “New agreements between like-minded countries, even when you’re not part of them, are there to be celebrated.” Taking a more pragmatic tone, President Zelensky seemed to agree with her when he addressed the JEF leaders in London last week: “We emphasize that we need new formats of interaction, new determination. And if we cannot enter NATO's ‘open door,’ then we must work with communities available, communities that will help us. Like yours.”

Sean Monaghan is a visiting fellow in the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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