The Joint Expeditionary Force: Toward a Stronger and More Capable European Defense?

In recent weeks, military-exercise watchers in Europe have focused on the latest in Russia’s “Zapad” series. But another significant exercise in nearby Älvdalen, Sweden, has flown largely under the radar: the Joint Protector exercise, featuring the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF). What is the JEF, and what does it mean for transatlantic security? If it offers a route to—in the words of the White House—a stronger and more capable European defense, what role can the United States play in support?

What Is the JEF?

The JEF is a UK-led multinational force. It is based on a political-military agreement between 10 northern European nations: Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. It can act independently, with allies or as part of a UN or NATO operation to prevent or respond to crises. While naturally focused on northern Europe—including the High North, North Atlantic, and Baltic region—as its name suggests, the JEF can conduct expeditionary operations farther afield. It is capable of a wide range of missions, from humanitarian crises to high-end combat operations.

The integration of the JEF Baltic Protector maritime task force into the U.S.-led BALTOPS 2019 exercise—an annual NATO-led exercise running since 1972—shows the potential utility of JEF in a nutshell: independent and flexible, but NATO-capable and scalable. As one Royal Navy commodore puts 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.” Or in other words: “The JEF can act while NATO is thinking.” The same goes for UN operations or any coalition of the willing. A key feature of the JEF is its flexible membership, which includes Finland and Sweden—neither of whom are NATO members—and the operational and political agility this “opt-in” model provides.

Reinforcing Deterrence in Northern Europe

But why does Europe need the JEF? In theory, NATO and the European Union provide all of Europe’s rapid reaction force needs. In practice, gaining political agreement to deploy forces between 30 or 27 member states can be tricky: witness the European Union’s inability to deploy its battlegroup since 2007. When combined with a deteriorating strategic outlook—Russian expansionism, Chinese island-building, entrenched conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, and climate-driven crises elsewhere—this opens a potential gap in security and deterrence. Throw in hybrid threats designed to dodge collective decision-making thresholds and the gap widens further.

Enter the 2014 NATO summit in Wales, where allies agreed to develop “framework nations,” or smaller groups of countries (including NATO partners) that could be used more flexibly, with a lead nation providing a command and control framework. As the summit declaration states, this involves “groups of Allies coming together to work multinationally for the joint development of forces and capabilities required by the Alliance, facilitated by a framework nation.” More broadly, the purpose is to “help demonstrate European Allies' willingness to do more for our common security and also improve the balance of the provision of capabilities between the United States and European Allies.” As well as training and operations, these groups also provide a focus for capability development between like-minded allies—from the United Kingdom’s focus on high-intensity operations (including with France) to German-led air exercises or Italian security force assistance. These shared priorities drive burden-sharing efforts under the 2 percent spending pledge made by NATO allies in the same year.

The JEF is the UK-led framework nation construct. The United Kingdom provides command and control through its deployable Standing Joint Force Headquarters (SJFHQ) based in Northwood, England. As an “opt-in” arrangement, every nation can provide capability and expertise depending on the nature of the crisis and deployment and the partners involved. The JEF has been fully operational since 2018, including multiple deployments in support of BALTOPS. Earlier in 2021 the JEF conducted its first maritime task group deployment on security patrol in the Baltic Sea to reassure allies in the region.

How Does the JEF Contribute to Transatlantic Security?

The JEF is important to transatlantic security for three main reasons.

First, it has the potential to strengthen European defense through bottom-up collaboration between like-minded allies. The JEF has already deployed multinational forces into areas of common interest to reassure allies and deter adversaries, while Joint Protector develops the use of multinational force in the face of modern hybrid threats.

Second, the JEF and other “minilateral” political-military formations can enhance burden sharing on transatlantic security. As European NATO member states act on their 2014 pledge to increase defense spending to 2 percent of GDP by 2024, initiatives like the JEF help them coordinate and focus spending on key shared priorities like gray zone operations. Other examples include Anglo-French cooperation, the Nordic Defence Cooperation (NORDEFCO), and now the Australia-UK-U.S. (AUKUS) partnership. Small steps taken by like-minded nations can add up to big changes in capacity and political will over time.

Finally, training and exercise deployments like Joint Protector provide a crucial opportunity for JEF nations—including non-NATO members Finland and Sweden—to test how their forces work together so they are ready for any crisis. For example, Baltic Protector 2019 provided an opportunity to refine operational interoperability, whether through amphibious raids in Estonia, urban warfare in Latvia, or battlespace communications at sea. As the JEF maritime task group commander put it: “It took us a week to get the IT sorted. . . . Now it’s working fine. But had the first week actually been a week of live action, that would have been really difficult. So we now know.”

Joint Protector: The JEF in the Gray Zone 

The JEF offers a particular benefit in the face of hybrid threats: the ability to deploy a multinational military force below the threshold of war. This type of activity was front and center of a new policy directive released in July, which calls for the JEF to be “able to respond effectively to competitors operating in the space below the threshold of conventional conflict.” Such hostility may be obvious, such as intimidation through military build-ups, or ambiguous, such as the use of deniable or proxy forces, cyberattacks, irregular migration, or election interference. Either way, if the action is serious enough to warrant a military response, the point of the JEF is to help provide one in a competitive age.

The Joint Protector exercise focused on the challenge of deploying and operating the JEF on a sub-threshold or gray zone mission. Unlike previous JEF deployments, the exercise did not involve any military hardware. Instead, it was focused on testing the ability of the deployed headquarters (about 500 people drawn from all 10 partner nations) to provide command and control to counter destabilizing activity below the threshold of warfighting. This included the JEF’s ability to combine diplomatic and military activity in a whole-of-government response and deliver strategic messaging through a mock press conference. The scenario was fictional, coming after a ministerial exercise in June that explored the use of “multiple government and military levers during a sub-threshold crisis scenario, with these sorts of threats becoming more prevalent in the JEF’s area of interest.” The European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats also took part in the exercise, adding expertise on countering hybrid threats and emphasizing the opt-in flexibility of the JEF (the center itself is open to EU and NATO members).

How Can the United States Help?

The JEF—and other minilateral coalitions of like-minded European partners—can add to transatlantic security through offering potent capabilities, enhancing burden-sharing, and proving interoperability. Yet the JEF is in its relative infancy and would benefit from the support of the U.S. political-military establishment. Here are three recommendations for how the United States should lean into the JEF to get the most out of it.

First, the United States should encourage and assist the JEF nations to build on Joint Protector by further developing its role below the threshold of war. Recent U.S. experience developing concepts for competition, integrated deterrence, and the U.S. Marine Corps’ Force Design 2030 efforts to develop a force better suited to gray zone competition can all help.

Second, the United States should complement sub-threshold efforts by encouraging the JEF nations to retain their focus higher up the crisis escalation ladder. Although providing military options against hybrid threats is important, conventional deterrence might just be the best way to prevent lukewarm gray zone conflicts from becoming hot. Here too the United States can lean on its own experiences developing a new joint warfighting concept. The U.S. Department of Defense should advocate for the JEF’s 2022–23 program to feature ministerial tabletop exercises, training deployments, and force-design conferences that focus on rapid responses to serious aggression in the Northern European area of responsibility. Doing so in coordination with NATO exercises like Joint Warrior would bolster deterrence and demonstrate complementarity. This will require the JEF to prove NATO interoperability—not just at the operational level between military units, but at the political-military level too, working through how to coordinate a JEF coalition deployment with a NATO response force in a crisis to minimize friction and identify decision chokepoints.

Third, the United States should show clear support for the JEF at all levels.

  • At the political-military level, the United States could attend—at the secretary or deputy secretary level—the next JEF or Northern Group ministers meeting. Support for the JEF and other minilateral groups of like-minded European nations should also feature in the National Defense Strategy, due in early 2022. This would strengthen the commitment to working with European allies and partners that was front and center of the administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, but could do with reinforcing in the wake of recent events.

  • At the military-strategic level, U.S. forces in Europe could exercise and operate routinely alongside multi-domain JEF formations. One aspect is the integration of rapid-reaction U.S. forces under UK-JEF command. In a serious crisis, these forces would provide the bulk of any multinational force to deter or deal with aggression in the region. Here the U.S. Marine Corps could develop and demonstrate their gray zone forward defense concept alongside allies and partners, perhaps in conjunction with their Royal Marine counterparts.

  • Finally, at the operational level the U.S. European Command (EUCOM) could establish specific links to the JEF command structure through the United Kingdom’s SJFHQ, perhaps adding U.S. staff officers to the existing multinational rotating presence from JEF nations.

Contributing Positively to Transatlantic Security

In recent weeks, the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal and the surprise AUKUS deal—through its short-sighted handling and long-sighted shift to the Indo-Pacific—have reinforced the impression that the United States is slowly but surely disengaging on European defense. To counter this sense of creeping uncoupling, clear support of the JEF from across the U.S. political-military establishment would provide a timely boost to transatlantic security. Ahead of next year’s big defense summits, it would demonstrate U.S. commitment to a practical and pragmatic European defense that bridges the NATO-EU divide. As the joint statement on the recent phone call between President Biden and French president Macron noted: “The United States also recognizes the importance of a stronger and more capable European defense, that contributes positively to transatlantic and global security and is complementary to NATO.” No better words could be found to describe the JEF.

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

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