A New Vision to Deal with Familiar Threats in Northern Europe

British prime minister Rishi Sunak recently did something none of his predecessors have done since Harold Wilson in 1968: he spent a night at sea with the Royal Navy. His berth for the night, the Type-45 Destroyer HMS Diamond, was docked in Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea, where the leaders of the 10-nation Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) met to agree on a new vision for Northern European security. Meanwhile, under the waves a familiar threat returned to the Baltic Sea when a gas pipeline and data cables were damaged by a Chinese container ship. A year on from the Nord Stream explosions, the JEF is positioning itself as Northern Europe’s first line of defense against further hybrid attacks on critical national infrastructure.

The JEF’s Coming of Age

The JEF is a multinational framework of like-minded Northern European nations including Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom provides command and control for JEF operations from its Standing Joint Force HQ in Northwood, London. This role meets London’s recent commitment to “look north” toward Northern Europe and the Arctic, alongside Sunak’s announcement at the summit to deploy 20,000 troops across Northern Europe next year. More broadly, it also demonstrates how Europe continues to step up and transform its own defense efforts.

The JEF is designed to conduct a wide range of missions, from training and exercises to crisis management and high-end combat operations. Examples include maritime security patrols in the Baltic Sea, combat air exercises in Finnish skies, and winter warfare training in Norwegian forests. While the JEF was established in 2014, it “came of age” in 2022 when its operational tempo increased by more than eight times after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Now a carrier strike group is deployed to the region on JEF duties, led by the HMS Queen Elizabeth alongside the HMS Diamond and ships from Belgium, the Netherlands, and Norway.

The JEF has also assumed a more political role since Russia’s invasion. Prior to their latest summit, JEF leaders met several times in the past year, both in person and virtually. They have also used the JEF forum to coordinate their assistance to Ukraine, including through the Tallinn Pledge made by six JEF nations in January and an air defense package made in June. President Volodymyr Zelensky has attended previous JEF leaders’ meetings and did so again in Visby, joining by video link from Odesa. He expressed gratitude for their support but also cautioned against Russian attempts to destabilize Gotland and the Baltic Sea region. In a first, Ukraine has now been invited to observe future JEF exercises “in order to strengthen their capacity and include their experiences.”

A Familiar Threat

A timely example of the kind of disruption President Zelensky warned of was provided just days before the summit when the anchor of the Hong Kong-flagged container ship Newnew Polar Bear reportedly damaged a gas pipeline and data cables between Finland, Estonia, and Sweden in the Baltic Sea. JEF leaders confirmed that they had discussed the incident, which “demonstrates that threats to critical undersea infrastructure are real and reinforces the need to maintain our resilience both at a national level and as a collective endeavour.” They committed to support the investigation into the incident and increase cooperation to protect “shared communications and energy infrastructure.”

This scenario may feel familiar to some. The opening scenario in the 2019 Handbook on Maritime Hybrid Threats produced by the European Center of Excellence in Helsinki was an anchor-damaged gas pipeline. And this time last year—just before the onset of winter in Europe, when demand for energy peaks—the Nord Stream 1 and 2 gas pipelines came under attack near the Danish island of Bornholm. JEF ministers condemned the acts of deliberate sabotage and stepped up their cooperation to detect and deter future attacks. In the following months, JEF leaders agreed in Riga to “accelerate cooperation . . . against threats to our shared subsea data and energy infrastructure,” and JEF defense ministers met in Amsterdam to strengthen intelligence sharing following an incident in Dutch waters.

In Visby, JEF leaders went even further by agreeing to a 10-year “JEF Vision.” The vision commits them to “adopt an approach that brings together military elements of the broader levers of national power to respond to hybrid security challenges” and “enhance shared situational awareness with greater interconnectivity, enabling common solutions to common challenges.” However, using a military formation such as the JEF to deal with hybrid threats in practice will not be easy. As the repeated attacks on energy infrastructure have shown, dealing with ambiguous “gray zone” or hybrid threats is difficult. This is not to mention other “hybrid security challenges,” such as cyberattacks, disinformation, forced migration, proxy actors, airspace violations, assassinations, and political interference. Few if any of these challenges are amenable to the military solutions which might be offered by a formation such as the JEF.

Proliferation, Posture, and Partners

The new JEF Vision does not give much away on how it will solve these implementation challenges. A new JEF policy is needed to replace the 2021 version and could provide some of this detail. If so, it will need to answer at least three questions about its future role.

The first is how the JEF fits into the proliferation of initiatives to protect critical national infrastructure since the Nord Stream attacks. The European Union agreed to a new Critical Entities Resilience Directive in December, which mandates member states to protect critical infrastructure under national law. An EU-NATO task force reported on the resilience of critical infrastructure in June. NATO established a Critical Undersea Infrastructure Coordination Cell in Brussels in February and a Maritime Centre for the Security of Critical Undersea Infrastructure in London in July. NATO also endorsed a “Digital Ocean Vision” this month to “enhance NATO’s maritime situational awareness from seabed to space,” while the alliance’s flagship innovation initiative, DIANA, is focused on energy resilience and “undersea infrastructure monitoring.” This is a crowded market. However, unlike other forums the JEF is purely focused on Northern Europe, where the most critical and vulnerable maritime infrastructure is located. The JEF conference on critical undersea infrastructure held in Iceland earlier this year shows its convening power on this issue and is a promising model for regional coordination.

The second is the evolving JEF posture. While the JEF does not have standing forces like NATO, it has evolved a persistent presence in the region due to its constant activity. But if the JEF is to achieve its now central mission of countering hybrid threats, in particular to critical infrastructure, it will require more than ad-hoc formations. The JEF leaders’ statement takes a step in the right direction with “JEF Response Options” (JROs) to guide force development and employment—but these are only designed to provide military options “in times of crisis,” which would come too late to prevent and deter attacks. Likewise, JEF exercises planned in 2024 and 2025 would only provide temporary effects for their duration. As the JEF Vision recognizes, coordination with NATO’s standing forces and regional plans for Northern and Central Europe will be important. JEF and NATO forces often work together, as they did in Exercise Joint Warrior in the High North earlier this year. However, to achieve its ambitious goal to deter hybrid attacks and other aggression in the region and deliver the JROs, the JEF may require its own standing forces, dedicated posture, and high-readiness reserves.

A third question concerns JEF partners. The JEF has not expanded since Iceland joined in 2021 and seems unlikely to admit any new members soon. While Germany and Poland have Baltic coastlines and are members of the Northern Group of nations, Germany has its own regional leadership projects (it already leads a NATO framework nation group and the European Sky Shield Initiative) and does not mention the JEF in its new security strategy, while Poland is mostly looking east. However, the agreement in Visby for Ukraine to observe future JEF exercises shows the potential of third-party engagement short of membership. Although militarily neutral, Ireland could benefit from JEF engagement given its vulnerability to maritime sabotage: it has just six ships to protect its waters, through which 75 percent of transatlantic undersea cables travel. Given the extent of transatlantic cables, the United States and Canada might also benefit from observing (and shaping) the JEF’s evolving role and posture, including in the High North region, given Canada’s Arctic interests.

Here to Stay

Seated at the head of the table of JEF leaders alongside his Swedish counterpart Ulf Kristersson, Prime Minister Sunak looked well rested after his night at sea. As Admiral Sir Ben Key, the United Kingdom’s First Sea Lord, reported: “I know for a fact that he thoroughly enjoyed himself.” Sunak and his fellow European leaders will be hoping their citizens sleep better at night knowing their critical maritime infrastructure will be better protected. While HMS Diamond and the carrier strike group sail further north, the JEF remains in the region as part of the Northern European security landscape. As the publication of its new 10-year vision suggests, the JEF is here to stay.

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.

Sean Monaghan
Visiting Fellow, Europe, Russia and Eurasia Program