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1500 British troops in action on Exercise Hedgehog, Estonia’s largest military exercise

“Together we are stronger” were the closing words from Lieutenant Colonel Kaido Tiitus, Commander of the Estonian Defence League’s Southern Command. He was addressing a highly symbolic military ceremony held with troops from across Europe and beyond, as they stood assembled either side of the small river that forms the border between Estonia and Latvia.

The ceremony marked the successful completion of the mobilisation of Estonia’s Reserve Forces and the starting point for the latest in a series of multi-national NATO exercises based in and around the Baltics. Codenamed Exercise Hedgehog, or Exercise Siil in Estonian, it was the largest military exercise ever to have taken place in the history of the country.

The scale and complexity of Hedgehog was mightily impressive with the British Army providing a somewhat heavy presence among the 10 participating nations; not least due to the 64 tonne Challenger 2 main battle tanks and 25 tonne Warrior armoured fighting vehicles sent to support the Estonian 2nd Infantry Brigade in the south of the country.

Hedgehog is an annual exercise designed to test the security of NATO’s eastern flank, referred to as the ‘B three P’ – the three Baltic States (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia) and Poland. The Deterrence factor towards any aggressive neighbouring state who may covet the thought of rolling across the border was another major consideration in the planning of Hedgehog. Estonia shares a border with Russia and there is a palpable heightened level of concern following the events of the 24 February in Ukraine.

For the past nine months that presence has been around 700 troops of the Royal Tank Regiment (RTR) battlegroup and for Exercise Hedgehog they were joined by a further battlegroup centred on the armoured infantry of the Royal Welsh meaning the British Army contributed some 1500 troops to Hedgehog.

The Commanding Officer of the RTR and Commander RTR Battlegroup, Lieutenant Colonel Simon Worth explained, “We are working this week with the 2nd Estonian Brigade and it offers them a significant increase in their combat power, normally they are a light brigade and we are bringing something much heavier that has increased their lethality significantly.”

Asked about what it is like to work alongside so many other nations’ armies he added, “We have had a lot of experience working with various nations particularly the Estonians, but also for the first six months I commanded a French sub-unit within the battlegroup. The interoperability for us is something we are well practiced with, having worked closely during our tour; so the technical, human and procedural interoperability is in a very advanced stage.

Hedgehog has had two significant effects, the first is it sends a very clear message about the UK, Estonia and NATO’s commitment to our security and that we are willing to do whatever is required to defend each other. The second is, it enables us to increase our preparedness for anything that comes in front of us.”

Exercise Hedgehog took place to the south of the country in the Valga and Voru regions along its border with Latvia where the primary military unit is the 2nd Infantry Brigade into which the RTR Battlegroup was integrated.

Estonia’s military, its Defence Force is made up of a contingent of regular officers, conscripts and a large number of reservists who can be called on to mobilise should the country be threatened.

The Commander of the 2nd Infantry Brigade, Colonel Tarmo Metsa explained that a big part of the exercise is the mobilisation of the country’s Reserve Forces, getting them equipped and into the field as soon as possible. Speaking of the exercise he said, “I believe it is not only for the defence of Estonia, but for a collective defence in all Europe because of tensions in Ukraine has made some changes in this exercise, international commitment within this exercise has risen. The Royal Tank Regiment is fighting side by side with us, French are here to direct the air capabilities and so and so on.

This year more than 15,000 people are taking part and a third is international, so it is very important in terms of self-defence and within the collective defence. Praising his British colleagues fighting alongside his brigade in the exercise he added, “I can say only very good words towards the leadership and the unit because even on the first day of the battle they showed that they performed very well, very capable.”

One of the unique points to the exercise, from a soldier’s perspective, was that it was carried out entirely in public rural and semi built-up areas mimicking precisely the type of terrain they could expect to have to fight through if ever the threat materialised. Unlike manoeuvring across well-trodden training areas, working in close proximity to the public brought new and interesting challenges such as excited school children racing across fields to see the tanks and take pictures. The Commanding Officer of the RTR commented, “None of us before have had the opportunity to train on public land with very few restrictions, for our soldiers that’s an extraordinary experience and I think one we will carry for the rest of our careers.”

As one of NATO’s smaller states, Estonia relies heavily on its military reservists of the Estonian Defence League (EDL). The Reservist soldier will have served 11 months full-time as a conscript; this gives them their basic training which prepares them to take up service in the EDL. Much like their British Army’s Reservist counterparts, the reserve soldiers in the EDL are drawn from all walks of civilian life. 

Junior Sergeant Andres Jaan Vainura, a Squad Commander with Bravo Company who in his civilian life is studying history at Tartu University spoke openly about being called up for Exercise Hedgehog, “I take pride in being a Reservist, some might say that every now and then I get called to the woods (military training manoeuvres), but in general being a Reservist I would say is less about the individual, but more about the nation as a whole. What I mean by that is knowing that our reserve forces exist, they are ready to take up arms if need be, that is a good feeling as a civilian and as a Reservist. The exercise has been fine, having been in the Army for 11 months really toughens your skin. I don’t think anything is coming for me that can surprise me.”

“Exercise Siil (Hedgehog) has proven a great many things, but when it comes to getting out the kit, getting the troops mobilised, getting them in the woods, getting them fortified. I’d say we have done pretty well. I have not experienced working with British soldiers before, but I have seen them in action and seen your impressive vehicles roll by and it’s a nice sight to behold because knowing those guys are fighting alongside us and not against us is a reassuring feeling.” His words perfectly summing up the stronger together attitude underpinning Exercise Hedgehog.