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Desert Rats leading NATO’s first line of defence in 2024

One of the British Army’s most prestigious brigades will operate as the core response unit for NATO this year.

Last Thursday (11 January), at a ceremony in Münster, Germany, the 1st German Netherlands Corps (1GNC) handed over command of NATO's Land Component Command of the NATO Response Force to the UK’s Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC).

The ARRC officially began its tour of duty on 1 January 2024.

Thousands of British Army soldiers are now on standby and ready to deploy within days as a first response unit against threats to NATO members.

Following the handover ceremony, the Secretary of State for Defence Grant Shapps MP today (15 January) announced the UK will send some 20,000 personnel to take part in one of NATO’s largest deployments since the end of the Cold War.

Exercise Steadfast Defender will see 16,000 British Army troops deployed across eastern Europe from February to June 2024, with tanks, artillery and helicopters.

Alongside approximately 4,000 personnel from the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, the British Army troops will join 31 NATO allies and Sweden, across multiple countries in Europe, testing NATO’s readiness in its 75th year.

Defence Secretary Grant Shapps MP said:

“We are in a new era and we must be prepared to deter our enemies, prepared to lead our allies and prepared to defend our nation whenever the call comes.

“Today our adversaries are busily rebuilding their barriers. Old enemies are reanimated. Battle lines are being redrawn. The tanks are literally on Ukraine’s lawn. And the foundations of the world order are being shaken to their core. We stand at a crossroads.”

We are in a new era and we must be prepared to deter our enemies, prepared to lead our allies and prepared to defend our nation whenever the call comes. Defence Secretary Grant Shapps MP

There will be live fire manoeuvres, parachute jumps, an Army and Navy joint helicopter force, and Army Special Operations Forces on deployment across eastern Europe.

The British Army will deploy to test and strengthen the readiness of the UK’s land forces in defending NATO, and to bolster its ability to operate jointly with allied armed forces.

NATO’s Land Component Command’s spearhead force will be the UK’s 7th Light Mechanised Brigade Combat Team - The Desert Rats - which will also lead NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF).

The VJTF leadership is rotated annually among NATO members, with the UK taking over from Germany which led the force in 2023. The UK previously led the task force in 2017.

The VJTF is the highest-readiness element of NATO’s larger Response Force (NRF), which also includes air, maritime and special operations forces. 

A focal point of last week’s handover ceremony was the ceremonial exchange of the NATO Response Force flag, symbolizing the transfer of command from the 1GNC to the ARRC.

This symbolic gesture emphasised the unity and cohesion among NATO member nations in their collective commitment to ensuring the security and stability of the alliance.

Commander ARRC, Lieutenant General Sir Nicholas R M Borton KCB DSO MBE said:

“It is an honour to be hosted in Münster by 1st German Netherlands Corps for such an occasion. They have performed admirably in their year as the Land Component Command of the NRF. They will be a tough act to follow.

"In the midst of these unpredictable times, this transition of responsibilities signifies NATO’s commitment to the defence of its territory and the deterrence of aggression aimed at its people.

“As a Headquarters, we are equipped, thoroughly prepared, and poised to address a diverse range of possible missions assigned to us."

NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force was created after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and deployed for the first time for the collective defence of the Alliance after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

This is the same force that led the response during the activation of NATO’s Strategic Reserve Force in Kosovo last year.

In 2024, VJTF land forces will comprise some 6,000 troops and over 600 armoured and protected mobility vehicles, with The Desert Rats at its core. The UK’s total contribution is 4,200 troops drawn from 55 units across the Field Army.

The 7th Light Mechanised Brigade Combat Team is contributing a light cavalry regiment, and two light-mechanised infantry battalions with enabling artillery, engineering, logistics, and medical regiments.

Combat units include the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, the 4th Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland, and the 2nd Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment.

For Exercise Steadfast Defender, The Desert Rats will deploy their Headquarters, Spearhead Battlegroup and part of their light cavalry Battlegroup to exercise the rapid deployment of the lead elements of the VJTF.

Joining the Desert Rats will be VJTF troops from NATO partners to conduct interoperability training.

This year will be the first time the VJTF will oversee a NATO border with Russia, after Finland joined the alliance in April 2023.

The British Army’s existing commitments to NATO include UK leadership of the enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) mission in Estonia, with a brigade of troops held at high readiness in the UK to reinforce Estonia and the wider Baltic at a time of crisis.

Around 1,000 UK troops are persistently deployed to Estonia as part of the eFP mission – known as Operation Cabrit.

Last year over 1,500 UK troops participated in Exercise Spring Storm in Estonia, the first time the UK conducted a brigade-sized deployment as part of Operation Cabrit.

The UK also provides a Reconnaissance Squadron to a US-led NATO battlegroup in Poland and a Ground-Based Air Defence system (Sky Sabre) to help protect Polish airspace.

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