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British Army sets sail to Europe for Exercise Steadfast Defender

NATO’s largest set of military manoeuvres since the height of the cold war, Exercise Steadfast Defender, began in earnest for the British Army as the 23,000-tonne roll-on roll-off vessel, MV Anvil Point slipped her moorings at the Sea Mounting Centre in Marchwood near Southampton.

Loaded into the bowels of the ship and parked bumper to bumper on her upper decks were some 600 vehicles – the vanguard of the UK’s land forces that will eventually see some 19,000 British soldiers deploy across a 4.5k kilometre stretch of Europe from Norway’s high latitudes of the Arctic Circle through to Georgia in the Caucuses.

We stand shoulder to shoulder with our allies and partners ready to defend our freedoms.” Brigadier Guy Foden,
7 Light Mechanised Brigade Combat Team

This was the deployment of NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force’s (VJTF); in essence, the tip of the spear that would be the first weapon launched at any adversary threatening European security. The VJTF role currently falls to the British Army’s 7 Light Mechanised Brigade Combat Team, affectionately known as ‘The Desert Rats’ who assumed the role from the Germany Bundeswehr at the beginning of this year.

As the ship was being loaded in Marchwood, 1500 of those Desert Rats were boarding trooping flights at airports across the country en-route to Hannover in Germany and Szczecin in Poland. This was Exercise Brilliant Jump Two, just one of the eleven exercises taking place under the broader NATO Exercise Steadfast Defender series. 

Exercise Brilliant Jump, although despite its title involves no parachuting, was what is termed a deployex – a deployment exercise that tests the logistical challenge of sending overseas vast numbers of troops and vehicles at short notice and within exacting time frames. Once the troops are reunited with their vehicles in Sennelager, Germany, the VJTF is further bolstered by more European troops from four NATO allies and nations: among them a Spanish tank battalion, Albanian and North Macedonian infantry, and reconnaissance troops from Turkiye. All these units will converge onto the Drawsko Pomorskie training area in Poland, where they will join with a Polish tank battalion as the exercise transforms from the deployex of Brilliant Jump Two into Exercise Polish Dragon, another within Steadfast Defender.

Brigadier Guy Foden, 7 Light Mechanised Brigade Combat Team’s Commander had this to say about his ‘Desert Rats’:

“With a significant quantity of main battle tanks, attack helicopters, infantry, artillery, air defence, drone capability, engineers and logistics, the brigade is a formidable fighting machine. It is the most powerful brigade I have seen in my 25 years in the Army.”

“The brigade is ready to deploy wherever NATO need us; the Desert Rats are honoured to be leading NATO’s very high readiness forces. We stand shoulder to shoulder with our allies and partners ready to defend our freedoms.”

For us it is training to project lethal force across Europe and to sustain it.” MAJOR SIMON ROBERTSON,
17 PORT and MARITIME REGIMENT RLC

As mentioned, Ex Brilliant Jump Two was designed to test the logistical challenge of deploying large force elements at pace. None were more tested when it came to embarking the 600 vehicles onto the ships than the Army’s very own maritime logistics unit, 17 Port and Maritime Regiment (17 P and M), part of the Royal Logistic Corps.

Very much a specialist unit that provides a unique capability, it was the port operators and stevedores who were responsible for the loading of the two Ro-Ro vessels that ferried 7LMBCT’s Foxhounds, Jackals, Mastiffs, Land Rovers and a plethora of other engineering and support vehicles across from Marchwood near Southampton to the port of Emden in Germany.

It is 17 P and M Regiment’s Port Operators who are trained to drive the British Army’s entire fleet of vehicles from the humble Land Rover to a mighty main battle tank. They need to be able to intricately manoeuvre each vehicle often with severely limited driver views into the tightest of spaces.

Speaking of the role played by 17 P and M Regt, the Second in Command, Major Simon Robertson said, “This operation is on a big scale, it is a significant ask, but it is something we do day in, day out. There is a bit more attention on this as it is the largest exercise of its kind for so long. And one that that fosters interoperability with NATO partners. For us it is training to project lethal force across Europe and to sustain it.”

Exercise Steadfast Defender continues until the end of May and comprises of 11 separate exercises, of which two are referred to above (Exercise Brilliant Jump Two and Exercise Polish Dragon). It involves 22,000 UK service personnel from the three armed services of which 16,000 will be British Army soldiers. In total some 90,000 military troops from all 31 NATO allies as well as partner nations will participate in the exercise designed to test and refine NATO’s plans for reinforcing European defences against a near-peer adversary.

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