All loud on the Eastern front: NATO's Exercise Iron Wolf sends message to Russia

Yorkshire soldiers have been participating in a massive NATO exercise in a show of strength to Russia in Eastern Europe. Chris Burn reports from Padrabe in Lithuania.

Soldiers from 3 Rifles battalion take part in Exercise Iron Wolf. Picture: Tony Johnson

The attack begins just after dawn. Initially the sound of gunfire through the forest is distant but it comes closer and closer as infantrymen from 3 Rifles battalion move swiftly through the trees away from the positions where they have spent the night to intercept and ambush the enemy tanks rolling through on their way to attack a nearby village.

Over the next three hours, the company of just over 100 soldiers sustain heavy casualties as they attempt to halt the progress of four heavily-armed enemy companies with the major advantage of being equipped with armoured vehicles. An Apache helicopter flies overhead as the battle rages on the ground.

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The fallen injured are carried by some of their comrades to medical vehicles behind the front lines - as others who weren’t hit make a valiant attempt to attack the enemy from behind as the tanks continue their progress.

Soldiers from 3 Rifles battalion take part in Exercise Iron Wolf. Picture: Tony Johnson

For centuries, British riflemen have prided themselves on being a fast-moving force and different to the other soldiers that make up the British Army. When they were introduced in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, instead of the classic ‘red coat’ worn by most infantrymen, Rifles wore green in the first attempt at camouflage by the British Army and marched at a quicker pace than other troops as they sought to cover large distances and difficult terrain in as unobtrusive a way as possible.

In 2019, this proud tradition is continued on this mission by the men of the Salamanca company of 3 Rifles, a Scottish-based regiment but who count large numbers of Yorkshiremen among their numbers as they recruit heavily from the region and the North-East of England.

Finally, those who have survived unscathed are able to take a break on the cloudless and already stiflingly-hot day as they await the trucks that will carry them back to relative serenity their temporary camp around an hour’s drive away. The exercise is over.

The ammunition may have been blanks, their ‘enemy’ being played by allies aiming to reach a purpose-built fake village designed for military training and casualties determined by military umpires rather than genuine injuries – but the war games that the British infantrymen engaged in deep inside a vast Lithuanian forest were designed to have a very real political effect.

Soldiers from 3 Rifles battalion take part in Exercise Iron Wolf. Picture: Tony Johnson

Military chiefs in the Eastern European country believe their presence as part of NATO’s three-week long Exercise Iron Wolf alongside their 4,000 other soldiers from their multinational allies is, quite simply, helping to prevent the outbreak of a Third World War.

A Russian military invasion of Lithuania or other Baltic states is not considered a high probability by the international community – but a large part of the reason for this is the presence of NATO means Moscow would be risking the start of a global conflict. As such, the exercise is designed to provide a fresh reminder of the multi-national military support the country of less than three million people enjoys.

Lithuanian battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Eugenijus Lastauskas says: “For the Lithuanians, for the military, the threat that we have and the escalation that we have, particularly the Russian activities in Ukraine really sends a signal that our neighbour is not peaceful and he is willing to attack other countries.

“It is not only that he has the capability but he is willing to do this. Having UK forces in Lithuania is a clear signal Lithuania is not alone, the Baltics are not alone – don’t even try to do anything in this region.

Soldiers from 3 Rifles battalion take part in Exercise Iron Wolf. Picture: Tony Johnson

“It is also very important not only for Lithuanians and the Baltics but also for Britain. Because if things start to escalate, there is a big chance that escalation will go much wider than the Baltic region. By being here, the British troops are doing a great thing for the region and a great thing for Britain also – they are preventing a big war, potentially the third world war happening.”

It is undoubtedly a huge claim but concerns about Russia are very real to the people of Lithuania, which was a Soviet-occupied state until 1990 and reintroduced compulsory military service in 2015 in response to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea peninsula in Ukraine – which is not a NATO member – the year before.

Since 2017, NATO allies have continually stationed forces in the former Soviet states of Lithuania, Estonia, Poland and Latvia – with Germany, the UK, the US and Canada taking responsibility in each respective country.

At the time, then Defence Secretary Michael Fallon told the BBC that the deployment was necessary “because of the increased Russian aggression that we’ve seen and the need to reassure our allies on the eastern side of NATO”.

Soldiers from 3 Rifles battalion take part in Exercise Iron Wolf. Picture: Tony Johnson

The giant Padrabe training area where Exercise Iron Wolf has been taking place, houses the German soldiers based in the country, with 85 square kilometres largely made up of forest, in the process of being more than doubled in size.

NATO insists the measures it is taking are entirely defensive acts of reassurance to the Baltic states but in response, Russia has been adding new tank and missile defence units to its Baltic fleet. Russia also claims that the presence of NATO in the Baltics is unneeded and a threat to itself – something the organisation refutes.

Escalating recent tensions have seen RAF jets in Estonia scrambled twice in two days last month to intercept Russian fighter aircraft flying to the north of the country.

Lithuania says it has been frequently targeted by cyber attacks and on a recent visit to the ‘line of contact’ in Ukraine which separates Ukrainian troops from Russian-backed separatists, British Army chief of staff General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith told The Sun that Russia are turning to such “shadow war” tactics in the knowledge that NATO are “peerless” when it comes to conventional warfare.

Last week, NATO warned that a Cold War-era nuclear arms pact, called the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, is likely to collapse in August when the current agreement expires over Russia’s use of a disputed nuclear-ready cruise missile system.

Lt Colonel Lastauskas says there are no fears but genuine concerns from Lithuanians about the threat from Russia. “Fear is not a word I would like to use. There is concern, the feeling that we have is a neighbour who is not a friend right now. He chooses to escalate and he did it so many times with information operations and cyber attacks, including in our area so right now we understand that the threat is realistic and therefore we are taking measures.

Soldiers from 3 Rifles battalion take part in Exercise Iron Wolf. Picture: Tony Johnson

“Fear is where a rabbit is afraid of a snake. We are taking measures, we are training actively. It sends a very strong message to our neighbour – don’t try to do any crazy things. There are plenty of capable troops and in the end, you will be defeated. Knowing our history, it is very important for our people to know we are not alone. Our message to Russia is very simple – don’t come here. We love our country, we know how to defend it and we are not alone.”

By contrast, the British – who have been sharing a temporary camp around an hour’s drive away from the main training area with Lithuanian, Polish and Danish soldiers – are understandably much more circumspect in publicly analysing the politics of both the region and the NATO mission.

While 3 Rifles are based in Edinburgh, they are due to move to Catterick in North Yorkshire from 2021 and recruit large numbers of soldiers from Yorkshire, with dozens of those on the exercise hailing from the region.

Major Ben Moorhouse, company commander of 3 Rifles, says it would not be appropriate for him to comment on Lithuanian concerns about Russia but added the exercise alongside multinational allies had been a fruitful one.

“The absolute focus is on NATO’s capability. It is not all about the British Army’s going out to the Baltic states, it is about bringing together NATO nations to demonstrate our capability and the resources we hold and the commitment to partner states and their protection.”

Captain Calum Ashurst says one of the highlights of the exercise for his troops was having the opportunity to work alongside international allies and getting a closer look at the Boxer armoured vehicles currently used by the German military, which 3 Rifles are due to start using from 2023 as part of becoming a ‘strike’ force capable of deploying over distances covering thousands of miles with minimal logistical support.

“The key aspect for this whole exercise was inter-operability, it has been very interesting to see how our partners operate,” he says. “The guys have had a really interesting look at how a lot of these countries operate what they have got and how their soldiers work. One of the key reasons we wanted to come over is the Germans have the vehicles we want to have and we are just beginning to understand their capabilities.”

As part of the exercise, half of the company was flown out while the other half spent three days travelling from Edinburgh to Lithuania by road and ferry to bring vehicles, supplies and weapons across Europe – making the same journey back at the end of operations earlier this week.

Captain Ashurst says: “We were the first here and will be leaving last, classic British.”

But for all the high politics surrounding the exercise, for many of the British soldiers taking part such matters are not their concern as they focus on their individual jobs. Lance Corporal Joe

Flavell, a 23-year-old from Doncaster, joined the military in 2015 when he was 18 years old after leaving sixth form – inspired by both the opportunity to employ his passion for fitness and the BBC documentary series Our War which told the stories of the young soldiers who had served in Afghanistan.

“It was always in the back of my mind to join,” he says.

“I worked in Sports Direct part-time on a zero hours contract and hated it, I couldn’t do it. When I was doing my Army training, it was just regular lads like me.”

His time in 3 Rifles has already involved trips to Georgia and Kuwait and he says that with this exercise, he is not paying much attention to the politics that surrounds it. “To me, it is just another exercise.”

Politicians shown firepower

Military umpires were used to assess ‘injuries’ during the training exercise instead of the British Army’s normal use of state-of-the-art sensors on clothing to simulate potential hits.

Captain Calum Ashurst said the use of ‘Tactical Engagement Simulation’ – or TES – was not possible in Lithuania because of the numbers taking part. “Here with 4,200 people taking part they don’t have enough kits.”

The overall three-week Exercise Iron Wolf was rounded off with a demonstration of the NATO Allies’ military firepower in front of senior Lithuanian politicians.

A ‘Distinguished Visitors Day’ held at the training camp saw the soldiers stage a mock 45-minute battle, which included a genuine bridge explosion.

Tomorrow: Meet the brave men of 3 Rifles