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Stretching the Joint Expeditionary Force: An Idea for Our Times

In 2022, the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) came of age. As it develops a ‘10-year vision’ to be signed off at its next leaders’ meeting, there are several areas of development that could stretch the JEF to best meet its ambition and potential.

Being the framework nation for the JEF gives the UK a leadership role in northern Europe, a region which is of rapidly growing strategic concern for the UK and NATO.

Russia’s illegal war against Ukraine is forcing Europe to think wider and deeper about national security. Many areas traditionally regarded as civilian competencies, such as energy, food, and critical infrastructure are all now in scope during times of peace and tension even before a crisis. Once such crises develop, Europe needs quick and flexible options to fine-tune its response. The JEF can be shaped, stretched and expanded to meet the needs of an uncertain future.

The JEF, formalised at the 2014 NATO Wales Summit, was designed to build upon well-established commons: geopolitical interest in the North Atlantic, High North and Baltic Sea; shared operational experience in Afghanistan and Iraq; 3 Commando Brigade cooperation; and EU Battlegroup national partnerships. It is built on trust and like-mindedness. As the framework nation, it gives the UK a leadership role in northern Europe, a region which is of rapidly growing strategic concern for the UK and NATO.

It derives its value from its founding principles. First, northern European geographic and cultural synergies make the ‘like-minded nations’ label – fostered through shared operational experience and threat perceptions – real. Second, it was deliberately designed to not be Treaty-bound. Unlike other European defence efforts, such as the UK–France Combined Joint Expeditionary ForceEU Battlegroups and the new EU Rapid Deployment Capacity, its flexibility as a ‘1+1’ mechanism makes it almost unique in modern military history. Members can contribute to bespoke crises and situations when political will and military capabilities allow, as exemplified by its 2014 proof of concept during the UK-led response to Ebola in Sierra Leone. Third, NATO standardisation serves as the benchmark, which latterly provided the mechanism for NATO-interoperable Finnish and Swedish membership of JEF ahead of both countries’ NATO accession. As such, the JEF’s NATO credentials and acceptance among Allies are strong.

During 2022 JEF activity significantly increased, and it grew politically. JEF leaders’ and National Security Advisers’ meetings were held for the first time, alongside enhanced defence engagement. Most significantly, the UK signed political declarations with both Finland and Sweden to provide security guarantees during their NATO applications. While not JEF agreements, the speed and ease with which such security guarantees were made is testament to the trust, like-mindedness and flexibility of its members. Operational activity also increased, with headquarters elements and liaison officers deploying across Europe. With political momentum behind the JEF, now is the right time to deepen cooperation within the framework.

Development Priorities: Leadership, Technological Development, and Integration

UK leadership is provided primarily by the Standing Joint Force Headquarters (SJFHQ), a 2* joint headquarters augmented by JEF allies. It is yet to reach its full potential and could develop in several areas.

First, scope of command should be considered. Initial policy discussions ahead of the Wales Summit envisaged the SJFHQ as a unique multi-domain headquarters, perfectly suited for rapid response to bespoke crises close to home and globally. The JEF was conceived to be able to operate together in all domains, pulling in information and expertise from across all partner government organisations, rather than just being a coalition of military capabilities. For example, one discussion envisaged that the SJFHQ would task organise in support of NATO’s Maritime Command around the protection of underwater critical national infrastructure (CNI), rapidly integrating allied special forces, maritime and air assets, and working alongside the Norwegian energy department and private companies. In terms of resilience, this would effectively provide the UK with a fully connected and mobile COBR alongside trusted allies.

Second, multi-domain control should be prioritised. The SJFHQ provides an ideal proving ground for the UK’s digital transformation and innovation. The concept of ‘JEF Digital’ – enhancing digital transformation and modernisation, including secure communications – has already been discussed in partnership with industry by the Nordic Defence Chiefs of Information, binding Finland and Sweden’s highly advanced digital industries with UK innovation and pragmatism.

Third, intelligence sharing should be enriched from military intelligence towards a ‘JEFEYES’ approach – made technically and procedurally possible by Finland’s and then Sweden’s accession to NATO – which would be formally expanded to include allied intelligence agencies. A 5EYES and JEFEYES construct would put the UK at the heart of a global intelligence network.

Fourth, the JEF leadership should think ‘capability before nationality’ and develop ‘plug and play’ options with three priority groups of partners. First, the German Baltic Fleet should be utilised to support CNI protection in the North and Baltic Seas, extending the JEF’s reach into the High North as maritime supply lines open across the Arctic. Second, Canada should be plugged into High North operations (the door has always been left open for JEF membership for this like-minded nation). The US and Canada already have Atlantic-Pacific facing ports, and the UK and the EU have strong motivations to become engaged in High North maritime route protection. The JEF, alongside Euro-Atlantic partners, is well-placed to enforce and contest UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and Safety of Life at Sea norms and behaviours as a strategic enabler, as outlined in the UK’s Arctic Policy Framework and Defence Contribution in the High North papers. Thirdly, a proactive northern focus for the JEF would take it closer to the Indo-Pacific in the future – via the shortest route across the Arctic – and provide further options to plug in bilaterally with partners such as Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea and the US.

Fifth, everything within the JEF should be developed for ‘NATO by default’. While it should have a place for Article 5 in its area of operational responsibility, it should concentrate on complex sub-Article 5 operations that require a rapid response – quicker than the North Atlantic Council can gain consensus – to a complicated problem set that can be solved by civilian and military integration across all members.

Sixth, it should be recognised that the JEF is no longer just an operational level responder, but has an untapped capability development potential that could boost common practices and equipment. Funding for ‘JEF Digital’ should be justifiable from NATO’s new Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA) and the NATO Innovation Fund. Given that the JEF is more flexible and of smaller scale, it could also be a concept demonstrator for the NATO Bank concept.

A ‘JEF Bank’ could generate additional defence resources via interest earned on paid-in subscription capital through a dedicated investment bank for defence capability, or a technology venture capital fund. As such, it would offer lower rates for defence investment and provide a financial rock for long-term defence investment. Funding common capability development has more chance of success among 10 like-minded allies with their own pooled financial institution. The UK, as the framework nation, is perfectly positioned to coordinate given that DIANA is already based in London’s newest innovation hub in White City and a ‘JEF Bank’ would not be far away to provide support. Closer financing and development of member capabilities, tapping into high levels of technological cooperation among its organic advanced industrial base, would further interoperability and excellence to develop world-beating defence equipment.

The UK as an Integrator in Northern Europe

The JEF is not the only available framework in an increasingly congested European security architecture. Indeed, European security is littered with the graves of unsuccessful task forces that were thwarted by a lack of funds, a lack of unanimity, and a lack of imagination. With leaders signing up to a 10-year vision, the JEF is here to stay, but in doing so it must add value for the UK and Europe.

For the UK, the JEF is much more than a ‘joint’ military framework – it is an example of UK pragmatism, creativity, diplomacy and enablement. It plays to the UK’s strength as a ‘European security integrator’ – helping integrate Finland and Sweden into NATO, being a central player in both Nordic and Baltic defence and helping coordinate capability into NATO’s ‘European Arctic & Atlantic’ and ‘Baltic & Central Europe’ defence plans, and ultimately connecting Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific security as a rapidly changing climate opens shorter sea lines of communication in the Arctic and links these two priority UK ‘strategic arenas’ directly.

While the JEF was born from NATO, it could easily support UN missions, coalitions of the willing, or even EU Common Security and Defence Policy operations, if the political conditions were to be met. Its ambition and potential are strategic – to be an ‘Allied Expeditionary Force’, led by a nuclear-capable framework nation and supported by like-minded nations with cutting-edge industrial bases and technologies. Stretching the JEF along these lines would add the most value and ensure that it can form and re-form for crisis after crisis and best contribute to the future of European security.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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