Well-prepared and locally invested: Interview with commander of NATO's Latvia-based battle group

Take note – story published 5 years and 3 months ago

Lieutenant-Colonel Philippe Sauvé recently took over as top brass of NATO's enhanced forward presence in Latvia, thereby concluding the rotation of the third group of troops deployed in Latvia.

The multinational battle group in Latvia is based at Camp Ādaži. It is led by Canada and consists of approximately 1,400 soldiers from Albania, the Czech Republic, Italy, Canada, Montenegro, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain who perform rotational duties in Latvia by participating in training with Latvia's own National Armed Forces.

Sauvé spoke with LSM's Jānis Rancāns about the battle group's activities and challenges in Latvia, as well as his impressions of the country and its soldiers. 

Nine nations are partaking in the battle group. How do you overcome all the problems that may arise with the different mentalities and language barriers?

I wouldn't say there's any major or unforeseen issues with nine nations working together especially in the military context. All our militaries are completely professional and all the soldiers that come here are well-equipped and well-trained.

So just having that base and that military culture that is very similar among all the nations makes integration very easy. You touched on the point of language.

Language is the biggest barrier. We all have different levels of English as it's the working language and since we, as a Canadian unit, come from a French-speaking brigade, all my soldiers are also using English as a Second Language, unlike the previous rotation.

So the way we work is – we talk a little bit slower and we keep things very simple. Simplicity is one of the hallmarks of military doctrine. So that makes us even more efficient and interoperable on the battlefield.

Before deployment, Spanish troops had special training for operations in the northern part of Europe.

All the nations conduct their own certification within their own nations. I can't speak to the specifics of the training that they completed to come here, but once they landed here - and I've seen them work in the training area - they're well integrated. They have no issues with the cold weather. I am very confident that the way they are preparing within their own nations is extremely good.

There have been many reports that NATO place a great importance to being able to deter from [hostile] activities in internet – fake news or cyber-attacks. Have you or personnel of battle group experienced any of such attacks?

Since I've arrived to the theatre, I haven't seen any specific disinformation against the Battle Group, but we are prepared through public affairs and other means to counter any disinformation or fake news about the Battle Group and our role here.

We're here to be completely transparent. It's part of alliance solidarity and collective defense. Anything we do – we're very open about it. Any disinformation that can come, we can easily counter that by showing how transparent we are as an alliance. We take that information and we analyse it and we make sure that we counter it, if there is a need to and we remain transparent in our mission here

We train our soldiers to follow specific procedures – and I can't speak of those specific procedures for the protection of our soldiers –, but we take it very seriously. Force protection and the protection of our soldiers here in Latvia is very important to us..

Do you cooperate with the other battle groups in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland? Do you have common exercises or are you operating autonomously?

We try to cooperate as much as possible. Our main effort is to integrate and work alongside the mechanized Latvian brigade and alongside the reserve brigades. After that our priority for integration is with the other eFP. We seek opportunities in the north and south to work with them. We will have a chance on the exercise “Spring Storm” in Estonia to send about one third of the Battle Group to train alongside them. We have to show that we can move easily from one country to the other, to show that we can defend throughout the Baltics and Poland.

Do you also train for unconventional warfare? I know the Americans are doing things like this in Eastern Europe as well.

We are training for any kind of threat that could come our way. That ranges from unconventional to conventional warfare. We incorporate all these different aspects in our standing operational procedures. When we do an exercise, we have specific objectives. Some of them might be unconventional, some might be conventional but we are ready to face any threat.

The battle group who has invested heavily to show its presence outside the camp Ādaži, showing their equipment to locals and visiting schools. What do you think is the local attitude towards the battle group?

I think we've had great support from the population and I think the outreach activities are critical to show our presence in Latvia. To be able to project our force throughout the country so we can react to any threat within the country.

Just by the number of people that have come to our different outreaches in different regions shows that there's an interest and willingness to understand what we are doing here and what our role is within Latvia.

I've been in command about three weeks we've already done three outreaches and we will continue to do them.

In the past rotations we have done something to help some local institutions with either building or improving improvements. I seek to continue that. Outreach is to show that the eFP is here to deter but we're also here to help. We're not just a military force [and] there's more than we can do.

Do you have any special lectures or something to teach soldiers about local culture or local traditions?

We have specific lectures to teach our soldiers. Different nations, as they prepare in their country, will do it differently. I can speak specifically to Canada - we have about a week of training in cultural awareness. I mean our cultures are very similar but there's little things that are different that soldiers need to [know]. And we also do language training about two days very basic language training but at least our soldiers can say “Hi thank you. Good morning. Good afternoon” [in the local language]. That in itself just builds small relationships and people are happy to see that another nation has made an effort to understand their culture. Soldiers that are here can continue to do a little bit of that should they want to do so.

A few years ago, there very public cases when British soldiers got into fights in Riga. How do you work with the people to prevent such things? I fully well understand guys who are fresh from the exercise and want to grab a beer, but accidents happen. Do you have any methods to prevent things like this that could be later blown out of proportion?

Yes, we have rules in place to ensure or try to minimize what soldiers can do that can have a negative impact on the battle group. However - as you saw with the British soldiers - incidents can happen.

We take those extremely seriously and we take the appropriate administrative or disciplinary action within the different national chains to ensure these actions aren't repeated and the people that are found guilty of any such action are treated very severely through their national disciplinary processes.

It is very important. That's one of the big key messages that we passed to our soldiers is that their presence here as an individual, can have a strategic impact. They're well aware of the rules and they're well aware of the consequences if they do not follow the rules. As long as they're not getting in trouble - and no soldiers so far have have gotten into trouble within the eFP Battle Group, the British soldiers were not from the Battle Group - in over 20 months here, all soldiers have behaved and well-represented their country and have shown that we're a very professional and credible force here in Latvia.

How do Canadians feel about their soldiers being deployed in Latvia?

We've had a positive response. It's a different deployment than Afghanistan. I think for the population it's well-received as the threat level is lower from a conventional threat point of view. I've not heard any negative news about our deployment here.

The population can have their thoughts. Our prime minister came out in July and extended us as a framework nation until 2023. It shows our commitment to NATO as a country and as part of the alliance.

What about the fourth-generation warfare - for example the drone systems and cyber warfare. Do you have capabilities to fight those threats?

You have to understand that we're equipped to counter and deal with drones and cyber warfare. The enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group is only one part of the NATO alliance that can come to bear should there be any incursion. We have assets from other headquarters and other resources that can assist us to defend against all threats.

We are monitoring through the information we get through the chain of command and what is actually happening east of the border. But I do not have a mission or a task to conduct any activity on that side of the border. My main goal here is to deter and be prepared to defend within Latvia.

There have been many discussions of things like Suvalki gap, that Americans practiced crossing last year. It is still one of weakest points to link up forces in Baltic region with rest of NATO. Do you think that your strategic position here is sustainable?

The mission here started with the incursion by Russians in 2014 [in Ukraine]. What we're doing here is part of a larger picture of what NATO is trying to accomplish. And our main goal is just to prevent conflict whether it be in Estonia, Poland Lithuania, Latvia or any other NATO country. That is what our goal is by creating the enhance Forward Presence:  to deter any country from potentially thinking about attacking. Are we sustainable? Every NATO operation or activity is sustainable and demonstrates our resolve to be transparent and to show collective defence within the alliance.

The capabilities that we have right now are what we need for the mission at hand. And as I like to explain – we are the tip of the iceberg. Should there be any incursion, along with the Latvian brigade, we will be able to defend the country. The forces from the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force and additional forces from division core would come in and support the defence of NATO countries.

We have to think as an entire alliance and not just the enhanced Forward Presence Battle Groups. We have put the measures in place to ensure that we are more responsive to any threat. A prime example is all the enhanced Forward Presence Battle Groups. We weren't here two years ago and now we are. We have a very high readiness task force that is brigade-size that is willing to come in at very short notice and then we have all of the other alliance countries following that can command and support. The alliance, although we are 29 countries, is extremely responsive to any threat that could come on our territory.

Would it be easy to defend Latvia? Because when you are looking at the think tanks who are saying that Russian forces could be in our capitals in 48 hours it doesn’t seem so good. I mean it’s a flat country. You can’t have good fighting positions.

I won’t speak specifically to how we will defend Latvia. There are plans in place but it comes back to operational security. There are ways that we've learned from lessons of many wars. That's how the military establishes its doctrine - learn from previous wars. There is a plan and I'm extremely confident that everything has been put in place and we can accomplish our mission here.

Could you describe the average day of a soldier serving in the battle group?

The soldier wakes up at six or seven. They then will do physical training and then will go to the field for the day to do training inoperability either with Latvian brigade, or with other companies in Battle Group. We continue every day to hone our skills between the different sub-units. They will work until about a six at night and the usually they have evening to rest. When we do exercises it’s 24/7 seven days a week. We have the flexibility that we can go twenty four hours a day, seven days a week for six months. We adjust the operational tempo to ensure that they get sufficient rest, but we maximize training. We are always ready to fight. We are always ready at any notice to get in our vehicles and conduct our mission.

What's your assessment of Latvian soldiers?

Latvian soldiers are as competent as those of any of the nations in the Battle Group. I would be happy to integrate any company in my Battle Group. That is why we are able to seamlessly integrate within the Latvian brigade. The military culture is all the same. We are NATO. Integrating, understanding how we work, is very easy to do.

The next six months, our objective is to continue with our mission: interoperability, deterrence and be prepared to defend. How we accomplish that is through continued training with the brigade, the Battle Group and the other eFP’s. The more we train alongside each other, the more confidence we get, the more easily it is to react and do our job. We can always get better – practice makes perfect. The more we practice, the more fluid our activities and operations can be.

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