Around 90 miles from the border with Russia, British Challenger 2 tanks are ploughing through Estonia’s dark, marshy forests.
The dense pine is a far cry from the Afghan and Iraqi terrain that has dominated British operations over the past 15 years, and in it soldiers are preparing to face a very different potential enemy.
Their deployment is part training exercise, part deterrence and part diplomatic message and it sees British, French and Danish troops bolstering Estonia’s own army.
More than 800 British soldiers have been deployed to the Baltic state in a multinational battlegroup designed to reassure Nato’s eastern members that the alliance will stand by them against any Russian interference.
This multinational force would be in the first line of defence for the tiny nation in the event that hostilities flared with its Eastern neighbour.
Such a prospect, though judged unlikely, could see the British Army potentially facing Russian armour, artillery and airpower, after years of fighting lightly-armoured insurgents.
So troops who might have spent their careers patrolling bazaars, training local police and trying to win over the trust of Afghans and Iraqis are now practicing how to stop tanks in the forests of Eastern Europe.
“I think that we have learnt some really quite good lessons about how we need to redress the balance with our conventional capabilities after 10 to 15 years of counter insurgency and stabilisation operations,” Gen Sir Nick Carter, Chief of the General Staff, told the Telegraph as he visited troops last week.
“I think that what we are learning from this is all the things that we forgot when we went campaigning in about the year 2001.”
Credit: Jon Bond
Before the British troops arrived in the spring, commanders had prepared for a hostile reception from Russia. The Kremlin was expected to use its all its skills at propaganda, cyber warfare and subversion to undermine the mission, discredit British soldiers and try to weaken Nato’s resolve.
Troops had been warned to be on guard for everything from hacked Facebook accounts, to honeytraps and deliberately staged fights in local bars. The fears have yet to be realised, but the risk remains.
Sir Nick said: “I think that we were always conscious that if people wanted to make mischief, then that was entirely possible, and I think what’s been impressive for me has been the discipline that our battlegroup has shown here.”
The Army in 2017 finds itself not only having to deal with having to relearn rusty skills after the long-running Iraq and Afghan campaigns, but also having to deal with their political and public fallout, Sir Nick said.
A tendency for the public to see soldiers as victims, coupled with widespread skepticism about the value of putting “boots on the ground” both risk damaging the Army, he fears.
“I think that we have enjoyed massive and almost overwhelming public support off the back of what we did in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I think there’s a risk that that public support is very much based on sympathy and not necessarily on empathy and I think if we wish to sustain our numbers and indeed the sort of attitude that you would want your army to have, then I think it’s important that the cursor swings more towards empathy than sympathy. So that people understand about what an army does and why you need an army and therefore what it’s final task might be.”
The lack of understanding and the belief that soldiers are victims could hit recruitment in an Army which is already 4,000 soldiers below its target strength of 82,000.
He said: “The first risk is that people don’t necessarily want to join up, or rather their parents, teachers, the so-called gate-keepers perhaps don’t want to encourage them to join up, because the young that I engage with absolutely still do want to be soldiers.
“But then I think the other risk of course is that young people join an army to be used and that is important to us. The opportunity to do something like we are doing up here in Estonia is important, but I think we also need to be prepared to be used in other ways as well, providing we can be used in an effective fashion.”
In the aftermath of the Army’s last two campaigns, the idea of putting boots on the ground “has become difficult for people to comprehend,” he admitted.
“The trick of course is for the boots on the ground to be applied in a way that is not necessarily risk free, but is done for appropriate gain and benefit.”
He also cautioned against a tendency among some politicians to believe that drones and cruise missiles have made soldiering obsolete. Future conflicts will still be decided by soldiers fighting on the ground, he said.
“I don’t subscribe to the view that we now find ourselves in a new era of warfare, where you can do it all with stand-off, you can do it all with bombing, you can do it all with special forces and you can all do it with proxies.
“Those are simply fallacies. The bottom line with all of this is that in the final analysis, people live on land, and it is the land component that ultimately has to mix it with where people live.”
Sir Nick leads the Army as it is at its smallest since the time of Oliver Cromwell and the Armed Forces as a whole have seen severe cuts in the past seven years. He has been told to find billions more in savings in the next decade while trying to modernise and overhaul an ageing fleet of armoured vehicles.
The Tories dropped a pledge to keep the Army at 82,000 in their latest manifesto and many fear it will shrink further.
“Given the tasks that we have currently got, we have adequate numbers for that task,” Sir Nick said.
“If the task change or the tasks increase then we might have to ask questions about it.”