NATO’s Expanding Military Exercises Are Sending Risky Mixed Messages


Russia’s recently concluded Zapad-2017 military exercise generated considerable attention in both the mainstream media and on think tank websites. As Michael Kofman explained in War on the Rocks, Zapad-2017 was surely a significant occurrence that deserves close — but not hyperbolic — scrutiny and after-action analysis.

But as the strategic competition between Moscow and NATO deepens, Zapad should also make those of us in the West take a look in the mirror and examine NATO’s own increasingly ambitious military training events, together with those of its member states and non-NATO partners.

Indeed, the full extent and the possible consequences of NATO’s heightened and geographically expanded exercise rhythm is not fully appreciated amidst the blizzard of publicity about Russia’s activities. These military exercises (i.e., those that involve fielded forces, as opposed to table-top kriegsspiel-style “war games”) are important because they send powerful geopolitical messages.

But are the right messages being conveyed? This invigorated NATO exercise activity is intended to assure allies and deter Russia, a policy the alliance underscored at its Warsaw Summit in 2016, and Washington affirmed with the European Reassurance and, later, Deterrence Initiatives. However, the deterrence element, as manifested in what NATO capabilities are being exercised and where these exercises are taking place, is confusing and potentially destabilizing.

Exercising is Good, But Only if You Do the Right Exercises

In reaction to the Russian invasion of Crimea and instigation of the conflict in eastern Ukraine in 2014, NATO leaders at their September 2014 Wales Summit agreed to

establish an enhanced exercise program with an increased focus on exercising collective defense including practicing comprehensive responses to complex civil-military scenarios.

Taking that guidance to heart, the alliance and its member states have significantly increased both the number of exercises and participants therein.

Because many NATO exercises overlap, and some are international but not strictly NATO-sponsored or even sponsored by NATO members, it is difficult to arrive at a complete picture of the scale of the alliance’s total effort. That said, in 2013 (the last full pre-Crimea year), the three main training events in which NATO members participated involved some 22,000 personnel. By 2016 that number had grown to more than 139,000 in eight major exercises, with the grand total — including those hosted by non-NATO countries — even larger.

Consequently, the “exercise gap” between Russia (which has historically conducted much larger exercises) and NATO, seen by some as problematic, has shrunk considerably. NATO’s numbers have risen dramatically, whereas Russia’s, although still larger in terms of personnel engaged, have declined.

In that light, it is concerning that NATO’s emphasis on “complex civil-military scenarios” in that same Wales Summit declaration — a clear reference to the much-discussed Russian “hybrid warfare” threat — downplays what is really the threat: the prospect of a high-end fight with Russia. To get a better sense of what a realistic threat scenario should look like, even a cursory reading of Kofman’s day-to-day summaries of what the Russians were up to in Zapad-2017 ought to give pause if you are thinking that “little green men” showing up unannounced is the alliance’s major concern.

Mind the Suwałki Gap

In other words, how the alliance trains to meet the Russian threat will be unproductive if the threat, as demonstrated in Zapad-2017 and other major Russian exercises, is misconceived (as seems to be the case). Here is one example among many: Saber Strike is one of the U.S. Army Europe’s premier military exercises. Since 2011 it has bound together American, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, and Polish forces in combined arms training in the southern Baltic littoral states. In recent years, other NATO and non-NATO countries have also joined the exercise. This year’s Saber Strike adds the element of exercising NATO’s four new battalion-sized Enhanced Forward Presence battle groups, key components of the much-heralded “assurance to deterrence” upgrade intended to underscore the alliance’s commitment to defend some of its easternmost members.

One of the key training events of Saber Strike 17 was the movement of the U.S.-led Battle Group Poland (BGP) from its base in eastern Poland through the strategically vital Suwałki Gap and into southern Lithuania. Lest one be misled by the name “Battle Group,” it is essentially one U.S. cavalry squadron with Stryker armored combat vehicles supplemented by 150 British army light dragoons. In concert with the Polish Army’s 15th Mechanized Brigade and its battalion of Soviet era T-72 tanks, it “focused on transitioning from a hybrid warfare scenario, which is a counterinsurgency battlefield, to a static defensive operation to prevent a mass enemy attack.”

That is to say, once the hypothetical hybrid warfare threat has been dealt with, they are supposed to plug the Suwałki Gap. This assumes that others have tied down or neutralized the very real ground, air, or missile threats from Russia’s Kaliningrad bastion on their left flank. That will be a tall order for BGP and its Polish parent unit if, on entering the gap, they encounter the Russian 1st Guards Tank Army coming the other way. Responsible NATO officials surely understand that this iteration of Saber Strike ought to be seen as a placeholder for what would be a much larger effort if and when they had to fight the Russians here. But this scenario calls into question the larger issue of where and how, realistically, NATO would seek to stem a concerted Russian attack.

You Fight Like You Train. But Where is the Fight?

Based on current evidence, one might wonder if NATO has this figured out. For example, during a recent combined joint forces exercise in Estonia, the U.S. Air Force employed the A-10 Warthog in the close air support role. Anticipating correctly that any airfield in Estonia capable of handling these jets, in particular the NATO air base at Ämari, would have been neutralized by the Russians immediately after hostilities began, the exercise planners built in the seizure of a highway landing strip by British troops from which the A-10s could operate.

As it happens, this particular stretch of road is about 125 miles from the Russian border, on the other side of which will be enough offensive and defensive firepower to render it and all of Estonia off limits to NATO forces for the first days or even weeks of any war with Russia. This scenario is the very definition of the term anti-access/area denial (A2/AD), the high-end fight which the U.S. Air Force, especially, has said is its principal challenge in any combat with a peer or near-peer adversary. As I wrote in War on the Rocks before, the forward deployment within Europe of NATO air power in the early days of hostilities against Russia is a terrible idea. But, as most of these NATO exercises demonstrate, there is a strong political necessity to message assurance to the Estonians and our other allies by pushing precious assets forward, both in training events and with troop rotations such as the battle group battalions. Apparently this is a more compelling requirement than practicing from bases and areas that make better military sense, which the Russians might actually see as a deterrent.

There is No Longer a Neutral Corner

As Reid Standish noted, non-NATO states, including formerly staunchly neutral Sweden and Finland, have been steadily integrating into NATO exercises or inviting NATO units to participate in their own training maneuvers. For example, Sweden’s largest military exercise in decades — Aurora 17 — just ended, and featured NATO and Finnish forces joining the “fight” in a scenario that is a thinly disguised Russian attack on the strategic island of Gotland and on the Stockholm area.

Last year, fighter aircraft from the U.S. Air Force operated out of a Finnish air base close to the Russian border, and this year will participate in the multinational Arctic Challenge Exercise 17 in Finland. In May, NATO and Swedish troops wrapped up their participation in Finland’s Arrow 17 mechanized combat training exercise.

The U.S. Army in Europe has also included non-NATO member militaries in the Saber Guardian exercises this year on its southeastern flank (member states Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania). Notable among these are Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, all of which have experienced some level of armed conflict with Russia. In 2017, U.S. and other NATO forces have participated again in military training events in Ukraine (Rapid Trident) and Georgia (Noble Partner).

Further adding to the complexity of the NATO/non-NATO mix is the participation of Sweden, Finland, Georgia, and Ukraine in NATO’s Response Force, which “the Alliance can deploy quickly, wherever needed.” Finland, in fact, will assign four of its F/A-18 fighters and support personnel for the NRF in 2018. The need for the non-member units to meet NATO standards provides a convenient rationalization, at least from the alliance’s perspective, for their participation in NATO exercises.

Mixed Messaging

Clearly, NATO has undertaken to push its presence into areas where its footprint was light or even non-existent. For example, early this year some 330 U.S. Marines were deployed to northern Norway. This is the first time since World War II that foreign troops will be based in that country. The nuance that they are there on a rotational basis will be lost on Moscow. Subsequently, Norwegian, U.S., and U.K. forces embarked on a major exercise in Norway’s Finnmark region above the Arctic Circle, the purpose of which, according to a senior Norwegian official, “underlines the importance of further allied participation in training and exercises in Norway, especially in the North.”

Or consider that in July of this year, the United States moved a battery of Patriot surface-to-air-missiles to Lithuania as part of the Tobruq Legacy exercise, marking the initial deployment of this system in the Baltic states. The Lithuanian Minister of Defense said that: “The deployment of Patriots is important because it demonstrates that such moves are no longer a taboo in the region.” That is another way of saying that through an exercise event, NATO is willing to introduce a highly visible and destabilizing element to assuage an ally’s security concern, even if the deployment is temporary. On the other hand, NATO raises the alarm when the Russians do the same — as was the case with the movement of Islander-M missiles to Kaliningrad. Where that one-upmanship stops is an important but open question.

Further, as noted above, NATO has significantly increased its presence and activity in the non-NATO states of Finland and Sweden. Whether this is a prelude to those countries joining NATO or not, this adds significant military capability to the NATO mix of forces and shores up its flank in the Baltic Sea region. In that sense, the messaging is positive for NATO. The benefits of allowing greater participation by non-NATO states in southeastern Europe, in particular Ukraine and Georgia, is less clear, and on balance is more destabilizing than it is worth and could easily pull NATO into a conflict with Russia.

Do These Exercises Convey Deterrence?

With the rising tensions between NATO and Russia post-Crimea, we now see a much higher military operational tempo and forward troop presence on both sides, increasing the likelihood of inadvertent armed confrontation. Against that backdrop, since the invigoration and propagation of NATO military exercises is intended to convey a more aggressive, forward-leaning stance, does it effectively contribute to stability and security via conventional deterrence?

Writing in this forum, Michael Petersen described the essence of deterrence: “To deter an adversary, that adversary must understand that its enemy has a viable military answer to the adversarial challenge.” One of the means by which that understanding might be conveyed is through military exercises where the equipment, logistics, tactics, and military skills of one party are such that an impression sufficient to deter aggression is made on another party. In fact, Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, U.S. Army Europe’s commanding general, said exactly that:

Deterrence means you have to have the capability to compel or defeat a potential adversary. You have to demonstrate that capability and the will to use it, and these exercises are that demonstration.

But these NATO exercises as they exist certainly do not, in and of themselves, contribute to deterring Russian aggression in any meaningful way. First, they are too small, largely lacking in heavy armor and artillery (where the Russians have a significant advantage), and do not typically involve all combat arms. Second, they do not fully engage the huge logistics train that would be required to move forces of sufficient size to halt a large-scale Russian attack through the Baltic states or Belarus.

Further, the alliance persists in entertaining the fiction of forward deploying to fight the Russians in the Baltic region, when every serious study of that scenario indicates this would be militarily unsound unless large, heavy forces were already in place or nearby. Considerable thought has already been given to the enhancement of the U.S. Army’s deterrence posture in Europe. But until these and other recommendations are fully implemented and exercised, pretending NATO can engage the Russians early in the Suwałki Gap or Estonia in a manner depicted in current exercises is a dangerous illusion, and to practice it is a waste of time at best.

In the larger context of how to deter further Russian aggression in Europe, the current state of play of NATO’s military exercise program is not yet of a scale and complexity to provide the necessary value added. Achieving a better result requires not only the budget support for larger and more complex exercises, but also improved planning of what those maneuvers ought to involve and, as importantly, where they should be conducted. The Russian Army’s General Staff, watching videos of companies of NATO light infantry maneuvering through the woods of Estonia or securing a road junction in Lithuania, will not be impressed.


Ralph S. Clem is Emeritus Professor of Geography at Florida International University, and is a retired Air Force Reserve intelligence officer.

Image: U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Jordan Castelan