Exercises are important tools through which the Alliance tests and validates its concepts, procedures, systems and tactics. More broadly, they enable militaries and civilian organisations deployed in theatres of operation to practise working together. Exercises have many other functions, not least helping to identify “best practices” (what works) and “lessons learnt” (what needs improving).
NATO has been conducting military exercises since 1951 and individual NATO countries conduct their own exercises as a routine part of their national preparation for operations. Holding frequent exercises that test many different capabilities helps forces operate more effectively and efficiently together in demanding crisis situations.
Exercises vary in scope, duration and form – ranging between live exercises in the field to computer-assisted exercises that take place in a classroom. They are planned in advance by NATO’s two strategic commands – Allied Command Operations and Allied Command Transformation – taking into account strategic priorities and objectives, operational requirements and specific exercise objectives. They have been open to all formal partner countries since 2010 and while a majority of them are military exercises, the Alliance also organises political exercises too.
- Exercises allow NATO to test and validate concepts, procedures, systems and tactics.
- They enable military and civilian organisations deployed on the ground to work together to identify "best practices" (what works) and "lessons learnt" (what needs improving).
- Exercises contribute to improved interoperability and defence reform.
- NATO exercises are open to all formal partner countries, in addition to member countries.
- The Alliance has been conducting exercises since 1951.
Exercises serve a number of specific purposes:
- Training and experience
Exercises allow forces to build on previous training in a practical way, thereby heightening forces’ level of proficiency in a given area. Exercises have varying levels of complexity but most assume that basic training is complete and that a sufficient number of trained personnel are available.
- Testing and validating structures
Exercises are designed to practice the efficiency of structures as well as personnel. This is particularly true when periodically the NATO military command structure is reformed and new headquarters need to test their ability to fulfill new responsibilities. A structure consists of many components – concepts, doctrine, procedures, systems and tactics – that must function together. Supply structures, for instance, require specialised training, equipment and operating procedures, which must be combined to effectively support a mission’s objectives. Putting these structures into practice allows them to be tested and, if need be, refined.
NATO-led forces must be able to work together effectively despite differences in doctrine, language, structures, tactics and training. Interoperability is built, in part, through routine inter-forces training between NATO member states and through practical cooperation between personnel from Allied and partner
countries. Exercises are open to all formal partners, either as observers or as participants, or as hosts of an exercise. The type of participation is determined by NATO and the partner’s level of ambition in cooperating (whether, for instance, it intends to provide forces to current or future NATO -led operations).
- Defence Reform
Participation in NATO exercises is one of the options available to help with defence reform. They provide the possibility for NATO member countries to test reforms implemented nationally and give partner countries the opportunity to be involved in and observe the structures and mechanisms that Alliance members have in place.
During an exercise, forces are asked to respond to a fictional scenario that resembles what might occur in real life. Exercises cover the full range of military operations, from combat to humanitarian relief and from stabilisation to reconstruction. They can last from a day to several weeks and can vary in scope from a few officers working on an isolated problem, to full-scale combat scenarios involving aircraft, navy ships, artillery pieces, armoured vehicles and thousands of troops.
Alliance exercises are supported by NATO countries and, as appropriate, by partner countries, which provide national commitments in the form of troops, equipment or other forms of support. The participating countries are normally responsible for funding any form of national contribution.
Each exercise has pre-specified training objectives which drive the selection of activities. Objectives may be to build skills and knowledge, practice coordination mechanisms, or validate procedures.
At the conclusion of an exercise, commanders and, in many cases, troops collectively review their performance. This process allows them to identify areas that work well (“best practices”) and areas that can be improved (“lessons learnt”). In this way, exercises facilitate continuous improvement of interoperability, efficiency and performance.
The Military Training and Exercise Programme
Events and activities related to NATO training and exercises are developed by both Allied Command Operations (ACO) and Allied Command Transformation (ACT). This process culminates with the publication of the annual Military Training and Exercise Programme (MTEP). Since July 2012, ACO is responsible for setting the training requirements and conducting NATO’s evaluations, while ACT is responsible for managing the MTEP and executing the exercise programme.
The MTEP provides detailed information on training, exercises and related activities scheduled for the first two calendar years, and outlines information on training and exercise activities scheduled for the following three calendar years.
The document is based on the priorities and intent of the strategic commanders. The areas typically included are current and future operations, the NATO Response Force, transformational experimentation and NATO’s military cooperation programmes.
NATO exercise requirements are coordinated during MTEP Programming Board Meetings (which are open to representatives from partner countries) starting at least eighteen months before the beginning of the next cycle. Preliminary planning culminates in the NATO Training and Exercise Conference, where NATO Commands, NATO and partner countries, and other invitees conduct final exercise coordination and provide support to the annual MTEP.
Exercises are organised in both the military and civilian structures of the Alliance. NATO holds exercises based on its political arrangements, concepts and procedures so as to refine consultations and decision-making architecture and capabilities. Political exercises also aim to ensure that primary advisers – non-elected senior political officials and military commanders in capitals and within the NATO structures – are provided with opportunities to maintain their awareness of how complex, multinational organisations such as NATO work. In some instances, partners engaged in NATO-led operations are able to participate in certain aspects of these exercises.
What is in an exercise name?
At the present time, NATO exercises are identified by two words. The first letter of the first word denotes the NATO command responsible for scheduling the exercise.
S Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe T
Allied Command Transformation
Allied Joint Force Command Brunssum
Allied Joint Force Command Naples
The first letter of the second word denotes the element(s) concerned.
ACO and ACT work closely together on NATO military exercises. Both are assisted by the Alliance’s network of education, training, and assessment institutions, as well as national structures.
Since July 2012, ACO has been given the main responsibility for setting collective training requirements and conducting the evaluation of headquarters and formations. ACT has been given the responsibility of managing collective training and exercises, based on ACO’s requirements. ACT also holds lead responsibility for NATO and Partnership for Peace (PfP) joint education, individual training and associated policy and doctrine development, as well as for directing NATO schools.
NATO has been conducting Alliance-level exercises since 1951. In the early years of the Alliance, NATO forces conducted exercises to strengthen their ability to practice collective defence. In other words, they were conducted to ensure that forces were prepared in the case of an attack.
An integrated force under centralised command was called for in September 1950. By December 1950, the first Supreme Allied Commander Europe, U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, was appointed. Following this appointment, national forces were put under centralised command.
The Alliance’s first exercises were held in the autumn of 1951. During 1953, there were approximately 100 exercises of various kinds conducted by NATO commanders. From this point on, NATO forces were no longer a collection of national units, but were beginning to gain cohesion. A year after Allied Command Europe became operational, General Eisenhower reported that “the combat readiness of our troops has improved markedly.”
In 1994, the Alliance launched the Partnership for Peace (PfP) initiative. One of the initiative’s objectives is to promote closer military cooperation and interoperability. From that time on, PfP members were able to participate in peacekeeping field exercises.
In 2002, the NATO Response Force (NRF) was created. The original NRF concept was revised in 2009 and since then, the emphasis has been placed on exercises conducted in support of the NRF. This training is intended to ensure that the NRF is able to deploy quickly and operate effectively in a variety of situations.
At the 2004 Istanbul Summit, Alliance leaders elevated the Mediterranean Dialogue initiative to a genuine partnership to include increased participation in exercises and individual training at NATO institutions. At the same time, the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative was introduced, paving the way for cooperation between NATO and countries from the broader Middle East in areas such as education and training, and made provision for partners to engage in joint training for terrorism. Since the Lisbon Summit in November 2010 and the introduction of the 2010 Strategic Concept and the new partnerships policy, NATO exercises have been open to all partners.