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 test capabilities and practise working together efficiently in a demanding crisis situation.
- Exercises allow NATO to test and validate concepts, procedures, systems and tactics.
- They enable militaries and civilian organisations deployed on the ground to work together to identify "best practices" (what works) and "lessons learned" (what needs improving).
- Exercises also contribute to improved interoperability and defence reform.
- NATO has recently boosted its exercise programme in light of the changed security environment.
- Exercises are planned in advance and vary in scope, duration and form – ranging between live exercises in the field to computer-assisted exercises that take place in a classroom.
- To foster and support interoperability, NATO exercises are as open as possible to all formal partner countries.
- The Alliance has been conducting exercises since 1951.
More background information
The rationale for planning and executing military exercises is to prepare commands and forces for operations in times of peace, crisis and conflict. Their aims and objectives must therefore mirror current operational requirements and priorities. The exercises are executed in three forms: a live exercise (LIVEX) in which forces actually participate; a command-post exercise (CPX), which is a headquarters exercise involving commanders and their staffs, and communications within and between participating headquarters; and an exercise study, which may take the form of a map exercise, a war game, a series of lectures, a discussion group or an operational analysis.
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 practise 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 fulfil 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 as open as possible to all formal partners, either as observers or as participants, and in some cases even as hosts of an exercise. Endorsement by the Military Committee and approval by the North Atlantic Council are, however, required before a partner can observe or participate in an exercise.
- 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 fictitious 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 types 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, practise 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 learned”). In this way, exercises facilitate continuous improvement of interoperability, efficiency and performance.
Military Training and Exercise Programme
Events and activities related to NATO training and exercises are developed by NATO’s two strategic commands – 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 next five calendar years. The detailed specifications of an exercise are developed one or two years prior to the start of the exercise.
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 18 months before the beginning of the next cycle. Preliminary planning culminates in the NATO Training and Exercise Conference, where NATO Commands, NATO member 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.
NATO, and more specifically Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), publishes its annual exercise programme online. In the spirit of the Vienna Document on ensuring military transparency, NATO also adheres to the followi