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.
US Army Special Forces soldiers drive snowmobiles through the deep snow of the Swedish Arctic ahead of exercise Cold Response 22, a Norwegian-led multinational exercise that helped NATO Allies and partners train for military operations in the High North.
- 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 partner countries.
- The Alliance has been conducting exercises since 1951.
- The aim of NATO exercises
- The making of an exercise
- The strategic commands in the lead
- Exercises through time
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 possible 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 following rules: when an exercise exceeds 9,000 personnel, it is subject to notification (at least 42 days in advance); when it exceeds 13,000 personnel, observers are allowed to follow the exercise. The naming convention explained below is also a source of information and therefore of transparency.
Every year within the framework of the Vienna Document and as part of an important confidence- and security-building measure, officials from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) meet to exchange information on their armed forces, military organisation, manpower and major weapon and equipment systems. They also share information on their defence planning and budgets during the year.
What's in an exercise name?
NATO exercises are identified by two words. The first letter of the first word denotes the NATO command responsible for scheduling the exercise. For example:
Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe
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. For example:
Special Operations Forces
For instance, Brilliant Jump is a joint exercise conducted by JFC Brunssum.
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's PfP is a major programme of bilateral cooperation with countries from Central and Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Caucasus).
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 practise collective defence. In other words, they were conducted to ensure that forces were prepared in the case of an attack.
The outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950 helped the Allies quickly understand the importance of an integrated force under centralised command. By December 1950, the first Supreme Allied Commander Europe, US General Dwight D. Eisenhower, was appointed and 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".
During the '70s and the '80s, NATO maintained a very active exercise programme to train forces in as many demanding scenarios as possible. Exercises were considered an essential part of the Alliance's deterrence posture and helped to ensure that forces were prepared for potential aggression throughout the Cold War.
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 between NATO and non-NATO countries in the Euro-Atlantic area. From that time on, PfP members were able to participate in peacekeeping field exercises.
In 2002, the NATO Response Force (NRF) was created. It is a highly ready and technologically advanced multinational force that the Alliance can deploy quickly, wherever needed. 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.
At the Chicago Summit in 2012, NATO Leaders started talking about "expanding education, training and exercises" and introduced the Connected Forces Initiative (CFI), which aimed to ensure that the high level of interoperability Allied forces gained during their operational experience in Afghanistan, Libya, the Horn of Africa and the Balkans, was maintained. It was in February 2013 that NATO Defence Ministers endorsed plans to revitalise NATO's exercise programme. These plans set the course for a more rigorous multi-year training schedule to ensure NATO and partner forces retain the ability to work efficiently together.
Following Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea in March 2014, the number of exercises undertaken that year was increased and at the 2014 Summit in Wales, NATO Leaders made a pledge to increase the focus on collective defence scenarios. Since then, NATO Leaders have agreed on a strengthened deterrence and defence posture that draws upon all the tools at NATO's disposal, including military exercises. At the extraordinary summit held in Brussels on 24 March 2022, just one month after Russia's unprovoked war on Ukraine had started, NATO Leaders further stressed the importance of this principle. Later, at the Madrid Summit in June, the 2022 Strategic Concept also committed Allies to strengthening training and exercises.
Exercises continue to ensure that Allies are able to meet NATO's level of ambition, and to demonstrate that capability for deterrence purposes.