Exercises

“Train as we fight”

  • Last updated 07-Mar-2011 13:02

Exercises are an important tool through which the Alliance tests and validates its concepts, procedures, systems, and tactics. Exercises also build interoperability and contribute to defence reform.

040711-N-4308O-066 North Atlantic Ocean (July 12, 2004) - A multinational formation of ships operates in the North Atlantic Ocean as part of Majestic Eagle. Majestic Eagle is a multinational exercise being conducted off the coast of Morocco. The exercise demonstrates the combined force capabilities and quick response times of the participating naval, air, undersea and surface warfare groups. Countries involved in the NATO led exercise include the United Kingdom, Morocco, France, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and Turkey. Truman's participation in Majestic Eagle is part of her scheduled deployment supporting the Navy's new fleet response plan (FRP) Summer Pulse 2004, the simultaneous deployment of seven carrier strike groups (CSGs), demonstrating the ability of the Navy to provide credible combat across the globe, in five theaters with other U.S., allied, and coalition military forces. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate Airman Ryan O'Connor (RELEASED) For more information go to: http://www.cffc.navy.mil/summerpulse04.htm

While individual NATO countries conduct exercises as a routine part of their preparation for operations, they also participate in Alliance-level exercises. Frequent exercises ensure that forces are able to operate effectively and efficiently in demanding crisis situations. They also provide a venue for pursuing increased interoperability and defence reform with partners.

What does this mean in practice?

Exercises serve a number of specific purposes.

  • Training and experience. Exercises allow forces to employ previous training in a practical way, thereby heightening forces’ level of proficiency in a given area. Exercises assume that basic training is complete, not required, or that sufficient trained/experienced personnel are available.
  • Testing and validating structures. Exercises are designed to practice structures as well as  personnel. A structure consists of many components – concepts, doctrine, procedures, systems, and tactics - that must function together. Supply structures, for example, require specialized 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.
  • Interoperability. 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 practical cooperation between personnel from NATO countries, Partner countries, Istanbul Cooperation Initiative countries, and selected contact countries.
  • Defence Reform. Participation in NATO exercises is one of the options available to Partners, in order to aid them with defence reform. Exercises provide opportunities for Partner countries to particip3ate in and observe the structures that Alliance members have in place.
Exercise scenarios

During an exercise, forces are asked to respond to a fictional scenario that approximates what might occur in real life. Exercises cover the full range of military operations, from combat to humanitarian relief to stabilization and 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 many aircraft, navy ships, artillery pieces, armoured vehicles, and thousands of troops.

Alliance exercises are supported by NATO countries (and, often, Partner countries), which provide national commitments in the form of troops, equipment, or other forms of support. Countries normally fund national contributions.

Each exercise has pre-specified 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 learned”). In this way, exercises facilitate continuous improvement of interoperability, efficiency and performance.

The Military Training and Exercise Programme

NATO training and exercise programmes are developed by both Allied Command Operations and Allied Command Transformation. This process culminates with publication of the annual Military Training and Exercise Programme (MTEP).

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 four calendar years.

The document is based on strategic commanders’ priorities and intents, which typically include areas such as current and future operations, the NATO Response Force, transformational experimentation, and NATO’s military cooperation programs.

NATO exercise requirements are coordinated during at least three MTEP Programming Board Meetings (which are open to Partner nations’ representatives) 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 nations, and other invitees conduct final exercise coordination and provide support to the annual MTEP.

The 2006 MTEP, along with other training events (seminars, commanders and battle staff training), includes 11 live exercises and 30 command post and computer-assisted exercises. 

Participation of Partner countries

Partners regularly participate in and host NATO exercises. Partners participate in NATO exercises to increase interoperability and as part of defence reform processes.

In 2004, the Alliance established a more ambitious and expanded framework for the Mediterranean Dialogue. In part, this framework aims to promote military-to-military cooperation to improve interoperability through selected military exercises and related education and training activities.  Istanbul Cooperation Initiative and contact countries are also able to observe selected exercises or participate in some training activities as approved by the North Atlantic Council.

Approximately forty percent of NATO exercises are open to Partner countries.  In 2005 and 2006, the average participation rate of Partners in joint NATO-Partnership for Peace exercises was ten Partners nations per exercise, whereas in “NATO open to Partners” exercises, there was an average participation rate of five nations per exercise.

Political exercises

Exercises occur in both the military and civilian structures at NATO. As a political alliance, NATO exercises its political arrangements, concepts and procedures in order to ensure that the Alliance consultations and decision-making architecture and capabilities are refined, and that primary advisers – non-elected senior political officials and military commanders in capitals and within the NATO structures - are provided opportunities to maintain their awareness of how complex, multi-national organisations such as NATO work.

Moreover, since numerous partners can be engaged in NATO-led operations, exercising with them at this level also provides non-NATO countries’ primary advisers and domestic crisis management structures the opportunity to understand how NATO works.  

What’s in a name?

In 2006, a new exercises naming convention was introduced. Every NATO exercise is identified by two words. The first letter of the first word denotes the NATO command responsible for scheduling the exercise.

S Supreme Headquarters Allied Command Europe
B Joint Forces Command Brunssum
N Joint Forces Command Naples
L Joint Command Lisbon

The first letter of the second word denotes the element(s) concerned.

A Air
L Land
M Maritime
J Joint


For example, Exercise NOBLE MARLIN is a maritime exercise organized and directed by Joint Forces Command Naples.

Which NATO bodies have a central role?

Allied Command Operations holds lead responsibility for NATO military exercises. It works closely with Allied Command Transformation, which supports the planning, execution, and assessment of exercises. Both organizations are assisted by the Alliance’s network of education, training, and assessment institutions, as well as national structures.

How did it evolve?

NATO has been conducting Alliance-level exercises for over fifty-five years, 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 centralized command was called for in September 1950. By December 1950, the first Supreme Commander Europe, U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, was appointed.

Following the appointment of General Eisenhower, national forces were put under centralized 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 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 initiative. One of the initiative’s objectives is to promote closer military cooperation and interoperability. From that time, members of the Partnership for Peace were able to participate in peacekeeping field exercises.

In 2002, the NATO Response Force was created. Most recently, emphasis has been placed on exercises conducted in support of the NATO Response Force. This training is intended to ensure that the Force 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, which paved 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 and to train jointly with the NATO Response Force.

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