Around 50,000 participants from 31 Allies and partner countries are readying for NATO’s most important military exercise since the end of the Cold War, Trident Juncture 18, which kicks off on 25 October. Primarily based in Norway and its surrounding waters and airspace, with important advance elements taking place in Iceland and in Swedish and Finnish airspace, this collective defence (Article 5) exercise portrays a threat from a fictional near-peer adversary on the north-eastern flank of the Alliance. It will exercise NATO’s ability to defend and reinforce Allies, including from across the Atlantic. The robust participation of Canada and the United States alongside European Allies will be a visible demonstration of the transatlantic bond and Allied unity and resolve.

US Marines secure a landing strip during air assault training at Keflavik Air Base in Iceland, on 17 October 2018, in preparation for the later part of Exercise Trident Juncture 18 in Norway. © DVIDS / U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Devin J. Andrews

The exercise will also showcase and develop the interoperability of Allied forces and capabilities. It is a combined arms training tool involving air, sea and land assets working jointly in a fictitious but realistic scenario. Around 150 aircraft, 65 vessels and up to 10,000 vehicles will be deployed for the live exercise, which will take place from 25 October to 7 November.

Given the geographical location of the exercise and shared security concerns, Finland and Sweden, which are among NATO’s most valued operational partners, will participate in the live exercise. A number of other key partners will participate in a computer assisted/command post exercise.

Other states, including Russia, have been invited to send observers to the exercise, demonstrating NATO’s commitment to transparency and its full respect for its arms control obligations and commitments under the Vienna Document with respect to any exercise involving more than 13,000 troops.

A renewed focus on the North

The northern flank of the Alliance was once a key concern for Cold War planners, but, until recently, it has seen little NATO attention in the post-Cold War era. For the past two decades, the main focus of operational and exercise planning has been crisis management, including expeditionary warfare missions and capabilities in the Middle East and Central Asia – or on the Alliance’s southern flank. This reflected the Allies’ ongoing operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere, as well as concerns about ongoing instability along almost the entire southern flank of the Alliance.

Meanwhile, Russia, the traditional challenger in the north of Europe, was mired in economic difficulty and in the early stages of a complicated military modernisation process. With these factors diminished or changed, grand strategy, state competition and geopolitics have once more emerged as a concern in Europe and the North Atlantic. Therefore, this major exercise is a timely effort by NATO to relearn some key training lessons of the past and to prepare for current and future threats.

Not all has been quiet in the North since the Cold War. Norway has regularly hosted smaller NATO exercises in recent years, such as Arctic Challenge, Cold Response and Dynamic Mongoose. Together with smaller NATO exercises and the NATO air policing mission in Iceland, this activity has ensured some Alliance familiarity with operations in the North Atlantic area.

Norway regularly hosts exercises to share its expertise in operating in harsh, arctic winter conditions. Together with smaller NATO exercises and the NATO air policing mission in Iceland, this helps ensure Alliance familiarity with operations in the North Atlantic area.
© Norwegian Armed Forces

More importantly, real-world events have ensured that political and military leaders are now paying attention to strategic developments in the North. A more assertive and aggressive Russia has in recent years upended the security landscape in Europe and the North Atlantic. From influence operations to invasions, this has not merely been a story of growing capabilities. Belligerent and threatening Russian messaging to NATO Allies, partners and prospective members means that the potential threat of conflict cannot be overlooked. NATO military planners and others in the “worst-case scenario business” are therefore prudent in evaluating and training Alliance capabilities for deterring, countering and, if necessary, defending against this growing Russian belligerence and military capability.

While the story of the Russian blue water navy modernisation has in recent years been one of missed opportunities and failures, the primary Russian effort has been the rebuilding and modernising of its submarine force. It is now a credible peer competitor to NATO assets as well as a major tool for maritime interdiction and disruptive offensive operations in the North Atlantic. This growing capability, which goes well beyond simply protecting a bastion boundary for Russian strategic submarine security, is a major cause for concern.

NATO has rightly focused on this emerging threat by elevating anti-submarine warfare capabilities in the North with Iceland, Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States all contributing. These day-to-day capabilities are an important input into exercises such as Trident Juncture, a force projection scenario that in a real-world conflict would be met by various determined efforts at interdiction. The exercise is also a powerful tool to focus Allied leaders’ minds on the challenges of projecting force of this size, or larger.

The challenges of force projection

It is important to keep in mind that the defensive posture of NATO is wholly different from what it was at in the 1980s, at the height of the Cold War, when 350,000 US troops were stationed in Europe as opposed to 62,000 today. This much lighter US footprint in Europe means that the ability to quickly and securely project major US reinforcements across the Atlantic is essential for a credible NATO deterrent against Russia.

It would be alarmist to claim that Russia is certain to test Allied commitment to Article 5 with military action. Yet, one cannot rule out the potential temptation to use subterfuge and deniable actions to foment instability and crisis to test the response of Allied leaders.

Russian has modernised its submarine force, which is a major tool for maritime interdiction and disruptive offensive operations in the North Atlantic. In response, NATO has strengthened anti-submarine warfare capabilities in the North. Pictured: Yuri Dolgoruky – Russia’s Borei-class lead missile-carrying nuclear submarine. © Military and Commercial Technology

Much analysis has focused on such scenarios playing out on NATO’s eastern flank and rightly so. Geographic and strategic limitations in the Baltics, for example, mean that a determined Russian effort would initially be unstoppable. NATO would therefore be faced with rolling back events on the ground through a major effort and at great risk of a wider conflict. A prospect complicated enormously by the apparent Russian willingness to use tactical nuclear weapons to counter any such moves. This is a scenario that is neither new nor particularly inventive – but it is a devil of a problem. It also goes to the heart of NATO’s Article 5 commitment of an attack on one Ally being considered an attack on all.

It is in this light that Trident Juncture 18 and similar exercises become extremely important. Their successful execution demonstrates the ability of Allied nations to project force rapidly to areas of crisis to counter a hostile build-up or to stall and reverse aggression.

Nevertheless, the exercise also exposes well-known NATO limitations. The planning cycle for the exercise is years long and in some ways demonstrates the Alliance’s cumbersome political and military command structure more than it does the rapid thrust of the nations’ military forces.

By contrast, Russia is often given credit for the speed of its military deployments, exercises and even offensive action. This is partly deserved, but partly a factor of geography, as its forces are training where they are based for the most part, so as to avoid a major logistical challenge in bringing about what are very large combined arms exercises. Also, Russia’s major exercises (Zapad last year and Vostok this year) are part of a regular series rather than being standalone. This, of course, makes planning easier but at the same time the fact that they are recurring makes them more effective as a learning tool. Finally, it is important to note that Russia sometimes inflates the stated numbers for exercises for political purposes, while at other times engaging in obvious subterfuge to work around reporting and verification requirements for exercises falling within the geographical scope of the Vienna Document.

Regardless of the true numbers participating in its exercises, Russian force levels and capabilities represent a clear overmatch for NATO forces along the Russian border. The convenience of Russia’s unity of command and lack of real democratic oversight should not be understated either. This means that NATO must always be prepared rapidly to reinforce in strength to be able to deter and counter if necessary.

Demonstrating readiness and resolve

Trident Juncture is a significant part of that preparedness. Another major piece of the puzzle is an increasing focus within the Alliance on planning and readiness.

At the NATO Summit in Brussels in July 2018, Alliance political leaders took significant steps to strengthen readiness. They adapted the NATO command structure, setting set up a NATO Joint Force Command for the Atlantic (at the same time as the United States reactivated its 2nd Fleet responsible for the North Atlantic based out of Norfolk, Virginia) and a Joint Support and Enabling Command in Ulm, Germany, to ensure freedom of operations and the rapid movement of troops and equipment. Allies also launched the NATO Readiness Initiative with the Four Thirties – 30 air squadrons, 30 ships and 30 combat battalions, all to be available to fight within 30 days. Military mobility is now also a key focus of cooperation with the European Union.

UK troops land at Rotterdam in the Netherlands on 10 October 2018, ready to drive a 2000km journey north to Norway for Exercise Trident Juncture. The convoy's move through the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Sweden will test how efficiently soldiers and equipment can move between European countries, as well as the ability of customs, border regulations and infrastructure to cope with rapid and heavy troop movements. © NATO

These structural changes and exercises are a means to developing capabilities and – by demonstrating Allied unity and resolve – are also a key part of deterrent messaging to any would-be adversaries. This is particularly important and timely given the considerable public attention that has been given to internal political divisions among Allies over the past couple of years. Some have questioned the commitment of the Allies to come to each other’s defence, which would undermine the credibility of a defensive alliance that relies on deterrence.

Article 5 is at the heart of the NATO deterrent. Potential adversaries who doubt the veracity of that commitment might be tempted to test it in some fashion. Exercise Trident Juncture 2018 aims to dissuade them from doing so, by providing a visible assurance of NATO’s ability to prepare and deploy forces for a major Article 5 operation in a complex security environment.