The Revival of NATO in Eastern Europe: The ALLIED SHIELD Exercises

An air-cushion vehicle goes toward the beach as NATO troops participate in the NATO sea exercises BALTOPS 2015 that are to reassure the Baltic Sea region allies in the face of a resurgent Russia, in Ustka, Poland, Wednesday, June 17, 2015.(AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

An air-cushion vehicle goes toward the beach as NATO troops participate in the NATO sea exercises BALTOPS 2015 that are to reassure the Baltic Sea region allies in the face of a resurgent Russia, in Ustka, Poland, Wednesday, June 17, 2015.(AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

Introduction

In the midst of tensions with Russia, NATO’s entire eastern flank has been and will continue to be engaged for the entire year in a series of military exercises whose purpose is to reassure both former Soviet Republics and former satellite states that the Alliance is committed to their security against what they perceive to be the threat from the East. In what follows, we are surveying precisely these confidence-building NATO exercises, with a focus on eastern part of Europe stretching from the Baltic Sea, to Poland, and to the Black Sea. More specifically, we are discussing the so-called ALLIED SHIELD series of exercises.

The background for these military joint manoeuvres can be portrayed as one of deep mistrust between the Allies and the Kremlin. This state of affairs has been aggravated in recent months by what NATO describers as a ‘game changer in European Security’, namely Russia’s intervention in the Ukrainian civil war. In the face of ‘Russia’s aggression’, the Allies intend to show unity and firmness, but also openness to resume cooperation with Moscow if the latter pursues a path different to the one it has been pursuing over the last years[1]. These exercises are reassurance measures that were put in place as part of the new NATO Readiness Action Plan, which had been adopted at the Wales Summit in September 2014[2].

ALLIED SHIELD

Overall, the number of exercises will have reached more than ‘half a dozen’ by the end of 2015, including maritime exercises across the Mediterranean, but also the Northern Sea, and the Arctic[3]. The scope of our review, however, pushes us to center mainly on what NATO calls the ALLIED SHIELD. As part of this program, circa 15,000 troops belonging to 19 different NATO member states, and 3 partner nations, will partake in a series of defensive exercises, or better yet training events throughout June. The goals of these activities are the enhancement of interoperability, of readiness, and of responsiveness, but also the show of unity and commitment to the concept collective defense, the Alliance’s backbone[4].

The exercises constituting ALLIED SHIELD are[5]:

  1. Exercise NOBLE JUMP: the first training under the new Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) framework, also called the high-readiness Spearhead Force;
  2. Exercise BALTOPS: a naval exercise in Poland and the Baltic Sea, in which the U.S. B-52 bombers and U.S. F-16s will participate, together with NATO AWACS, with P-3 and P-9 Maritime patrol aircraft, with German Panavia Tornados, with Swedish Saab Gripen, and with American KC-135 tankers;
  3. Exercise SABER STRIKE: land exercise scattered across the Baltic States and Poland;
  4. Exercise TRIDENT JOUST: a NATO Response Force command and control exercise in Romania.

Here, you can find an infographic about the ALLIED SHIELD. Let us now discuss each of the 4 exercises individually.

NOBLE JUMP

On June 17, NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was arriving in Poland, at the Zagan military training area to observe the first ever deployment of the newly established very high-readiness Spearhead Force during the NOBLE JUMP exercise that had started on June 9. The manoeuvres, which had been set to take place until June 19, consisted of over 2,000 troops from 9 NATO member states, and also of Czech and Dutch air mobile troops, of German and Norwegian mechanized infantry, of Polish and Lithuanian special forces, of Belgian artillery, of American helicopters, and of a Hungarian civil military cooperation unit[6].

According to lieutenant colonel Marek Pietrzak from General Leadership of Polish Armed Forces, the scenario upon which the exercise develop had not been based on any ‘factual events in any particular state’. The only aim was to prove that NATO is ready to handle crises with a fast and unified reaction[7]. Poland’s role within NATO has been increasing over the last years, and the country is expected to pursue the same path in the future. The strongest proof of Warsaw’s commitment to the Alliance has to be its level of military expenditure. Experts show that Poland will be overcoming the 2% of GDP pledge for the military sector, with a $9.9 billion defense budget, as it has been seriously engaged in a 10-year military modernization plan (2013-22) worth $35 billion. The upgrade program has been announced prior to the Ukrainian crisis, but recent events have determined the Polish leadership to accelerate it[8].

Nato-Soldaten schießen am 18.06.2015 auf einem Truppenübungsplatz in der Nähe des polnischen Ortes Sagan bei der ersten Übung zur Verlegung der Nato-Speerspitze - Noble Jump. Die neue schnelle Eingreiftruppe der Nato wird als Reaktion auf die Ukraine-Krise aufgebaut. Deutschland hat einen wesentlichen Anteil daran. Foto: Kay Nietfeld/dpa +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

Nato-Soldaten schießen am 18.06.2015 auf einem Truppenübungsplatz in der Nähe des polnischen Ortes Sagan bei der ersten Übung zur Verlegung der Nato-Speerspitze – Noble Jump. Die neue schnelle Eingreiftruppe der Nato wird als Reaktion auf die Ukraine-Krise aufgebaut. Deutschland hat einen wesentlichen Anteil daran. Foto: Kay Nietfeld/dpa +++(c) dpa – Bildfunk+++

BALTOPS

Between June 5 and June 20, around 5,600 troops have participated in one of the biggest NATO drills, which consisted of a total of 49 ships, 61 aircrafts, one submarine, and an amphibious landing force of 700 American, Finnish, and Swedish troops. The BALTOPS has been a yearly United States-led exercise (since 1971) in Poland and the Baltic Sea. Nevertheless, this year, the responsibility for the exercise’s execution was in the hands of Vice Admiral Foggo, and his NATO staff. Very significant is the participation of NATO partners Finland, Georgia, and Sweden, alongside 14 NATO Allies[9]. Russia’s ambassador to Sweden, Viktor Tatarintsev, has threatened that a military response from Moscow would necessarily come next if Sweden were to join the Alliance. Such a statement is expected to rise the level of debate in the country as to whether joining NATO is the right path forward[10].

The importance of such an exercise lies in the opportunity for all sides to practice a collective response in the conditions of a multinational environment, with ‘people speaking different languages, people using different equipment and landing crafts’[11]. Furthermore, in the context of serious increasing antagonism between Europe and Russia (for example, Russia’s announcement of boosting its nuclear arsenal in the Kaliningrad), BALTOPS has sparked some controversy as for its final purpose. NATO’s official line is that the exercise was not aimed at any country. At the same time, however, the Dutch foreign affairs minister, Bert Koenders, underlined that the BALTOPS was a warning to Vladimir Putin[12].

The two-week long exercise had ended with a show, more specifically a mock landing at Ustka, in Poland, with an audience composed among others of U.K.’s defense secretary Michael Fallon, and of journalist from all over the world. When asked about the BALTOPS as being threatening for Russia, Fallon responded: ‘It is not NATO threatening Russia. This is Russia directly trying to intimidate the eastern and northern members of NATO through these flights, through its submarine activity and talk of renewing its ballistic missiles. NATO is not threatening anyone.’ Also, he said: ‘NATO has no quarrel with the Russian people. We do have a quarrel with Putin, or Russia, trying to change borders by force’[13].

Soldiers sit atop of amphibious vehicles as NATO troops participate in the NATO sea exercises BALTOPS 2015 that are to reassure the Baltic Sea region allies in the face of a resurgent Russia, in Ustka, Poland, Wednesday, June 17, 2015. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

Soldiers sit atop of amphibious vehicles as NATO troops participate in the NATO sea exercises BALTOPS 2015 that are to reassure the Baltic Sea region allies in the face of a resurgent Russia, in Ustka, Poland, Wednesday, June 17, 2015. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

SABER STRIKE

The host nations of this approximately 6,000 participants-wide exercise were Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. An exercise traditionally led by the U.S. Army Europe, this year’s session took place between 8-20 June. Once more, the official description never mentioned that a country like Russia could be the rationale behind the joint manoeuvres. As a matter of public discourse, the exercise has been described as preparatory for potential future operations, and as promoting regional interoperability[14].

If, however, we consider the size of SABER STRIKE 15, and the previous drills in the Baltic States, it becomes clear that Russia is not far from playing a fictitious role in the scenarios upon which these exercises had been based. First of all, even if the exercise has been operating since 2010, this year, the size of the participants has increased from 4,500 troops (10 countries), to at least 6,000 troops (13 countries)[15]. Taken out of the current geopolitical context, this could merely be a signal of increased interest and participation of Allies in/within NATO. If, however, we take into account the grievances of Eastern European countries towards Russia’s latest moves, the pledges of Jens Stoltenberg to defend NATO’s members, and the vicinity of the host countries, SABER STRIKE 15 can at least be partly understood as a show of harmony and resilience in the face Moscow’s assertiveness on its doorstep.

More than this, between May 4-15, over 7,000 reserve forces, and a total of 13,000 troops from Estonia and Allied countries took part in exercise Siil/Steadfast Javelin. Also called exercise Hedgehog, the event took place all over Estonia with the primary aim of testing the country’s readiness to employ reserve soldiers for the defense of the territory[16]. The scenario of this particular exercise appears to have been modeled on a possible Russian invasion of Estonia. More exactly, the troops practiced resisting an invasion by an enemy called ‘Aslavia’. The leader of the participants, Sgt Reinsalu, made it clear that his country was indeed worried about the situation with Russia. The exercises involving the Baltic States are in a way the most realistic instrument of reassurance, as NATO cannot permanently deploy combat forces in the east of Europe without running against an agreement it had signed with Russia in 1997[17].

British Ghurkas attend the multinational NATO exercise Saber Strike in Adazi, Latvia, June 11, 2015. (Reuters / Ints Kalnins)

British Ghurkas attend the multinational NATO exercise Saber Strike in Adazi, Latvia, June 11, 2015. (Reuters / Ints Kalnins)

TRIDENT JOUST

Between 17 and 28 June, Romania hosted Bulgarian and Italian forces during a training session for the Joint Force Command (JFC) Naples, which consisted in a Command Post Exercise (CPX), thus command and control, which involved around 1,500 troops[18]. JFC Naples has assumed command of 2015 NATO Response Force, and the exercise in Romania represents the first time a Joint Force Command has been deployed to this country. The transition of the command and control of an operation from a location to another is known to be a difficult task, and TRIDENT JOUST 15 aimed to prove that NATO has the ability to perform such a task[19].

In order to better understand the scope of this exercise, it could be useful understand the actors, most important of which has to be the JFC Naples. One of the branches of NATO’s military structure is the Allied Command Operations (ACO), which consists of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Power Europe (SHAPE) (Mons, Belgium), the Joint Headquarters Lisbon (Lisbon, Portugal), the Rapidly Deployable Corps Headquarters, and Other Staffs and Commands Responsible to SACEUR. The Headquarters Allied Joint Force Command Naples (Naples, Italy) is part of SHAPE[20], and together with the Allied Joint Force Command Brunssum (the Netherlands) it has operational command of the NATO Response Force (NRF) on a rotational basis every other year. The NRF is a high readiness force composed of land, air, sea, and Special Forces units that provide rapid deployment capability[21].

TRIDENT JOUST 15  at the Sibiu International Airport

TRIDENT JOUST 15 at the Sibiu International Airport

Concluding Remarks

It is clear at this point that this has been a ‘hot’ summer so far for the Allies. The official NATO line as regards Russia has been successfully followed in the first half of the year, by most member states. Showing a solid and unified stance has been the main goal of NATO’s posturing, and the deployment of troops during these exercises all over Eastern Europe has been a dream come true for the countries residing next door to Russia.

The Ukrainian Crisis, and the resumption of hostilities between Russia and Europe, have had two overall effects. First, they have given an opportunity to the eastern flank countries to assert their role within the Alliance, and to credibly point out their grievances regarding their common threatening neighbor. The Baltic States, Poland, or Romania have finally earned an authentic voice in a transatlantic organization, which must be deemed a success for these countries after having been for such a long time either Soviet Republics, or Socialist satellites. It is their time now to prove commitment to the West, but also to receive large Western support, to be treated as genuine Allies.

Second, the above mentioned issues have provided the Alliance with an occasion to be reborn. There is a lot of criticism pointing towards NATO’s ‘death’, and towards the growing imbalance between America’s commitment to the Alliance, and that of European states. The external threat has come very close to Europe’s borders, and the political line appears to be one of unanimous condemnation regarding Russia’s actions. Thus, the idea of a ‘Russian threat’ is not going to shift into something more positive anytime soon. Despite the negative consequences evolving from a scenario in which Europe and Russia will be competing from within distinct security frameworks, it has to be noted that the window of opportunity for NATO solidification is present at the moment, in the face of an assertive and tough foe.

As for the military joint exercises, they will most likely also have both positive and negative consequences. The positive side is that preparing together for operations does indeed increase the level of interoperability, which would be beneficial not only for taking a potential mission to its successful conclusion, but also for adapting different military personnel to different weapons systems. This is a serious matter that NATO has to be able to handle  if the European and American defense markets would be eventually integrated. Also, such joint manoeuvres might have the final outcome of building trust among NATO member states, and of pushing them to move beyond a fragmented definition of sovereignty in the field of security, thus enabling the establishment of a pool of military assets, with positive outcomes in terms of defense spending efficiency and specialization.

Lastly, these exercises, together with increased military budgets, could have the negative effect of increasing the level of the security dilemma between Russia and NATO states, a dilemma which is no longer dormant. Such a state of affairs risks escalating fast, turning into a spiral, an arms race, and via an insignificant accident, into a major military conflict. Russia has recently considered increasing its nuclear arsenal as a response to the suggestion that the United States should amass heavy equipment in Eastern Europe, and as a goal to overcome the ability of the BMD Shield to cancel out Moscow’s nuclear deterrent. All these developments could put in place a situation in which the slightest mistake is able to spark a major disastrous event. As such, NATO should continue stepping cautiously from now onwards, and keep its exercise programs and joint manouvres as transparent as possible, in order to be able to avoid unexpected reactions or simply unexpected events.

References

[1] ‘Deputy Secretary General: Russia’s aggression is a game-changer in European security’, NATO Website, February 2, 2015: http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_117068.htm

[2] ‘Wales Summit Declaration Issued by the Heads of State and Government participating in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Wales, Articles: 5,6,7,10, NATO Website, September 5, 2014: http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_112964.htm

[3] Brooks Tigner, ‘NATO ramping up military exercises in 2015’, HIS Jane’s 360, March 11, 2015: http://www.janes.com/article/49904/nato-ramping-up-military-exercises-in-2015;

Balazs Koranyi, ‘NATO Starts Anti Submarine Exercise in North Sea as Tensions with Russia Rise’, Reuters, May4, 2015: http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/05/04/us-nato-submarine-idUSKBN0NP12820150504;

‘NATO Fighter Jets Join Nordic Countries in Arctic Military Exercise’, CBC News, May 25, 2015: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/nato-fighter-jets-join-nordic-countries-in-arctic-military-exercise-1.3086264

[4] ‘NATO Conducts ALLIED SHIELD Series of Exercises in June’, NATO Website, May 12, 2015: http://www.aco.nato.int/allied-shield-exercise-series.aspx

[5] David Cenciotti, ‘ A Series of Training Events is Taking Place in Eastern Europe’, The Aviationist, June 13, 2015: http://theaviationist.com/2015/06/13/infographic-allied-shield-series-of-ex/

[6] ‘NATO Secretary General in Poland for key ‘Spearhead Force’ exercise’, NATO Website, June 17, 2015: http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_120716.htm

[7] ‘NATO military exercises ‘Noble Jump’ start in Poland’, Global Times, June 10, 2015: http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/926264.shtml

[8] ‘Military Spending in Europe in the Wake of the Ukrainian Crisis’, SIPRI, April 13, 2015

[9] ‘NATO Allies begin naval exercise BALTOPS in the Baltic Sea’, NATO Website, June 4, 2015: http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_120407.htm

[10] Christopher Harress,’ Amid Russian Threats, Dutch Foreign Minister Says NATO BALTOPS 2015 Exercise Is A Warning To Russia’, International Business Times, June 19, 2015: http://www.ibtimes.com/amid-russian-threats-dutch-foreign-minister-says-nato-baltops-2015-exercise-warning-1975399

[11]Sgt. Tatum Vayavanda, ‘BALTOPS 2015 Integrates Amphibious NATO Forces’, Marines Website, June 15, 2015: http://www.marines.mil/News/NewsDisplay/tabid/3258/Article/600376/baltops-2015-integrates-amphibious-nato-forces.aspx

[12] Christopher Harress,’ Amid Russian Threats, Dutch Foreign Minister Says NATO BALTOPS 2015 Exercise Is A Warning To Russia’, International Business Times, June 19, 2015: http://www.ibtimes.com/amid-russian-threats-dutch-foreign-minister-says-nato-baltops-2015-exercise-warning-1975399

[13] Ewen MacAskill,’ Nato shows its teeth to Russia with elaborate Baltic training exercise’, The Guardian, June 17, 2015: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jun/17/nato-russia-elaborate-training-exercise-dangerous-signal

[14] ‘NATO Conducts ALLIED SHIELD Series of Exercises in June’, NATO Website, May 12, 2015: http://www.aco.nato.int/allied-shield-exercise-series.aspx

[15] Dan Lamothe, ‘In Saber Strike 15, U.S. paratroopers and Marines train on Russia’s doorstep’, The Washington Post, June 15, 2015: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2015/06/15/in-saber-strike-15-u-s-paratroopers-and-marines-train-on-russias-doorstep/

[16] ‘Siil / Steadfast Javelin kicks off in Estonia’, NATO Website, May 10, 2015: http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_119257.htm

[17] Ben Farmer, ‘Estonia stages biggest military exercise in country’s history amid fears of Russian ‘aggression’’, The Telegraph, May 12, 2015: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/estonia/11600458/Estonia-stages-biggest-military-exercise-in-countrys-history-amid-fears-of-Russian-aggression.html

[18]  ‘NATO Conducts ALLIED SHIELD Series of Exercises in June’, NATO Website, May 12, 2015: http://www.aco.nato.int/allied-shield-exercise-series.aspx

[19] Capt. Kay Nissen, ‘Trident Joust main force arrives in Romania’, DVIDS, June 20, 2015: https://www.dvidshub.net/news/167429/trident-joust-main-force-arrives-romania#.VYltIUam1WA

[20] ‘NATO Organization’, NATO Website, November 4, 2015: http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/structure.htm

[21] ‘NATO Response Force 2015’, NATO Website: http://www.jfcnaples.nato.int/page16963161.aspx

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