At its summit in Wales in September 2014 NATO decided to launch large-scale military exercises in order to show the Alliance’s readiness and political determination, and the willingness of partners to cooperate.
The first Trident Juncture exercise was conducted in October 2015 in Spain and Portugal as well as Italy, the Atlantic Ocean and the western part of the Mediterranean basin. It was the first major NATO exercise since the end of the Cold War and signalled the Alliance’s return to collective defence in the face of an increasingly resurgent Russia.
In the months before the publicized Trident Juncture 2015, Russia was making secret preparations for its deployment of air forces to Syria in September 2015. Russia had the ambition and resources not only to continue with annual massive strategic military exercises (Zapad, Vostok etc.) and the war against Ukraine, but also to launch its first expeditionary operation. NATO agreed to hold the next Trident Juncture three years later (in October 2018), with Norway and Iceland offering to be hosts.
Trident Juncture 2018 involved around 50,000 personnel from all Allied nations and two of its Enhanced Opportunity Partners, Finland and Sweden. For the first time in 30 years a US aircraft carrier, USS Harry S. Truman, appeared in Norwegian territorial waters, with Admiral James G. Foggo (Commander of Allied Joint Force Command Naples and of US Naval Forces in Europe and Africa) on board, who commanded the exercise. The carrier played a key role and alone provided 6,000 personnel and dozens of aircraft. In all, the exercise involved 10,000 vehicles, 250 aircraft and 65 vessels. The US contingent, mainly from the Marine Corps, made up about half the overall numbers of personnel and equipment. Sweden participated with an entire brigade, and Finland with some smaller units.
US willingness to continue to conduct large-scale exercises as a major contributor to deterrence, especially on NATO’s Eastern Flank (including the Baltic region), is undoubtedly crucial. The unanimous participation of Allies, and even partners, in these exercises underlines the shared sense of threat and the tremendous importance attached to collective defence through increased readiness and interoperability, to which large-scale exercises make a decisive contribution. The US has alliances reaching across both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and until recently it also conducted large-scale military exercises with South Korea in and around the Korean peninsula.
President Donald Trump has met the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, twice—in June 2018 and February 2019—and on both occasions decided thereafter to cancel major military exercises (Key Resolve and Foal Eagle) in order to advance the agenda on North Korean denuclearisation. After the failed summit in Hanoi in February 2019, Trump declared that the exercises were “massively expensive” and “very provocative”, and that the US was not “reimbursed” for the costs. Trump proposed a political trade-off in order to persuade Kim not to restart nuclear testing, even if North Korea has not pledged to dismantle all its nuclear enrichment or missile development facilities and Kim clearly resents the continuation of tough economic sanctions without American “compensation”. However, experts warn that replacing major military exercises with smaller training drills (e.g. Dong Maeng or “alliance”, which continues until 12 March 2019) is likely to weaken the joint readiness of the US and South Korea to act in case Kim decides to provoke conflict. On top of this, president Trump has pushed South Korea to pay more towards the maintenance of the 28,500 US personnel on its territory, threatening to withdraw them if Seoul declines to increase its contribution.
Does Trump’s decision to halt joint large-scale military exercises with South Korea have direct and serious implications for NATO and for deterring Russia, particularly in the Baltic region? Russia monitors very closely the way president Trump treats US allies and makes deals with adversaries, and will draw conclusions that will affect the Kremlin’s self-confidence and calculations (including in the light of Russia’s emerging new military doctrine, the outline of which was presented by Chief of the General Staff General Vitali Gerasimov on 1 March 2019 in Moscow). The outcome of the Hanoi summit is a solution, perhaps not for the long term, according to which North Korea continues to suspend nuclear and long-range missile tests while the US halts military exercises and does not impose new sanctions. That was always China’s strong preference—but not America’s. The US previously argued that there could not be equivalence between North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme and the right of South Korea to maintain credible defence, including large-scale exercises conducted jointly with US forces.
The US president actually used the scrapping of the exercises like any other bargaining chip, without considering the repercussions of the move vis-à-vis the defence needs of Washington’s ally and deterring its northern neighbour. In addition, it appears that Trump’s decision to suspend the large-scale exercises has taken the US (and South Korean) military by surprise, judging from the timing and nature of their reactions.
Consequently, NATO nations should draw their own conclusions and make every effort in order to avoid a similar scenario on the Alliance’s Eastern Flank. Trident Juncture exercises should be held more frequently—every two years—and alternately in the two theatres of the Eastern Flank (the Baltic Sea and Black Sea regions). These are the regions that NATO has to be most ready to defend. The “jump” from Spain and Portugal (2015) to Norway and Iceland (2018) comes closer to the Eastern Flank, but it does not yet signal full determination to defend NATO’s easternmost Allies, who are Russia’s direct neighbours. The geography of exercises is tremendously important, both for military and practical purposes and for delivering strategic messages.