November 1, 2018

NATO’s Trident Juncture: Old Dog, Old and New Tricks

NATO is in the middle of the active phase of its largest military exercise for some years.

Trident Juncture 2018, a collective defence exercise, taking place in Norway, the North Atlantic and the Baltic Sea, involves around 65 ships, 250 aircraft, 10,000 vehicles, and 50,000 personnel from all NATO member states, as well as troops from Finland and Sweden. Estonia will send around 10 staff officers, Latvia around 40 infantry and combat support personnel, and Lithuania a varied package of around 90 personnel and a mine countermeasures vessel. Trident Juncture follows hot on the heels of the 18,000 strong exercise Saber Strike, which took place in Poland and the Baltic states in June.

Several aspects make this exercise a significant milestone in NATO’s refreshment of its core roles of deterrence and collective defence. To be more credible in these roles, the Alliance needs both to rebuild certain competencies and to learn new ones. In terms of size, Trident Juncture is the largest NATO exercise since the end of the Cold War. While it is perhaps only half the size of Russia’s Zapad 2017, the challenges of assembling and exercising forces from 31 states are considerable. NATO’s core operating principles of multinationality and interoperability will be tested in the coming days.

Unlike Cold War collective defence exercises, however, in which substantial in-place forces faced off against a massed assault, the scenario for Trident Juncture involves the restoration of the sovereignty of an Ally following an armed aggression. This will require the deployment of NATO’s rapid reaction forces – the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) and the NATO Response Force 2019. There will thus be lessons applicable to NATO’s concept for the defence of the Baltic states – local tripwire deterrence forces backed up by large-scale reinforcements – while Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania can also expect to learn a great deal from Norway’s experience of receiving and hosting large numbers of Allied forces.

A notable feature of the exercise is that the VJTF will be led by Germany’s 9th Armoured Demonstration Brigade which, all being well, will then be certified in this role. Trident Juncture will thus also be a test of whether the Bundeswehr has been able to address at least some of the woeful readiness problems that have threatened its commitments to NATO and the EU. For example, according to the 2017 report of Hans-Peter Bartels, the parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces, only 9 of the 44 Leopard 2 main battle tanks required for the VJTF were operational. The large naval component of the exercise, which will include the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman and its accompanying strike group, is also significant. The re-emergence of the north Atlantic as a potential theatre of operations, the return of references to the Greenland-Iceland-UK Gap and the NATO’s efforts to relearn half-forgotten arts such as Anti-Submarine Warfare are all reminiscent of the maritime domain during the Cold War.

Finally, it is worth mentioning the involvement of NATO’s Enhanced Opportunities Partners, Sweden and Finland, who have done much to increase their activities with NATO, and bilaterally with the US, in recent years. That Allied air operations will be exercised in Swedish airspace is a good indication of the lack of strategic depth of any of the countries in the Baltic region, and foreshadows the inescapable dilemmas that militarily non-aligned Finland and Sweden would face as regards their involvement in a NATO conflict in north-eastern Europe.

While NATO is learning new tricks and relearning old ones, Russian criticisms of the exercise have followed a traditional pattern. Russian complaints that NATO is simulating offensive military action near its borders are, however, hard to take seriously in light of the location of the exercise areas and the posture that Russia itself exercised during Zapad 2017. In suffering at the hands of an ”overwhelming force” of US sailors and marines, Reykjavík perhaps has greater grounds for complaint than Moscow.