Everybody does it – train across terrain, that is. MS&T Editor Rick Adams compends significant worldwide training exercises.

While allegedly based on “fictious scenarios with fictitious adversaries,” the lessons learned in training exercises would surely apply against ill-disguised real-world foes.

They feature apparently abstract names such as Hedgehog, Baltops, KFOR, Dynamic Mongoose, Steadfast Flow, and Brilliant Jump, but a careful examination of the naming conventions of the players involved can be revealing. For example, the T in Trident Juncture indicates it is a NATO Allied Command Transformation exercise, and the J in Juncture indicates it is a joint exercise. Constrained by the naming conventions, planners choose words that reflect the spirit and goals of the exercise.

They are designed to provide training and experience, test procedures and tactics, and promote interoperability. Political signaling is not incidental. They range from CPX – command post exercises – to LIVEX engagements with tens of thousands of troops roaming vast expanses of terrain and water.

In 2018, NATO scheduled more than 100 military exercises; allies will have held another 180 national and multi-national drills. Russia, China, India, Singapore and other countries also stage various levels of wargames.

Here are some of the prominent exercises and their geopolitical context.

The New Oil Battleground: the Arctic

“The Arctic could potentially hold up to a quarter of global oil and gas reserves,” said Konstantin Makienko, Vice President of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a Russian think tank. According to Makienko, more than 20 large oil and gas fields have been discovered in the Arctic.

The Northeast Passage (NEP) is becoming more attractive and shipping companies are testing the waters. Over the last five years, Chinese shipping company COSCO has made over 30 transits. The route from China to Western Europe via the NEP is 2,400 nautical miles shorter than through the Suez Canal, saving a million dollars per container ship trip.

“Protecting Russia’s interests in the Arctic region and its dynamic development remain a top priority for the Armed Forces,” Russia’s Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu has stated.

It’s unsurprising, then, that Russia is upset at the triennial NATO exercise known as Trident Juncture, held this year in central and eastern Norway, the North Atlantic and the Baltic Sea during October and November: 50,000 soldiers, 10,000 vehicles, 65 ships (including an aircraft carrier) and 250 aircraft from 31 countries. “Even if NATO says otherwise, Trident Juncture is really preparation for a large-scale armed conflict in regions bordering with the Russian Federation,” said Lieutenant General Valery Zaparenko, a former deputy chief of Russia’s General Staff.

"In recent years, Europe's security environment has significantly deteriorated," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg countered. "Trident Juncture sends a clear message to our nations and to any potential adversary. NATO does not seek confrontation, but we stand ready to defend all allies against any threat."

In a joint statement, the foreign ministers of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Iceland said: "Russia has both shown the will and ability to use military force to achieve strategic goals. Cyber-attacks and disinformation are actively used to create divisions between people in Europe as well as in the United States, which in turn challenges democratic institutions and our ability to reach common conclusions."

The 2018 edition of Trident Juncture included strategic relocation elements, forces arriving from different parts of Europe and North America.

“What are we learning?” asked Adm. James Foggo, the head of US Naval Forces Europe and commander of NATO Joint Force Command Naples. “We’re doing flight ops in cold weather. We’re doing flight ops in high seas. We’re having to make the call – is it safe? Can we continue? Can we recover aircraft?”

“The Marines have operated in an environment over the last 20 years, since 9/11, with their boots in the sand in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s great to come to a place like Iceland or Norway, operate in an archipelago, in a place that is a volcanic landscape, that is hard ground, difficult ground to navigate over – and do it in cold weather. So a ton of lessons learned there.”

For the US Marine Corps, it was an opportunity to test its Marine Force 2025 concept, modelled under the assumption the Corps wasn’t prepared to fight a conventional adversary such as Russia or China after years focused on low-intensity counterinsurgency conflicts.

The first Trident Juncture took place in Portugal, Spain and Italy in 2015.

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with a Chinese serviceman during Vostok 2018. Image credit: Sputnik.
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with a Chinese serviceman during Vostok 2018. Image credit: Sputnik. 

China Joins Russia in Massive Wargames

Nearly 300,000 troops, a thousand aircraft, 36,000 tanks, major airborne units, 80 warships from the Pacific and Northern Fleet ships … plus 3,200 troops and 900 tanks from China … took part in Russia’s largest wargames since the Cold War-era Zapad-81 exercises.

The Vostok 2018 manoeuvres spanned vast expanses of Siberia, the Far East, the Sea of Japan, the Bering Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk: carried out at 20 ground, sea and air ranges from Anadyr to Vladivostok with its main elements unfolding on the island of Sakhalin, the Kamchatka Peninsula, Chukotka, and the southern part of the Primorsky Territory.

The Chinese troops included elite soldiers from the Northern Theater Command, who deployed at the Tsugol training range near the juncture of the Russian, Chinese and Mongolian borders. Mongolia has also sent a military contingent.

Observers suggested that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, which has not fought a war since the attempted invasion of Vietnam nearly 40 years ago, is keen to learn from Russia’s experience in the Syrian campaign, where it tested its latest weapons and tactics. Also, the emerging military alliance with Russia sends a strong signal to the US and ally Japan as Beijing asserts its interests in the South China Sea.

An irony is that the previous Russian Vostok exercises in 2014 were ostensibly aimed at preparation for a ground war with… China.

Just prior to the joint military exercises, Chinese President Xi Jinping attended an economic forum in Vladivostok, where Russian President Vladimir Putin treated him to pancakes with caviar and shots of vodka. Xi said, “Russian-Chinese relations have entered a new era of rapid development and are reaching a higher level. We have similar or identical positions on international matters, broad common interests and firm foundations for cooperation.”

Putin noted, “We have trustworthy ties in political, security and defence spheres.”

Russian defence minister Gen Sergei Shoigu said, “We have agreed to hold such exercises on a regular basis.”

NATO spokesman Dylan White said Vostok 2018 “fits into a pattern we have seen over some time – a more assertive Russia, significantly increasing its defence budget and its military presence.”

Hiatus for US-South Korea Exercises

Vigilant Ace, an annual December air combat exercise involving more than 12,000 forces from the United States and South Korea, became the fourth casualty of the nuclear disarmament talks with North Korea. US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and South Korean National Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo made the decision “to give the diplomatic process every opportunity to continue.”

Earlier this year, the Pentagon suspended Ulchi Freedom Guardian, an annual exercise involving 17,500 forces, as well as two Korean Marine Exchange Program training operations.

The status of two major exercises traditionally scheduled for the spring – Foal Eagle and Max Thunder, major ground and joint air exercises – is unclear.

US President Donald Trump tweeted, “The President believes ... there is no reason at this time to be spending large amounts of money on joint US-South Korea war games.” The president has also balked at the cost of the nearly 30,000 American troops stationed at bases in South Korea.

Army Gen. Robert Abrams, in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, defended the president’s decision as a calculated diplomatic concession to North Korea, but acknowledged that “there is certainly degradation to the readiness of the force… a slight degradation.”

RIMPAC Disinvites China

The 26th edition of RIMPAC, the world’s largest international naval exercise, took place near the Hawaiian Islands and Southern California in July without one of the countries which had participated in the 2014 and 2016 exercises. China was initially invited to participate in RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific) 2018 but was “disinvited” due to their continued militarisation of man-made islands in the Spratly chain in the South China Sea.

“China's actions in the South China Sea in regard to providing offensive weapons in a contested area is exactly contradictory to the entire purpose for this exercise. Therefore, it was decided at very high levels that they would be disinvited,” said US Navy Adm. John Aquilino, commander of the United States Pacific Fleet. “This entire exercise is about nations cooperating for peace, stability, security, and a free and open Indo-Pacific region.”

The exercise involved 26 nations, 25,000 personnel, land forces from 18 countries, 47 surface ships, five submarines and more than 200 aircraft. RIMPAC featured rehearsal scenarios for disaster relief, amphibious operations, anti-piracy, missile shots, mine clearance, maritime security, anti-submarine warfare and air defence operations.

Joining the US military were Australia, Brazil, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Colombia, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Peru, the Republic of Korea, the Republic of the Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Tonga, the United Kingdom, and Vietnam.

“We are all maritime nations,” said Vadm. John D. Alexander, commander of the US Third Fleet. “We all prosper through trade and the majority of the trade goes through the Indo-Pacific region.”

Saber Strike 18 on Russia’s Baltic Borders

“Saber Strike 18 is not a provocation of Russia but an exercise with our allies,” US Army Europe stated. “This is what normal deterrence business looks like.”

The 8th iteration of the massive USAE-led exercise was conducted in June in Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia and involved 18,000 soldiers from 19 nations, primarily NATO members. Russia alleges any NATO military activities along its border increases “mutual distrust.”

Poland provided a mandatory notification to all OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe) participating states, including Russia, 42 days in advance of the exercise.

The countries participating this time included Canada, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Israel (for the 1st time), Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States.

NATO’s four multinational battlegroups participated, as did the Alliance’s command and control structures in the region. “I’m really excited to see how far the battlegroups have come, taking their readiness to new heights,” said US Deputy Commanding General, MG Timothy McGuire.

Key training events included an air assault operation in Lithuania, a convoy of 950 vehicles of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment driving more than 800 miles from Vilseck in southeast Germany to a training area in southern Lithuania, and multiple bridge and river crossings."

Enhanced technology was applied for cybersecurity, including small reconnaissance drones and electronic-jamming equipment.

For Lithuanian officers, the expanded allied presence is welcome payback for Baltic contributions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Lithuania’s army has grown to 10,000 full-time soldiers, a roughly 25% increase in the past two years. Col. Mindaugas Steponavicius, commander of the 3,000-soldier Iron Wolf brigade, said, “If you are a small nation, you have to have good, strong allies.”

Saber Strike was US Army Europe’s priority exercise in 2018. Within the past year, USAE participated in 52 exercises involving 45 countries, with about 97,000 participants, roughly 30% of those American.

India Playing Both Sides

India and the United States have agreed to hold joint exercises involving their air forces, navies and armies off the eastern Indian coast in 2019, according to the Indian government. The announcement was made as part of the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) accord on secure military communications that potentially opens a path for sales of sensitive US military equipment to India. The United States has emerged as India’s second largest arms supplier.

Meantime, in November, the Russian Federation sent 250 troops of a motorised rifle formation to the joint Indo-Russian military exercise, Indra 2018, at the training ground near Babina, India. The joint exercises have been held since 2003.

In October, India agreed to buy Russian S-400 surface-to-air missiles, disregarding US warnings that such a purchase could trigger sanctions. The S-400 system can engage up to 36 targets at a time and simultaneously launch 72 missiles. Target detection range of the system is up to 600 kilometres.

The first batch of Russia’s Kamov Ka-226T light multirole helicopters may be delivered to India by 2020.

And yet, India’s military still struggles with a severe cash crunch to address modernisation. The Indian Army has stated that 68% of its warfighting equipment is obsolete; a senior Indian Army official said, “Not only do we not have money to pay for new projects, we don’t even have money to pay for the ongoing ones.” Vice-Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Sarath Chand, told Parliament’s defence committee: “The budget of 2018-19 has dashed our hopes.”

Air Crashes Mar US-French Engagement

Exercise Alligator Dagger, April 2018, was cancelled in mid-exercise by the US Naval Forces Central Command after two aircraft accidents. In the first, an AV-8B Harrier aircraft from the US Marine Corps 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit crashed at Djibouti Ambouli International Airport. On the same day, a CH-53 Super Stallion helicopter from the 26th MEU suffered structural damage during a landing at an approved zone at Arta Beach.

Alligator Dagger is the largest regional amphibious combat rehearsal designed to integrate and synchronise the Naval Amphibious Force, Task Force 51/5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade’s warfighting capabilities, and those of adjacent US Naval Forces Central Command and special operations forces units.

This iteration of the exercise expanded to include French forces deployed on the French navy amphibious assault ship LHD Tonnerre.

Prior to the cancellation, the exercise focused on noncombatant evacuation operations, amphibious assaults, helicopter-borne raids, visit-board-search-seizure operations, airstrikes, defence of the amphibious task force, integrated ground-and-air fires, tactical recovery of personnel, ground reconnaissance, medical casualty evacuations, combat marksmanship, and quick reaction force and casualty evacuation rehearsals.

EU and China Joint Medevac in Djibouti

European Union and Chinese military forces completed a combined medical evacuation exercise in October in the Gulf of Aden. European Union Naval Force (EU NAVFOR) interactions with the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) are not new.

The extended cooperation followed discussions between Maj. Gen. Charlie Stickland, Operation Commander of the EU Naval Force (Somalia) and Commander United Kingdom Amphibious Forces (COMUKAMPHIBFOR), and leaders at the PLAN base in Djibouti on how to improve ongoing counter-piracy efforts off the coast of Somalia.

Military medical personnel from the Chinese PLAN boarded an Italian helicopter to tend to several simulated “casualties” on board ITS Federico Martinengo. During the exercise, a crew member was evacuated by helicopter back to the land-based medical facility within the PLAN compound.

EU NAVFOR Atalanta, the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) military operation under the EU flag, operates in conjunction with the multinational Combined Task Force (CTF) 151 and NATO Operation Ocean Shield.

The supply and logistics base in Djibouti opened in 2017, the first overseas Chinese military outpost. (Chinese officials have consistently referred to it as an outpost or logistics facility rather than a full-fledged military base.)

Singapore Expanding Training in Australia

Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said, “We have good friends who allow us to train in their countries” and that expansion of training areas in Queensland, Australia, is “progressing well.”

The Shoalwater Bay Training Area, site of the annual Exercise Wallaby since 1990, features a training area of 2,800 sq km, nearly four times the total land area of Singapore. It can accommodate up to 6,600 people over 65 days of training. An expansion, scheduled to begin in 2019, will increase the capacity to 14,000 personnel over 18 weeks of training. The Republic of Singapore has committed to investing S$2.5 billion over 25 years.

Wallaby involves 4,000 Singapore Armed Forces personnel and 400 platforms – including the Light Strike Vehicle, Apache helicopter and Leopard tank. The training space allows army, naval and air force units to conduct large-scale complex operations and integrated live firing of long-range munitions and enables land units to perform complex battalion-level manoeuvres. The Singapore Air Force also practises low-level flights, under 500 ft, over an adjacent and uninhabited navigation area eight times the size of Singapore.

Exercise director BG Mark Tan calls it a “unique opportunity that we don’t have anywhere else in the world. The space here allows us to train both with helicopters and ships in a very large and complex exercise, which allows us to advance our capabilities and train our soldiers in a realistic and tough environment.”

Singapore and Australia are part of the Five Power Defence Agreements and ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting Plus, and forces regularly interact through professional exchanges and multilateral exercises. 

Originally published in Issue 6, 2018 of MS&T Magazine.