U.S. Army soldiers during Saber Strike 17

U.S. Army soldiers during Saber Strike 17 U.S. Army Battlegroup Poland

NATO Needs More Big Exercises, Too

More multinational training events would go a long way towards improving European defense – and it would strengthen the transatlantic relationship, too.

Some 18,000 troops from 19 NATO member states and partner countries are wrapping up Saber Strike 18, an exercise designed to demonstrate the “alliance’s capabilities and to enhance existing relationships between participants,” as the U.S. Army explains. By today’s standards, the annual Saber Strike is an enormous exercise – but it’s also a rare one. More multinational exercises would go a long way towards improving European defense – and it would strengthen the transatlantic relationship, too.

“Exercises are cost-effective, because you’ve already got the people,” said General (ret.) Sir Richard Barrons, who until 2016 commanded Britain’s Joint Forces Command. “There’s also lots of potential for more exercises in Europe, and there’s need for them. But European defense ministries don’t have the money.”

It’s true that even the smallest exercise involves expenditures. But it’s also true that European governments are spending more on defense – and most will have to spend more still in order to meet the NATO benchmark of two percent of GDP. They could spend some of it on more multinational exercises. And politically, doing so would be a straightforward proposition, as cooperation between European and North American ministries of defense remains strong. 

Exercises are indeed good use of money – because there’s no point having soldiers and equipment if they’re not being trained. And since they pool resources, combined exercises are more cost-effective than national ones. During the Cold War, Western European armed forces constantly exercised with their colleagues from the United States and Canada. During the 1987 REFORGER exercise, 115,000 soldiers from six NATO member states practiced moving themselves, their equipment and their supplies from France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and the West German coast to West Germany’s border with East Germany.

Practice makes perfect, parents tell their children. The alliance’s Cold War forces may not have been perfect, but if a war had broken out, they would have been able to respond rapidly and get themselves to the front expeditiously, too. “We didn’t have a huge number of multinational exercises, but allies’ presence was completely different,” General (ret.) Bruno Kasdorf, who until 2015 commanded the German Army, told me. “We had American, British, French, Dutch, and Belgian corps stationed here. Today’s armed forces are smaller, and they’re busier with out-of-area missions than was the case during the Cold War.”

Today’s forces in Europe are also in poorer shape than their Cold War colleagues. But seen from a more positive perspective, they exist and work well together. They just need more opportunities to do so, because in addition to opportunities to test large-scale military operations, multinational exercises allow for more realistic training. 

This fall, some 40,000 troops from 30 NATO members and partners will conduct the massive Trident Juncture exercise in Norway. But exercises like Saber Strike and Trident Juncture are rare. Though NATO, its member states and their allies do conduct regular exercises, the exercises are smaller and more irregular than was the case during the Cold War. Of NATO’s 107 exercises last year, only 38 involved 1,500 troops or more; by contrast, Russia held 123 of that size, according to research cited by the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. The annual BALTOPS maritime exercise is currently underway in the Baltic Sea with some 5,000 personnel from 22 countries, as is the paratroopers’ Swift Response 18, which involves some 2,300 personnel from seven countries.

Admittedly, large exercises are more useful at the operational level – that is, to train higher-ranking officers in commanding and controlling forces – than to regular GIs at the tactical level. But as with physical fitness, everybody needs more exercise. “And with large exercises you’re sending a deterrent signal: ‘We’re doing this’,” Barrons pointed out. “And exercises are a political signal. Politicians love the photo-ops that military exercises offer.” Indeed, there may be little difficulty convincing Donald Trump to have himself photographed with U.S. Army soldiers during a European exercise. “More large exercises are definitely desirable, and every exercise makes a difference,” Kasdorf said. “The challenge is simply finding the time. It’s very tricky finding even a week were several countries are all available.” He said NATO does less than it once did to coordinate such events.

Adding large exercises would bring benefits beyond their obvious military value. Throughout the Cold War, the constant cooperation between North American and European forces created a generation of committed transatlanticists. Lt. Gen. (ret.) Ben Hodges of the U.S. Army completed two tours in Germany, one as a young officer and one as commander of U.S. Army Europe (as served at SHAPE, and in Afghanistan under British and Dutch commanders); Gen. (ret.) Philip Breedlove, NATO’s former Supreme Allied Commander Europe, did several more. “For me the primary aim of the large exercises was always about logistics, movement, deployment and of course sending a strategic message,” Hodges told me.

Neither has any illusions regarding European countries’ military strength, but soldiers who have served together create a strong bond between their countries. The same is, of course, true for Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, who knew European weaknesses better than most – but as president was a staunch ally of Europe. 

Several months ago, a group of 20-somethings visited Auschwitz. With their hoodies and jeans they looked much like the countless other university groups visiting the Nazi death camp. But the 90-strong group were soldiers from Romania, Croatia, Britain and the United States on deployment in Poland. Military service with allies is, in fact, also a cultural exchange program. Foreign postings bring significant exposure not just to allied soldiers but to locals and their culture; countless American and British officers who have served in Germany over the decades have returned home with a German girlfriend or even wife.

Better yet: the cultural exchange program comes at virtually no cost. The European Commission recently announced plans to double the funding for the EU’s university exchange program, Erasmus, to 30 billion euros ($35.4 billion) for 20212027. But with joint exercises and foreign postings, NATO and partner armed forces get that cultural exchange for free. Exercise more, and exercise together.