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Today, NATO begins a huge military exercise. Here’s what you need to know.

- October 25, 2018
The U.S. Marine Corps version of Lockheed Martin’s F35 Joint Strike Fighter test flies with external weapons. (Reuters)

This is the year for newsworthy military exercises. President Trump’s surprising cancellation of the annual U.S.-South Korea maneuvers in June hinted at how important such exercises can be in geopolitical and diplomatic relationships. In September, as Dmitry Gorenburg explained here at TMC, Russia’s sprawling Vostok-2018 exercise along its eastern borders showed off how well the Russian armed forces’ different branches could coordinate operations. And by cooperating with a Chinese military contingent, Russia signaled that the two superpowers could develop a closer strategic relationship. That operation built on Russian exercise Zapad-2017, which probably garnered more news headlines, some of them hyperbolic, than any such event in recent memory.

Now it’s NATO’s turn to showcase its own military prowess in Trident Juncture 18, which kicks off today. Considering the increased tensions between the alliance and Russia since Moscow seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, a lot is being signaled here. Here’s what you need to know.

1. What are these exercises?

Unlike tabletop “war games” or computer simulations, military exercises use actual troops, tanks, aircraft and warships, rehearsing what they might do if called upon to fight. Officially, these exercises are always held to train armed forces responding to complex military scenarios. But the publicity and visual images of forces in action send geopolitical messages as well.

NATO routinely sponsors several military exercises annually. Its various member states do so as well, so maneuvers like this are not unusual. But as I’ll explain below, Trident Juncture 18 has a much higher tempo and broader scope.

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2. What is NATO’s main goal for Trident Juncture 18?

After Russia annexed Crimea, NATO held a summit in Wales where it decided to enhance its military readiness and capabilities, and as the alliance says in its rationale for Trident Juncture 18, “to operate together to defend our populations and territories and deter potential adversaries.” The first version of Trident Juncture, NATO’s capstone exercise, took place in Spain and Portugal in 2015, but this year’s iteration dramatically shifts the geographical focus.

Until now, most NATO and allied exercises have been in geopolitically volatile Central and Eastern Europe, especially near the southern Baltic Sea. This year, however, the Trident Juncture scenario moves to the Nordic region, particularly Norway and the North Atlantic-Barents Sea area. This is intended to show that NATO can and will defend its northern flank, opposite where Moscow has concentrated its forces in northwestern Russia.

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3. How big is big?

Trident Juncture 18 will be the largest exercise conducted by the alliance since the end of the Cold War, involving around 50,000 military and support personnel from 31 NATO and partner countries, 250 aircraft, 65 naval vessels and up to 10,000 military vehicles, according to NATO. How important does NATO consider this exercise? A U.S. Navy aircraft carrier strike group will be operating in this region for the first time since 1987 — and fittingly, the carrier is the USS Harry S. Truman, named for the president who helped create NATO.

 4. Why are Finland and Sweden involved?

Although neither is a NATO member, Finland and Sweden will be fully involved in Trident Juncture. In fact, Finnish and Swedish bases will host some maneuvers, including the deployment of combat aircraft. This is not the first time that these two Nordic countries, each of which has solid military credentials, have participated in NATO exercises around the Baltic Sea region. But as former U.S. ambassador Azita Raji discusses, Sweden has stayed away from military alliances. Deciding to participate in an exercise that stresses the mutual defense of member states as embodied in Article 5 of NATO’s founding treaty, shows a profound shift in that country’s strategic thinking.

Similarly, as Reid Standish reports, Finland has for decades delicately balanced its independence and internal politics with the need to maintain proper relations with neighboring Russia. Playing the “NATO card” keeps Moscow guessing as to its long-term intentions.

 5. What is the geopolitical impact?

Norway, unlike the other Nordic countries, is a NATO member — and yet has been long averse to having foreign troops stationed on its soil. But since 2017, Norway has hosted deployments of U.S. Marines, and has purchased the latest-generation U.S.-made F-35 fighter jet. Hosting these exercises signals Norway’s commitment to taking on a more influential role in NATO.

In doing so, Norway is significantly altering the military balance in an area of great strategic importance for both the alliance and Russia. The country is leveraging its critical geographic position to solidify claims to mutual defense under Article 5, especially invoking its claim on the U.S.

According to Tormod Heier, a Norwegian defense specialist, Norway’s participation in NATO exercises illustrates how a small country can send the message that it can summon help from much more powerful allies to deter a larger neighbor. Other small NATO members near Russia, such as the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, have proven adept at doing the same thing.

In a strongly worded statement about Trident Juncture 18, the Russian Foreign Ministry said, “The escalation of NATO’s military and political activity in the Arctic region, namely in the immediate vicinity of Russia, hasn’t gone unnoticed.” NATO’s signal that it’s serious about defending its territory is being received in Moscow. The exercise itself will amplify that signal.

With both sides ratcheting up their respective military activities, will mutual deterrence be the result?

Ralph S. Clem is emeritus professor of geography and senior fellow at the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs at Florida International University.