by Paul Pryce. Paul Pryce is a Junior Research Fellow at the Atlantic Council of Canada. With degrees in political science from universities on both sides of the pond, he has previously worked in conflict resolution as a Research Fellow with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces. His current research interests include African security issues and NATO-Russia relations.
One of the largest joint exercises in NATO’s history will soon come to an end on November 6. Since the start of the 2015 edition of Trident Juncture on September 28, approximately 36,000 troops from 30 countries have participated, along with involvement from the United Nations (UN), the European Union (EU), the African Union (AU), and a multitude of aid agencies. Under the direction of Joint Force Command (JFC) Brunssum, which is also responsible for leading the NATO Rapid Reaction Force, most of the activities associated with this exercise were held on the territory of Portugal, Spain, and Italy.
Some observers have made exorbitant claims that the scale and scope of Trident Juncture ’15 is sabre-rattling directed toward other international actors like the Russian Federation. Such assertions are inconsistent with what has actually transpired during the exercise, however. Air assets during Trident Juncture were stationed at the Spanish airbases of Zaragoza, Albacete, and Palma de Mallorca, as well as the Italian airbases at Trapani, Pisa, and Decimomannu. Some of these same facilities also played host to NATO air assets during Operation Unified Protector, NATO’s 2011 response to civil conflict in Libya. Many of the scenarios apparently simulated during the exercise also entailed a large-scale response to a rapidly developing humanitarian crisis in the Sahel region, which is why humanitarian organizations figured so prominently.
Further evidence of this humanitarian connection can be found in an exercise held earlier this year by NATO. On 20-27 April and 8-15 May, Trident Jaguar 2015 was hosted by the NATO Joint Warfare Centre in Stavanger, Norway to assess the joint warfare command capabilities of NATO Rapid Deployable Corps Italy and involved simulating a NATO response to a humanitarian crisis and asymmetric warfare in a “failing state environment”. As such, it is apparent that subsequent editions of both Trident Jaguar and Trident Juncture may see much greater focus on preparing NATO for short-term interventions into complex intra-state conflicts in the Mediterranean and Sahel regions, such as Burkina Faso, which still struggles with instability following the end of Blaise Compaoré’s 27 year rule, or Mali, which is under threat from militant Islamist elements in its north.
The misconception that Trident Juncture is part of some “new Cold War’ posturing may stem in part from the focus of the 2014 edition. Trident Juncture is in fact an annual exercise, previously known as JOINTEX from 2010 to 2013, which exhibits a different area of focus each year in the development of NATO joint warfare capabilities. Trident Juncture ’14, which was held on 8-17 November 2014, involved a total of 1,255 troops, took place largely on Polish territory, and featured scenarios admittedly similar to the hybrid warfare seen in the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine. This could have understandably left observers with the impression that NATO was rehearsing for the defence of Poland or the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania against a hypothetical Russian invasion.
With regard to the training outcomes of Trident Juncture ’15, there are two principal categories. On the one hand, there are the operational and tactical levels, which taken together could be said to have improved commensurate with the opportunities to practice useful skills in a simulation environment. For example, the Spanish Civil Guard was able to escort approximately 230 convoys in the course of Trident Juncture, developing core skills that could be employed in actual future operations. On the other hand, this exercise offered opportunities at the strategic level to test assumptions about NATO joint warfare capabilities. Much has been written on the challenges of integrating humanitarian groups and aid agencies into peacebuilding or peacemaking missions, as well as the difficulties militaries experience in assuming humanitarian environments where conflict is still to some degree present. Trident Juncture ’15 allowed the Alliance to not only develop its staff officers but also experiment with how well the lessons of Afghanistan, Iraq, and more recent conflicts like Mali can inform future cooperation with aid agencies.
On that last point, the NATO Centre of Excellence on Civil-Military Cooperation (CIMIC COE) in The Hague, Netherlands truly shined during the exercise. Staff from that centre, which seeks to enhance NATO doctrine and practice on civil-military relations, met with various military and civilian personnel in Spain, Portugal, and Italy to observe how relationships were formed and to identify areas for future improvement. This could further improve the impact of Trident Juncture ’16, thus ensuring cooperation is seamless on exercise and in the field. A breakdown in communication during an actual humanitarian crisis could undermine the efficiency of the international community’s response or even risk the lives of military and civilian personnel in the field. It could be argued that a lack of civil-military cooperation has contributed to the seriousness of the humanitarian situation experienced by refugees and migrants arriving in Europe. The heavy-handed and at times disjointed response by the Hungarian authorities to the ongoing refugee crisis demonstrates that current NATO members lack core competencies in civil-military relations, let alone prospective members like Macedonia.
In this sense, although Trident Juncture is taking place in the Mediterranean, the lessons learned from the 2015 edition are very applicable to security challenges experienced in the heart of Europe itself. The degree to which European members of NATO will integrate these lessons into their doctrines and operating procedures remains to be seen. Certainly, non-European participants like Canada seem to be taking Trident Juncture ’15 very seriously; in parallel with the activities in Spain, Portugal, and Italy, a 24/7 command post exercise is being hosted in Meaford, Ontario that will see 1,000 Canadian troops trained on so-called Multinational Joint Integrated Task Force (MJITF) capabilities. Staff officers alone will not win the day in NATO’s next humanitarian intervention, but the priority the Canadian Armed Forces has placed on joint warfare shows it will be ahead of the learning curve when that day comes.