DRAWSKO POMORSKIE, Poland — NATO’s biggest military exercise in seven years ended over the weekend after more than a week of drills and simulations designed to test the alliance’s readiness to deploy to combat or other emergencies.
Hosted by the Baltic states and Poland, the event was closely watched by Russian military observers. A little more than a month ago, Russia carried out its own Zapad exercises – staged invasion training maneuvers - in that country and in Belarus. Zapad means West.
Despite appearances, NATO and Baltic leaders said the Steadfast Jazz exercise, which involved personnel from 28 NATO countries and three partner nations, was not intended to send a signal to Russia or any other particular state.
“It is, of course, a signal of military strength and determination to defend our allies,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a press conference in Latvia.
The exercise, NATO officials said, was a beefier-than-usual version of annual maneuvers held to train and test the NATO Response Force, which will be headed up in 2014 by the alliance’s Joint Force Command Brunssum. The command, led by German Gen. Hans-Lothar Domröse, is one of two four-star headquarters that trade responsibility for the NRF each year.
Domröse said Steadfast Jazz was a graduation test for him and his headquarters as well as a test of the initial operational capability of the NRF, to which the U.S. has pledged a brigade from the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division. However, only a relatively small American contingent deployed with the 6,000-strong force NATO mobilized to respond to the simulated crisis.
While much of the scenario played out in a virtual world, the Brunssum headquarters deployed to Latvia, where it operated from a small tent city on a military base outside the capital and gamed out a defensive response to a fictitious neighbor’s invasion of Estonia.
Meanwhile, in events staged across the Baltics and Poland, more than 3,000 NATO personnel deployed for live training with armored vehicles, ships, planes and an assortment of other weapons and equipment.
A high-profile demonstration for Baltic and NATO leaders Thursday showed off some of the alliance’s infantry,
armor, surface-to-surface missile, chemical and special forces capabilities. But, because of bad weather, officials scrapped plans to include an assortment of planes and helicopters.
Planning for the exercise, NATO’s largest since an NRF validation exercise in 2006, had been in the works for a year and a half, according to military planners and leaders. They sought to underline that the drills were not a response to joint Russian and Belarusian maneuvers in September.
Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said he saw “a lot of propagandistic hay being made out of a very small” defensive exercise that was far more modest than “a recent offensive exercise carried out in our neighborhood.”
“It’s about confidence, nothing else,” Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė said when asked whether the exercise should be seen as a signal to Russia. “We are confident that we can defend ourselves together with our allies.”
With the end of the war in Afghanistan a little more than a year away, NATO leaders have put special emphasis on maintaining the interoperability they’ve gained in the last decade of war.
But one thing war hasn’t prepared NATO for is quickly deploying to defend an ally.
It was American forces that invaded Afghanistan after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, NATO officers pointed out.
The U.S. didn’t cede control of the war to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force until years later, when day-to-day operations and logistics were already well-established.
“If I were to go back out to ISAF now, I would go out there and take over from someone, spend a week taking the job over, and he would tell me, ‘Oh, this has been happening, that’s been happening,’” said Royal Air Force Wing Comdr. David Cole, a British staff officer assigned to JFC Brunssum. “Here it’s different, because we’re deploying as a response force … so there’s no one to take over from.”
The Brunssum headquarters began planning for the deployment six months ago, as the fictional scenario heated up from a war of words to an invasion that caught NATO by surprise.
“Every war results from miscalculation,” said French Maj. Gen. Michel Yakovleff, Brunssum’s deputy chief of staff for plans.
“It’s a big miscalculation to threaten and then attack a NATO ally, and it may have been a miscalculation of NATO to be a bit late in the game. Because we’ve had to catch up with events.”
By design, the fictional scenario took unexpected turns that forced the headquarters to scrap its plans twice and start over, “to test, to put the decision-making process under real stress,” Yakovleff said.
Asked if that put at risk the allies’ victory in the fictional conflict, Yakovleff said: “The aim of the exercise is not to win the war. The aim of the exercise is to train us.”