A U.S. Marine Corps CH-53 Sea Stallion prepares for takeoff aboard USS Iwo Jima Oct. 17, 2018 in preparation for Trident Juncture 2018. 
U.S. aircraft prepares for takeoff in preparation for Trident Juncture.

NATO’s Trident Juncture Exercise as a Deterrence Signal to Russia

November 01, 2018
Dmitry Gorenburg

This week, NATO forces are engaged in the largest military exercise the alliance has organized since the end of the Cold War and the first major Western exercise in decades to take place in the Arctic region. To be held in Norway through Nov. 23, the Trident Juncture exercise is designed to improve NATO’s ability to defend member states and to strengthen the alliance’s credibility as a deterrent force against potential aggression. While the scenario does not mention any particular adversaries, the exercise is clearly aimed at bolstering NATO defenses against Russia in the Nordic region. While the political impact will be minor by comparison to any potential permanent troop deployments, the military lessons gleaned by the exercise’s participants promise to be significant.

The exercise marks NATO’s third time holding the biennial Trident Juncture and differs from the previous two iterations in both size and focus. To begin with, it involves personnel from all 29 NATO members—a first—plus close partners Finland and Sweden. This in itself is significant: While the two Nordic states have regularly participated in NATO exercises in recent years and have invited NATO forces to take part in exercises on their soil, their participation in as large and politically prominent an Article 5 exercise as Trident Juncture highlights how far both have gone since their political decisions to enhance defense cooperation with NATO. The 2018 exercise is not only much bigger than the 2014 and 2016 iterations, which also focused on preparing NATO’s rapid reaction forces to counter Russian aggression, but differs significantly in its primary focus on field exercises instead of command post exercises.

There are 50,000 total participants, including 20,000 from the ground forces, 24,000 from naval and marine infantry forces, 3,000 from air forces, 1000 logistics specialists and 1300 command personnel.  The United States has provided the largest contingent, including the Harry Truman Carrier Strike Group, the Iwo Jima Marine Expeditionary Strike Group and over 18,000 troops. Preparations, including deployment of forces to the exercise area, began in August. The active phase of the field exercise began on Oct. 25 and will continue through Nov. 7, to be followed by a command post exercise in mid-November.

The exercise scenario simulates the defense of an Arctic country from an amphibious assault on its coastline. The country under attack invokes Article 5 of the NATO treaty, resulting in a large-scale defensive effort by the alliance to protect the country from foreign invasion. The specifics involve two forces fighting each other, with one side initially defending against a combined forces attack that includes amphibious forces from the U.S. Marine Corps. In the second half of the exercise, the defending force gains the initiative and carries out a counter-attack.

Training to Defend the North Against Russia

The overarching goals of the exercise are to “demonstrate the credibility of its [NATO’s] military deterrent and the unity of its membership.” The second goal can be achieved simply by getting all of the member states to participate in a tangible way despite political tensions and disagreements on how firmly the Western alliance should confront Russia. To achieve the first goal, the exercise will focus on logistics, interoperability and the forces’ ability to engage in combat in a hostile physical environment. The speed with which NATO’s rapid-response forces can mobilize will be tested, as will the ability of troops and commanders from different countries with different military cultures and different languages to communicate with each other in combat. The logistics of moving troops across borders, something that has posed problems in the past in Europe, is also being tested. Many of the units involved are inexperienced with operations in cold and wet weather, poor visibility and, for naval and amphibious forces, rough seas—all conditions that characterize the Arctic at this time of year. The ultimate target is the so-called Four 30s Plan: for NATO to be able to deploy 30 battalions, 30 air squadrons and 30 combat ships to a conflict zone, and to do it in 30 days.

For the United States, the deployment of the Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier and its strike group to the Norwegian Sea is meant to highlight how seriously Washington takes the Russian threat in the north. This is the first time an aircraft carrier has entered the Norwegian Sea since the end of the Cold War. The deployment of a Marine Corps expeditionary strike group also indicates U.S. intent to defend the region and thus acts as a deterrence signal to Russia and follows the rotational deployment of 300 U.S. Marines since 2017, the first time a foreign force has been stationed on Norwegian soil since World War II.

Russia’s Reaction

The exercise scenario largely parallels those of standard major Russian exercises, such as Zapad-2017, where one force initially defends against an attack by an adversary before eventually turning the tide and practicing counter-offensive operations during the second half of the exercise period. There are other parallels as well, including an amphibious landing and an emphasis on combined operations, though NATO is not going to simulate a nuclear strike as Russia did in Zapad-2009. The one major difference is that in Trident Juncture the participating troops are divided into red and blue forces, unlike in Zapad-2017 where the Russian force fought against simulated opponents. In this regard, the exercise is more like Russia’s Vostok-2018 exercise, where forces from two Russian military districts were arrayed against each other.

While Russia’s overall reaction to Trident Juncture has been relatively mild, its officials have raised concerns about the exercise being part of an ongoing NATO effort to encircle Russia and to demonstrate its dominance over Russia in the Nordic region. They highlight that no state other than Russia could present a threat to NATO in the region, and that therefore no other country could be its target. They also condemn the militarization of the Arctic that this exercise represents. Russian officials, including the Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson, have cast the arrival of a U.S. aircraft carrier north of the Arctic Circle for the first time in 30 years as saber-rattling by the United States that could have long-lasting destabilizing effects in the region.

Beyond the propaganda effort to paint NATO and the United States as warmongers, the aspects of the exercise that Russian military planners take most seriously include the deployments of the U.S. carrier strike group and Marine expeditionary force to the Arctic, and the combined air operations involving NATO, Swedish and Finnish air forces. Russian leaders are concerned that the increased focus on reinforcing NATO defenses in the east, as demonstrated by the exercise itself, the obvious increase in NATO’s military cooperation with Sweden and Finland and ongoing discussions about permanent stationing of U.S. military forces in Eastern Europe, will result in the establishment of a U.S. base on Polish territory. Russian officials have repeatedly stated that they would regard Poland’s plans to host a U.S. Army division as a violation of commitments made under the NATO-Russia Founding Act that would result in Russian countermeasures aimed at neutralizing those forces in the event of a conflict. In other words, Russia is making the argument that the United States and its East European allies are leading Europe into a new arms race and will bear primary responsibility for the resultant increase in tensions. NATO officials briefed their Russian counterparts on the plan for the exercise at the Oct. 31 meeting of the NATO-Russia Council, which also covered the conflict in Ukraine, the status of the INF Treaty and Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, the Russian navy is planning to test missiles in international waters off Norway's coast in two separate exercises Nov. 1-3 and Nov. 7-9. The first exercise, in particular, will be held very close to the zone where NATO will be conducting Trident Juncture, which has raised concerns among Western experts that the two forces may come into conflict through miscalculation or provocation. Although Russian and NATO forces have operated in close proximity before, particularly in Syria, it is not clear whether deconfliction channels have bene established for this exercise. Apparently, Norwegian government officials have not expressed much concern about the potential for trouble, so it may be that the issue is being dealt with through the established lines of communication between NATO headquarters and the Russian General Staff.

Impact on NATO-Russia Relations

The long-term impact of the exercise itself on NATO-Russia relations is likely to be fairly negligible. Much like comparable recent Russian exercises, Trident Juncture will be used by NATO to demonstrate its intent to protect its members and allies from Russian aggression and by Russia to highlight the seriousness of the threat it faces from its potential adversary. Once the exercise is completed, the political impact will fade away relatively quickly, though undoubtedly both sides will trot it out as necessary to score political points in both domestic and international contexts. The real impact will be on the military side, where the exercise is expected to improve the ability of participating military forces to work together in adverse conditions, particularly for those NATO countries that have not previously operated in the far north and will be able to get a better sense of the strengths and weaknesses of their forces in such an environment. Meanwhile, NATO-Russia relations will be affected far more seriously if the United States does choose to deploy troops on a permanent basis in Poland or elsewhere in Eastern Europe.

The opinions in this article are solely those of the author.


Dmitry Gorenburg

Dmitry Gorenburg is a senior research scientist in the strategic studies division of CNA, a nonprofit research and analysis organization based in Virginia. He is also an associate of Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and the editor of Problems of Post-Communism.

Photo by Lance Cpl. Brennon Taylor is a U.S. government work in the public domain.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.