How NATO Is Preparing for the New Cold War
(Bloomberg) -- The enemy had destroyed the bridge. Near the village of Telneset in central Norway, German and Norwegian troops arrived too late to save the strategic crossing. Stuck on the banks of the Glomma river, military engineers worked to assemble a mobile ferry instead. If truly at war, they may have moved more quickly. But as it was, the atmosphere on the morning of Oct. 31 seemed relaxed for soldiers supposedly beating back an invasion.
“Trident Juncture,” a major NATO military exercise centered on Norway, imagined an attack in which the western alliance was forced to respond with thousands of troops, ships, armor and airpower—fighting to stop an unnamed adversary intent on occupation or even annexation.
All over central Norway, fighter jets and helicopters roared overhead as combat vehicles trundled by picture-perfect fjords. Thousands of troops from Europe and the U.S. trudged through snow and rain or squeezed into armored carriers bristling with electronic equipment, a grim rehearsal for a future war one expert says would be equal parts sci-fi and trench warfare—assuming nuclear weapons weren’t used.
Although NATO officials used every opportunity to say the war games weren’t aimed at any one country in particular, the potential invader was clear.
“If we discount the martians, there is no one else who can attack Norway apart from Russia,” says Aleksandr Golts, a Russian military analyst who observed the NATO exercise, which ended earlier this month. “The scenario and the sheer number of troops involved in both this and similar Russian exercises show that we are back to the Cold War-time military confrontation.”
With 50,000 soldiers from 31 countries using 10,000 military vehicles, 250 aircraft and 65 ships, the exercise was likely smaller than recent drills held by Russia, including one in September that included Chinese forces.
Since Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine and annexed Crimea, the prospect of war has become more real, says Professor Katarzyna Zysk, director of research at the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies (NIDS). “Before, it was completely unthinkable,” Zysk says. But the continuing conflict in eastern Ukraine, Putin’s support of the Assad regime in Syria, threats faced by NATO members in the Baltics and his broader nuclear saber-rattling are making the unthinkable slightly more plausible.
“Trident Juncture is a purely defensive exercise,” says Audun Halvorsen, the state secretary at the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But he adds that the security environment in Europe has become unpredictable. “We have a Russia that is more assertive and aggressive—including militarily—toward its neighbors,” Halvorsen says. “That necessitated a long-term adaptation and reform of NATO.”
Hermann Schwab, 20, is a private in the German army. At the ferry crossing near Telneset, he stood by, shouldering a grenade launcher. Though German, he was born in Kemerovo, a city in western Siberia. His ethnic German parents eventually moved with him back to Bavaria. While Schwab says he’s happy to serve in the German army and looks forward to a posting abroad, the prospect of fighting Russians makes him uneasy. “I’ll quit the military if that happens,” he says. “I won’t fight them.”
He’s not alone in finding it hard to imagine war. While older generations came of age under constant threat of nuclear conflict, younger people have no such frame of reference. After the Cold War, Norway’s military was sharply reduced. But now the countries of northern Europe have begun to wake, thanks to their large neighbor to the east. Since 2008, Norway has increased its defense budget by 26 percent while seeking more rotations of allied troops, including U.S. Marines.
Norway is a long-time member of NATO, but Sweden and Finland are not. Nevertheless, all three took part in Trident Juncture. Almost exactly a year ago, Sweden held its own military exercises, also with Russia in mind. Micael Byden, the supreme commander of Swedish armed forces, says his army had largely been focused on peacekeeping far away from home, but Russia’s war on Ukraine significantly altered the calculus.
Byden, who has traveled to Ukraine and visited the front lines there, says NATO is learning from that conflict. “It’s a mixture of World War I-type trench war and sophisticated modern methods,” he explains while at his command post in Trondheim. Hybrid warfare—such as that used in Crimea—as well as unmanned equipment and electronic warfare, are all part of the game now. Even Ukrainian officers were on hand for Trident Juncture, advising NATO forces on Russian tactics. Colonel Andriy Dyda of Ukraine’s military says he was eager to share his experience.
As for Finland, Lieutenant Colonel Jyri Raitasalo of his country’s Defense University says adjusting to the new reality hasn’t been difficult. Unlike European nations that ended conscription after the Berlin Wall fell, Finland has remained wary of Moscow. “We have always assumed that we have no idea how deep democratic changes in Russia would be and what policies they might adopt in 10 or 20 years,” Raitasalo says. “So it’s more continuity than change for us.”
The bowels of a Swedish-built CV9030 troop carrier can fit 12 soldiers, knees knocking across the aisle. Sitting at the back of our vehicle, a bearded team leader consulted his video screen. It displayed feed from seven night-vision cameras located on all sides. They’re used by the commander, who occupies a tiny space inside the rotating turret, and the driver, who sits in a hole up front that’s the size of a vacuum cleaner box.
After the mobile bridge was finished, the unit crossed the Glomma and advanced on Tynset, a nearby town of 5,400 residents about 300 kilometers (186 miles) north of Oslo. Their task this Halloween night was to liberate it from the enemy (Polish soldiers) while avoiding spooking the residents (who knew they were coming).
Dressed in full combat gear, the soldiers moved quietly through dimly lit streets in a mock house-to-house sweep. When a passerby appeared, they would step into the shadows. Having reached a deep ravine near the main square, they unfolded a javelin anti-tank weapon and scanned for potential enemies. None were detected. Instead, a woman on horseback dressed as a witch emerged. Startled by the sight of the invading force, the horse stopped and wouldn’t budge until they left.
As the soldiers “seized” the Tynset city council building, a group of children approached, asking to touch their weapons. They politely refused.
Though satisfied that his troops had done well, Lieutenant Colonel Einar Aarbogh, the Norwegian battalion commander, concedes that his country’s armed forces couldn’t successfully defend against a major adversary. The strategy, he says, is to have the capacity to do sufficient damage such that an enemy might think twice. “Being a NATO member makes that threshold so much higher,” he adds.
Zysk, of NIDS, concurs. She says NATO’s combined military might far exceeds that of Russia—though from a regional standpoint, the opposite is true—especially in the Nordic countries and near the Baltics, where Russian forces are more concentrated. In fact, a 2016 RAND report predicts Russian troops could reach two of the Baltic capitals in about 60 hours, leaving NATO with some very unpalatable options.
But Ian Bowers, an associate professor at NIDS, says Putin’s invasion of Ukraine revealed a crucial lesson about Russia’s tolerance for confrontation. “What we have seen is that Russia has taken calculated risks and they made assumptions about the low cost,” Bowers says. Putin, in other words, only reaches for low-hanging fruit.
Janis Kazocins served for decades in the British Army, spending many cold nights in the forests of Norway on similar NATO exercises. Now an adviser to Latvia President Raimonds Vejonis, he explains how Trident Juncture represents NATO “getting back from being a purely expeditionary alliance into the one that is also capable of fulfilling its primary role: defending its members against a potential threat.”
During an interview at his office in Riga, he says the key element of the exercise is testing the alliance’s ability to summon the “Very High-Readiness Joint Task Force,” or VJTF. That translates into 5,000 troops that could be deployed to a member country asking for help within 48 hours. A second element also on display in Norway is known as “Four 30s,” NATO-speak for the ability to deploy 30 infantry battalions (as many as 30,000 troops), 30 ships and 30 air squadrons (about 700 aircraft) within 30 days.
Beyond its obvious value as a training exercise, Trident Juncture also serves a political purpose—telegraphing to Moscow that, despite the current U.S. administration’s stated ambivalence, NATO membership matters, Kazocins says.
Significant involvement of U.S. troops in the exercise was clearly aimed at sending that message. This included U.S. Marines from the USS Iwo Jima, delivered by way of mock amphibious assault on the Norwegian coast. Norway and the U.S. have been working more closely of late, holding a bilateral exercise prior to Trident Juncture dubbed Northern Screen, situated in the far north nearer to the Russian border. It involved air support from the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman.
Back inside their cramped mobile home, the soldiers of Brigade Nord were now moving across the snow-covered terrain east of Telneset. As dinnertime approached, grumbling at the prospect of eating a detested Meal, Ready-To-Eat (MRE) ended when a leg of cured lamb emerged from the turret, followed by salami, biscuits and mini-croissants.
Some of the troops, all in their 20s, had served in Iraq. All were looking forward to a post-military career. One wants to study marketing. Another wants to be a cop.
Dinner over, they mounted up for the next objective. A group of farm buildings appeared in a forest clearing. They tumbled out, checking the buildings for hostile forces, but there were none. Farther away, they spotted a figure moving on the opposing slope. After a few minutes, it became clear that the threat was a moose.
Around 4 a.m., they stopped to make camp. Tents were pitched amid snow-covered blueberry shrubs and reindeer moss on the hummocky ground. Soldiers slept in turns as the temperature dropped as low as 23F (-5C). By mid-morning, when all were awake, they learned enemy vehicles had passed close by during the night. Had their camp been detected, all would have had to emerge from their tents and line up. Then an enemy sergeant would count them, declaring them all killed in action.
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