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The US Military Is Headed to Ukraine — but Only for Some Exercise

A joint military exercise is a relatively mundane and common occurrence. But when it's taking place in Ukraine, the stakes are far greater.

by Ryan Faith
Apr 24 2014, 2:45pm

Photo by Staff Sergeant Travis Surber

Military exercises occur every year around the globe, and this year has been no different. Regardless of the situation in Ukraine, what these exercises accomplish and what signals they send to other countries depends in large part on their scope. At their most massive, the exercises are like Godzilla — they represent the potential for major death and destruction. At their smallest, they’re more like the lizard in the GEICO commercials — cute and informative.

Way, way back in the mists of ancient history when the world was a much different place — i.e., February — announcements of US-South Korea military exercises on one hand and Russian military exercises on the other sparked discussion about the purpose and meaning of large-scale exercises. Well, for one thing, they produce a fully mobilized and sizable force, which can then be used pretty much how you’d expect a fully mobilized and sizable force to be used. Big exercises can also demonstrate that a military has the ability to mobilize and deploy a force at a later date, which serves as a deterrent when other countries think about getting squirrelly. Finally, large-scale mobilization is excellent and essential practice for managing the mind-bending logistics of making war.

Arguably no less important are the menagerie of smaller, daintier exercises. Every year, the US Army’s European Command, for example, participates in more than 1,000 “theater security cooperation events” involving more than 40 countries. These kinds of exercises can involve just a handful of personnel, and are often simply about people and organizations getting to know each other. Even if the introductions are manufactured and perfunctory, they're a first step along the way if countries are going to take their relationship further. Like speed dating, but with guns.

On one hand, canceling July's exercise altogether could be seen as abandoning Ukraine. On the other, ramping it up might make Russian trigger fingers itchy.

Beyond all the cultural, linguistic, and organizational issues that are addressed during these small-scale exercises, they're essential for building, testing, and demonstrating interoperability. Can each military's various bits of equipment be used together? When the armies are in the field, what radio frequencies do they need to use to talk to each other? Is the Finnish army running on Linux? These questions may sound somewhat mundane, but unanswered, they lead to enormous problems in the field.

The fact that different militaries are working together also has broader diplomatic ramifications. It shows that countries are engaging at a fairly high level; a military won’t just up and cooperate with a foreign force without getting a sign-off from someone pretty high up in the command chain. As such, a small joint exercise can be a leading indicator of closer future ties.

Along those lines, small-scale exercises are sometimes an element of what are collectively known as “Trust and Confidence-Building Measures” or TCBMs. TCBMs often involve very senior participants and are pretty important when two erstwhile opponents are trying to cool things off. For example, if two admirals have had the opportunity to meet and interact at TCBMs, they won’t be complete unknowns to each other — and may even be on downright friendly terms — if their ships meet at sea while tensions are high. This reduces the chance of a major incident.

Which is exactly the sort of thing that the US and Russia have sought to do in hosting Atlas Vision, a “bi-national United Nations Peace Keeping training event” held in Chelyabinsk, Russia. This is a brigade-level command post exercise, in which senior officials and their staffs get together and pretend to command a simulated unit. It gets senior folks from both sides together and talking. This year’s exercise has been cancelled because of Ukraine, but it isn’t the only regular small-scale exercise that the US has in Europe.

The four major US Army exercises in Europe are Combined Resolve, Saber Strike, Saber Guardian, and Rapid Trident. Combined Resolve is a pretty straightforward, medium-scale event, held at training facilities in Germany. This year’s exercise will involve about 4,000 troops from 13 countries, and will incorporate some live fire exercises and field maneuvers.

In early March, the US moved a destroyer, the USS Truxtun, into the Black Sea as part of Saber Guardian. Held in Bulgaria, it involved about 700 personnel from 12 countries. Early on, there was some question about whether the US was going to cancel or ramp up its activity for this exercise. The US made the decision to proceed as planned, and Saber Guardian wrapped up on April 4th without notable incident.

In Photos: South Korea's Dress Rehearsal For War. Read more here.

Saber Strike is a 2,000-person (or so) exercise held in the Baltics. Preparations have already started for this year’s event, which is scheduled for June, and will involve simultaneous operations in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.

The Pentagon has announced the US is sending a company (about 150 people) from the 173rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne) to Poland and each of the Baltic states for exercises. These deployments will not be part of previously scheduled Saber Strike activities, but are instead bilateral exercises with the host countries. The deployment will last about a month, after which each company will be rotated out and a new company will come in. Swapping units in and out comes under what the Defense Department calls “maintaining a rotational presence.” In this case, the rotations will provide units of the 173rd an opportunity to work with NATO members without the need for larger exercises. This is in keeping with the announced US intent to reassure NATO allies without rattling people in Moscow.

Finally, there’s Rapid Trident. It's a regular exercise, but one that has come under lots of scrutiny in recent months since it was scheduled to be held this July in western Ukraine, around the city of Lviv near the Polish border, before Russia invaded Crimea. Understandably, Rapid Trident has a lot of people moving very carefully. On the one hand, canceling it altogether could be seen as abandoning Ukraine. On the other, ramping it up might make Russian trigger fingers itchy. Last year’s exercise was the 11th of its kind, and included about 1,700 people from 17 nations. The focus of Rapid Trident has historically been on airborne and air-mobile operations — meaning a lot of parachute jumps and helicopters. The US Army is also involved in other teeny-tiny exercises involving Ukraine, but they're small enough that they won’t move the military or diplomatic needle in Moscow.

Joint military exercises and training rotations are and will remain important to the US, but absent a big shift or shocking development, the US is no more interested in getting into World War III than it was when this whole mess in Ukraine got started, ages and ages ago, way back in February.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

Photo via Flickr