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Joint Air & Space Power Conference 2018

The Fog of Day Zero – Joint Air & Space in the Vanguard

Conference Read Ahead

Exercises and Training Preparing for Day Zero

By Lieutenant Colonel Ed Wijninga, NLD AF

Lieutenant Colonel Ed Wijninga (RNLAF) is currently serving in the Education, Training, Exercises and Lessons Learned Section. He has supported the Steadfast and Trident NATO CPX exercises as Chief OPFOR Air for the past six years.



Since the end of ISAF operations in Afghanistan, NATO has been confronted with new conflicts on its Eastern borders with the Russian occupation of the Crimea peninsula and operations in the Ukraine as well as the increased military posture of Russia in Kaliningrad. Suddenly, NATO is faced with the possibility of an actual attack on a NATO member nation which could result in an Article 5 declaration and hence a Major Joint Operation on NATO soil. These developments require a renewed focus on both hybrid and peer-to-peer conflict. This has resulted in the Readiness Action Plan (RAP), the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), and an enhanced NATO Response Force (eNRF). With the three concepts now having been developed, NATO aims to train and exercise to employ these concepts to their fullest extent.

SACEUR has been very clear about the necessity to improve readiness for large scale conflict through enhanced training and exercising and wrote in his Annual Guidance on Education, Training, Exercises and Evaluation (SAGE19): ‘I have instructed my staff to put large scale, high-intensity, all-domains warfare against a near-peer adversary at the very heart of all our training from now on, and I am prepared to assume some risk in other areas to achieve this.’

SACEUR considers Training, Education, Exercises and Evaluation to be key tools for the adaptation of the Alliance and in preparing it for this change. He also underlines the imperative for demanding and realistic exercises, tailored to improve and validate the Alliance’s interoperability, operational concepts and planning, C2 arrangements, decision-making responsiveness and perhaps, most importantly, our ability to conduct operational art.1

This new direction and guidance requires a review and update of existing exercise scenarios, a task NATO’s Joint Warfare Centre (JWC) in Stavanger, Norway has already embarked upon with the further development of the SKOLKAN 3.0 scenario for exercise Trident Javelin 17 and the development of the all-new OCCASUS scenario for exercise Trident Juncture 18 and consecutive Trident Jupiter exercises, starting in 2019.

Based on a Letter of Agreement and starting with exercise Steadfast Jazz 13, the JAPCC has supported the JWC in the development, preparation and execution of exercises, providing Air & Space Power expertise by contributing with an Opposing Forces (OPFOR) Air team to various small- and large-scale exercises such as Steadfast Jazz 13, Trident Juncture 14-18, Trident Jewel 15, Trident Javelin 17, Ramstein Ambition 14-18 and (German national exercise) Kalkar Sky 15-16.

During the execution of all of these exercises, the JAPCC team has experienced that Training Audiences were frequently struggling with the scenario and, in particular, with the doctrines, tactics and capabilities of a very realistic and dynamic OPFOR. This despite the fact that Primary Training Audience (TA) Commanders can exert some influence on the scenario during its development and have at times tried to adjust the scenario a bit more to their liking. A recent example was the start of the execution of exercise Trident Javelin 17 at G+200, the start of the ‘Restore’ campaign, whereas the real problems facing the commanders, such as Anti Access Area Denial (A2AD) needed to be addressed right from the start (Day Zero) of the campaign. Especially the initial stages of the conflict, where the Enhanced Forces Presence and the NRF might be engaged, where Headquarters need to be activated and forces deployed, meanwhile gaining access and securing lines of communication could be exercised.

In exercises, avoid the use of ‘Fairy Dust’ to make joint problems go away.

What Does Not Work?

The overwhelming issue that seemed to appear in all the exercises was a persistent lack of jointness. This already started during the planning and preparation phases of the exercise when the Joint Force Commanders and their subordinate components did not engage properly to embark on the Comprehensive Operational Planning Process. This is sometimes driven by the pre-occupation of staffs with day-to-day work, real-time operations, other priorities and so on. Fact is, that in previous exercises, especially the Comprehensive Preparation of the Operational Environment (CPOE) was not conducted in a joint manner. A proper analysis of the situation forms the basis for the overall Concept of Operations and the subsequent OPLAN for the Alliance’s operations during the exercise. If not done jointly it results in several stove-piped ‘mini-campaigns’ and also has a marked negative effect on the Joint Targeting Process which has led to component commanders attacking OPFOR’s capabilities on their own with little success but at very high cost.

This lack of joint thinking has also led to seams in the overall Air Defence Plan, especially in coastal areas where the Air Defence Plan should be a joint effort between the Air Component and the Maritime Commander. These seams are then exploited by OPFOR with sometimes disastrous results for the Alliance.

Joint Challenges require Joint Solutions

Based on experiences in the wars in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq, many NATO men and women have adopted a culture of ‘invincibility’. There is a clear adversity to losing aircraft, capital vessels or command ships, High Value Airborne Assets (HVAA), NATO’s PATRIOTs, etc. This has led to, sometimes heated, discussions when OPFOR shot down aircraft or sunk NATO ships. Commanders were averse to accepting these results and did sometimes not accept adjudication results from the Exercise Control Organisation (EXCON) and insisted on a cap in the number of losses per day or restoring capabilities that had been lost the day before. Additionally, not every AWACS in the world can be in one exercise, and there cannot be more SCALPs in one exercise than ever produced worldwide. Every Tomahawk missile launched from a vertical launch system on a ship is one less Air Defence missile available (bearing in mind, the enemy can count too!).

There needs to be a culture change into making exercises more realistic and accepting that the ‘enemy’ truly does get a vote.

Major NATO exercises not only serve a training-purpose, they are also an important and proven instrument for conveying a Strategic Communication message that NATO is prepared, able and willing to face any conflict should the need arise. Major exercises always include a Distinguished Visitors Day (DV-Day) where it is important that the commanders are able to show some level of success in the current campaign. However, the preparations for these DV days seem to pre-occupy commanders and their staffs during exercise execution and sometimes conditions need to be changed to show a more favourable picture on DV-day. Leaders (mostly) get this, but staffs sometimes create roadblocks to exercising these challenges because, in some cases, they are culturally conditioned to ‘look good’ in exercises. This jeopardises exercise execution and is frustrating for both the Training Audience and EXCON, and it has a marked negative effect on the conduct on these very expensive and time-consuming exercises.

Exercises do not need to LOOK good, they need to BE good!

What Does Work?

What is required to improve the major NATO exercises and ensures that Training Audiences, from top to bottom, go through a steep learning curve thereby making sure that they meet SACEUR’s goals? This starts with the acceptance and trust that commanders need to have in the quality and fidelity of exercise scenarios that are currently being developed. There is no requirement to assert influence on the development of the scenario. No real enemy will ever ask NATO’s commanders how he wants to fight the war! This means that the TA should be confronted with doctrines and tactics at all levels and need to experience these as they come. Freedom of Manoeuvre needs to be earned, not assumed. The TA needs to accept assessments/adjudication by EXCON to improve the protection of NATO’s critical assets and critical enablers. The TA should ensure that the Targeting Process is conducted in a joint manner and needs to focus on a steep learning curve (fail, assess, adapt, improve). The TA also needs to learn to accept to lose (high-value) ships and aircraft in an exercise as a result of flaws and errors in their own plans. Exercise scenarios also need to start at Day Zero in order to confront planners and commanders with an entirely new situation where the complexity of activating the NATO Command Structure and deploying forces while, at the same time, being engaged in battle challenges the Training Audience realistically.

An example of how to improve exercises and Training Audiences performance are the Joint Project Optic Windmill (JPOW) exercises where the Concept Development and Experiment (CD&E) phase allows the TA to experiment and test several different approaches to a pre-defined and specific problem. This allows the TA to make mistakes, to recover, adapt the plans and respond to the challenge in a different manner. It also helps to better understand the complexity of the actual threat and how to jointly overcome it.

It is better to lose in a simulation than explain in real life that losses were a result of poor training and poor execution.

Single Component actions or single weapon systems are not the solution to complex joint problems, such as A2AD. Firing Cruise Missiles into Multi-Layered Defence systems is not the answer. It can be part of the answer. Addressing these joint issues requires a joint, multi-component effort by both Special Forces, Cyber, Land, Maritime and Air. Staffs need to work together, not independently. Degrading these systems requires the approach of ‘peeling an onion’, layer by layer and this will take weeks, not hours. It probably also requires commanders to accept more risk because the Alliance might need to operate under the opponents’ umbrella or conduct operations in a contested and congested battlespace. Synchronization, Integration and Prioritization are key words here to achieve success. Reflecting this jointness and planning in an Operational Design is an operational art and needs to take into account the mutual dependency between components.

NATO must continue efforts to be more joint in it’s thinking.

There are several ways to improve the current culture. Develop plans which execute missions simultaneously, or sequentially in a timely manner, with a common effect in mind. Commanders and staffs need to be prepared (and agile enough) to respond when (partial) success is achieved and exploit the situation immediately. Components should understand each other’s doctrines, especially where areas or capabilities overlap (such as Coordinated Air Sea Procedures (CASP)). Realise what their impact is to the wider plans and what the implications are to joint and component objectives. Components should better understand the implications of supporting and supported commander relationships. Also helpful would be a re-establishment of the standing liaison elements that have been deactivated in 2010. This deactivation has led to stove-piped planning and further limitations on the understanding of the needs, challenges and capabilities of others. Joint Table-Top exercises, including experimentation, could be organised to address a specific problem for commanders for them and their staffs to work on and gain joint experience.

There are many opportunities to improve very quickly. It only requires a mindset change.

Points for Discussion:

  • To ‘train as you fight’ requires a different approach towards planning, preparing and conducting our exercises, how do we achieve this?
  • How can we improve jointness?
  • How can we improve understanding of each other’s components abilities and TTPs?
  • How can we restore the Liaison Element system that was abolished in 2010?
  • Would Table-top exercises to challenge commanders specifically be helpful?
  • How do we change the mindset towards accepting higher risk?
  • Should commanders influence scenario development?
  • Do we need to LOOK good or BE good?
1. SACEURs Annual Guidance on Education, Training, Exercises and Evaluation 2019 (SAGE19).