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I/ITSEC 2023: Combined and joint exercises – when is bigger better?

26th November 2023 - 09:48 GMT | by Giles Ebbutt


The Joint Expeditionary Force’s maritime Exercise Joint Warrior 23-1 complemented the land-based Joint Viking 23 to create a complex multi-domain environment. (Photo: UK MoD/Crown Copyright)

Why armed forces need to focus on the challenges associated with conducting military exercises at different levels and domains, by focusing on interoperability, as well as joint and combined operations.

Military exercises are conducted at many levels, can take different forms and have widely varying aims. At their most basic, they are a vehicle to train and test individual and collective skills in conducting tactical operations, no matter what the domain.

A company commander taking his troops through battle drills, a pilot carrying out dry bombing runs or a frigate doing anti-submarine warfare drill are all after the same sort of thing.

These are the ‘sets and reps’, the repetitive evolutions that build competence in the basics and confidence in fellow members of the team. This is how military organisations become good at what they do and stay good.

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This, however, is not enough in a world where any operation is joint (involves more than one domain) and often combined (involves forces of more than one nation). This makes things far more complicated, particularly at higher levels of command.

NATO, quintessentially a joint and combined organisation, offers a useful definition of exercises. A recent document states: ‘Exercises are important tools through which the Alliance tests and validates its concepts, procedures, systems and tactics. More broadly, they enable militaries and civilian organisations deployed in theatres of operation to test capabilities and practice working together efficiently in a demanding crisis situation.’

And this is the key aspect of exercises at higher levels. As the document goes on to note, they will test and validate structures (concepts, doctrine, procedures, systems and tactics) that must function together. Most importantly they will test and practice interoperability.

The document says that ‘forces must be able to work together effectively despite differences in doctrine, language, structures, tactics and training. Interoperability is built, in part, through routine inter-forces training between NATO member states and through practical cooperation between personnel from Allied and partner countries’.

While this refers particularly to combined operations, the need to ‘work together effectively’ is equally true, if not more so, for joint operations within a single national environment.

It is sometimes surprising how little different services within one country know of each other’s activities, and how difficult it can be to achieve interoperability, particularly at higher levels.

At the tactical level units and individuals find ways to make technical interoperability work, bending rules and devising ad-hoc solutions, although the more you work and train together the fewer hurdles there are to overcome.

But the operational and strategic level is a different matter.

Here it is as much about understanding each other’s thought processes, priorities and procedures as it is about technical interoperability, although this remains important, particularly when it comes to sharing data across domains. Hence the US drive for Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2), and similar initiatives in other countries.

The only way really to test this understanding, or lack of it, is to exercise, both at tactical level and higher. Sometimes this can be achieved solely through a live exercise, but as it is a truism that the value of an exercise to the individual is in inverse proportion to its size and scope, including a constructive element with virtual forces can be more valuable. This also allows greater scope in devising the scenario and the use of a wider spectrum of forces.

A recent example is the US Navy’s Large-Scale Exercise 2023 (LSE 23), which took place in August. According to a navy release it involved ‘six navy and marine corps component commands and seven US numbered fleets… [merging] real-world operations with virtually constructed scenarios to create a realistic training environment’.

Illustrating the value of exercising on the grand scale, Lt Gen Brian Cavanaugh, commander of the Marine Forces Command said: ‘This is an exercise where we can bring all of our experiences together and learn from each other… and you don't get that until you come together and do an exercise like this. The challenges we encountered during LSE 23 only help us in our continuum of learning – from the tactical unit, up through the highest levels of decision-making.’

That was an example of a national exercise. In Europe the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF), which is outside the NATO structure, conducts regular exercises. The JEF is a 10-country multinational partnership that can act independently in its own right. It can also be deployed in support of NATO or other cooperative ventures. With the UK as framework nation it is principally composed of Baltic and Scandinavian countries.

France’s multinational Exercise Orion 23 covered planning and deployment as well as the actual live training phase. (Photo: UK MoD/Crown Copyright)

One of its recent exercises was Joint Warrior 23-1. According to the UK MoD it was designed as the maritime domain’s contribution to Joint Viking 23, a large-scale land-focussed training event orchestrated by the Norwegian Armed Forces in the High North. Both elements were delivered as one combined activity by the Norwegian Joint Headquarters and UK Joint Training and Exercise Planning Staff.

The aim here is to provide a complex environment in which participants can train together to then deploy effectively as a combined joint task force. More than 20,000 personnel took part from 12 nations.

This level of activity across different domains in challenging environmental conditions places considerable demands both on command staffs and tactical units. But this is the whole point: to test the processes and procedures that enable these staffs and units from different domains to work together effectively they need to be stressed, as it is only then that weaknesses will be revealed.

A final example of a joint and combined exercise is France’s Orion 23 which took place in April and May this year. This was described by the French MoD as being aimed at training ‘the French armed forces within a multinational joint forces framework, with the goal of refocusing the armed forces and their various branches and administrative levels on a joint, multi-domain exercise in a contested environment [and involving] an inter-ministerial perspective extending beyond purely military concerns’.

Orion 23 was a multi-phase exercise which included planning and deployment as well as the actual live training phase. This arrangement is valuable as it provides opportunities for staffs to conduct the sort of detailed but more mundane interactions fundamental to effective multinational or -domain operations before moving to the high-tempo live phase.

It can help build solid relationships for when pressure increases, time is of the essence, and trust and confidence in your opposite numbers is essential.

This article originally featured in Shephard’s Decisive Edge Newsletter – Training in September 2023. 

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Giles Ebbutt


Giles Ebbutt

Giles Ebbut is a Shephard Media correspondent based in the UK who specialises in C4ISR …

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