During the height of tensions with Iran last year, the United States conducted an unprecedented series of war games. Over five months, from May until the end of September, 93 separate military exercises were held, with forces operating continuously in, above and around 29 countries.
The games, which practiced everything from ground platoon tactics to cyber warfare, weren’t held in the Mideast and weren’t directed at Tehran. They were directed against Moscow—and constituted the most intense uninterrupted set of drills since the end of the Cold War.
The activity was the culmination of a buildup that began after Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014. Though American armed forces were fighting several “hot wars” and engaged in crisis deployments in response to both Iran and North Korea, the shift to practicing “high end” warfare tasks dominated. The focus was also undeniably anti-Russia,with the number of European games ten times the number of China-related drills held at the same time.
“In the shadow of the deteriorating European security environment, the size and scope of NATO and Russian military exercises have increased significantly—even dramatically,” a NATO parliamentary committee reported in October. The committee worried that NATO doesn’t possess sufficient ground troops in Eastern Europe to deter Russian inference or attack. It also pointed to Moscow’s own high-profile war games, many involving scenarios that include the use of nuclear weapons in a European war.
While the conventional view is one of Russian advantage, the new figures show that the United States and its European partners far outstrip Moscow. These “persistent heel-to-toe” operations, as the military calls them, where one exercise begins as another ends, emphasize rapid aircraft deployments and dispersal to forward bases. Much of the emphasis last year was on fighter aircraft and bomber scatterings, showcasing Western geographic advantages while also demonstrating combined air operations refined in two decades of Middle East fighting.
These operations and exercises, then-NATO Commander Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti told Congress last Spring, were meant to “introduce operational unpredictability to our adversaries.” The question is: at what cost? That is, are we provoking the very thing NATO hopes to avoid—a new Cold War? Or more concretely, in putting the two sides on a path where escalating military exercises and the intermingling of forces increases tensions while also providing more and more opportunities for miscalculation.
‘100,000 Tons of International Diplomacy’
From the day former national security advisor John Bolton stepped to the microphone last May to announce that B-52 bombers and the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln were being rushed to the Middle East because of “troubling and escalatory indications and warnings” coming from Iran, Europe was already on pace to break all records regarding military activity.
The Lincoln was in the Mediterranean Sea and was operating with the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis, the first time two carrier strike groups had conducted dual operations in the Trump administration. On the day of Bolton’s announcement, Lincoln-based F/A-18F Super Hornet fighters flew 700-mile bombing runs to targets in Romania. The next day, Super Hornets flew again, this time 1,000-mile missions from the Ionian Sea west of Greece and traversing Eastern Europe to Lithuania.
There, the Navy strike fighters worked with ground spotters to practice bombing, less than 500 miles from Moscow. “We are showing the world that we … are prepared and capable of executing missions in our allies’ airspace on short notice,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Stephen Gay, coordinator of the exercise.
U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon M. Huntsman Jr. was on the Lincoln during the operation. “Each of the carriers operating in the Mediterranean at this time represent 100,000 tons of international diplomacy,” the former Utah Governor said.
Finished with its mock bombing of Russia, the Lincoln canceled a scheduled port call in Croatia and set sail for the Persian Gulf. By the time it steamed south through the Suez Canal and around the Arabian Peninsula to take up station off the Iranian coast, no fewer than seven separate NATO war games were held: Arrow and Bold Quest in Finland, Spring Storm in Estonia, Formidable Shield off the coast of Scotland, Immediate Response in Croatia, Hungary and Slovenia, Stolen Cerberus VI in Greece, and Erciyes in Turkey. And in those two weeks, a dozen Florida-based F-16C fighters arrived in the United Kingdom and the newest F-35 Lightning II jets deployed from Utah to Northern Italy, the latter for the first time.
No European deployments were canceled or delayed because of Iran, according to a senior European Command official who was not authorized to speak on the record. And not only were U.S. aircraft operating close to Russian airspace. Starting in May, the air forces of nine different NATO nations deployed to forward bases in the Baltic states, Poland and Romania on “air policing” missions.
The exercises and deployments were taking place under an umbrella Pentagon program called the European Deterrence Initiative (EDI). Started after the Crimea crisis, EDI has built up a NATO ground presence in the three Baltic states and Poland, enhanced the air defense of the Baltics, southeastern Europe and Iceland, and accelerated air deployments from the United States under both “bomber assurance” and “theater security” programs.
Last March, the Trump administration requested $5.9 billion to fund EDI, a 10 percent reduction from the previous year—which some observers saw as a sign of Donald Trump’s personal softness on Russia. Calling the Russian threat to Europe “real and growing,” Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the outgoing top officer for NATO, told Congress that he was “not comfortable yet with the deterrent posture” on the continent.
“We’re looking at increased burden-sharing,” Pentagon Deputy Comptroller Elaine A. McCusker told reporters, echoing the president’s many statements that the rich European nations should contribute more towards their defense, lessening the American bill.
But the fine print showed that there was no real reduction. The cut was actually the result of completed construction and other “nonrecurring” costs that stabilized EDI at a steady level. And the amount dedicated to exercises and training more than doubled from the previous year, from $291 million to $609 million.
On December 4, after a marathon eight months in the Middle East, the USS Abraham Lincoln transited the Strait of Hormuz to return home. The Iran crisis was still brewing and would further escalate with the killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani a month later. The crisis deployments Bolton had announced included a total of six bombers in two groups, both of which had come and gone. A battalion-sized Marine Corps force had also left the region. Emergency ground deployments totaled fewer than 10,000 troops, the majority in Patriot anti-air and missile defense units. Air Force aircraft had augmented the Lincoln’s air wing on the scene. Three squadrons of F-15E Strike Eagles, F-35A Lightning IIs, and F-22 Raptors, constituted the totality of the anti-Iran movements.
During the same time, nine American squadrons of fighter aircraft deployed to Europe for anti-Russian war games, according to Pentagon documents. During the third week in June, when Iran shot down an American drone, exercise Anatolian Eagle was in full swing in Konya, Turkey. Though Turkey abuts Iran, the exercise, funded by the European Defense Initiative, had a wholly NATO European focus.
As two oil tankers were hit with limpet mines in the Persian Gulf, special operators from ten nations were skulking about as a part of exercise Trojan Footprint 19, one that took place across Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and in the Black Sea. In northern waters, Baltic Operations (BALTOPS) brought together 50 ships and 40 aircraft of 18 NATO nations, plus Sweden and Finland. A total of seven NATO war games were underway, including Iron Wolf in Lithuania; Dragon 19 in Poland; Swift response in Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania; and Strike Back and Saber Guardian in Bulgaria.
Overall, more than 50,000 NATO and allied military personnel were in action against Russia. U.S. Air Force F-35 fighters deployed to both Finland and Norway for the first time. Joining them were Louisiana-based B-52 bombers that had forward deployed to England and flew mock bombing runs against Russia simultaneously over the Baltic and Black Sea regions.
Heel to toe, exercise Dynamic Mongoose commenced in Norwegian Arctic waters with the completion of BALTOPS. Exercise Sea Breeze also got underway in the Black Sea to augment Dynamic Mongoose. While Ukraine was on everyone’s lips in Washington because of House impeachment hearings, a total of 32 ships and 24 aircraft from 19 countries were operating in and around that Black Sea nation.
None of this took place without a Russian response. The very week of Bolton’s Iran announcement, a Hungarian fighter operating in Lithuania intercepted a Russian Federation Air Force plane flying without a transponder signal. Russian sent its own bombers to fly along the western coast of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. At the end of May, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Moscow was concerned about NATO’s increased activities near its borders.
Russian news agency TASS reported that the number of Russian air intercepts had increased ten times over the past three years. Meanwhile, NATO scrambles had increased 300 percent, according to classified U.S. Air Force documents. When a Russian Su-24 Fencer fighter-bomber dangerously buzzed a Spanish Navy ship operating in the Baltic, NATO issued a vigorous protest.
As the May exercise season started, Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters took over command of NATO from Gen. Scaparrotti. One of his first orders of business was to sit down with the Russian Chief of General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov to discuss “deconfliction” of military activity. Wolters told reporters just days before the Spanish incident that American “deterrence” activity had tempered Russian behavior, that there had been a reduction in Russian “unprofessional behavior.
The two generals met again in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, on July 10th for what were more sobering talks, according to military officers who were privy to the discussions. That same day, the Ukrainian Navy reported that a Russian destroyer intruded into the Sea Breeze restricted area during live-fire artillery drills, creating “an emergency situation.” When NATO radioed the destroyer with a warning, according to a Ukrainian Navy’s statement, the Russian ship “pretended to be experiencing communications problems.” Russia’s Black Sea fleet said Ukrainian claims were untrue. The Cold War was back.