"You can call Trident Juncture 2018 a classic NATO military exercise, the type of major exercises we used to have during the Cold War," says Jens Stoltenberg, quickly adding:
"Today, we do not have a cold war, but we face a situation where we need to exercise major operations and collective defence. This means coming Norway and other NATO countries to the rescue, if necessary."
Secretary General speaks eagerly about the high-visibility exercise in Norway
this autumn. He sits behind a large conference table in his office at the brand
new headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. The carpet just in front of him is
adorned with the famous NATO logo, a compass rose pointing towards the alliance's ultimate
goal – peace.
|en_215_natosecretarygeneral||en_40_natoexercise2018||/en/exercise-and-operations/exercises/nato-exercise-2018||/media/PubImages/DSC_4518_2.jpg||Trident Juncture 18||50,000 participants, 250 aircraft and 65 vessels from more than 30 nations – this is NATO's exercise Trident Juncture 18.||en_215_natosecretarygeneral||http://forsvaret.no/en/Lists/RelatedPages/DispForm.aspx?ID=97|
But the political surroundings seem anything but peaceful these days. Since Stoltenberg entered the chief position in October 2014, international terrorism, the war in Syria and Russia's annexation of the Crimea have made the international security situation challenging. The new era has forced NATO into making a shift from large operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan, to an increased focus on Europe and the North. As NATO's strategic, northern flank in Europe, that is good news for Norway. This October and November, Norway is hosting the Alliance's largest military exercise for 16 years.
"The fact that we exercise this way, is mentally the biggest transformation of NATO since the end of the Cold War," Stoltenberg says.
"It reflects that something fundamental has happened in our security environment. It is an expression of NATO coming home and an expression of NATO shifting its focus towards the North."
The renewed interest for the high north is also noticed in Norway. The past couple of years, the Norwegian Armed Forces' winter courses have been fully booked, and military winter knowledge is increasingly sought after within the Alliance.
"This year's exercise is all about showing that we can operate in the north. Heat and dry weather is one thing. But a wet and cold Norwegian autumn weather is perhaps the most challenging of them all."
Stoltenberg does not think that exercise Trident Juncture will be challenging for NATO.
"This is nothing new to us. We have held exercises like this several times before, but it has been a few years since we have had a large-scale exercise like this," he says, adding:
"Besides, exercising also means making mistakes, which is why we exercise. If everything was to run smoothly and flawlessly, we might as well have skipped the exercise."
This nothing new to us. We have held exercises like this several times before.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg
At the 2014 Wales Summit, NATO announced that it would hold several major military exercises in the coming years. Norway quickly came forward and invited the Alliance to host Trident Juncture 2018. NATO accepted the Norwegian offer, which Stoltenberg is very pleased with.
"Norway has excellent training conditions on land, at sea and in the air. Norway also has good experience in hosting large military exercises, so we know that Norway has the ability to handle this," he says.
But does is put extra pressure on the Secretary General that the exercise will be held in his home country?
"No, on the contrary. It gives me extra pleasure; I think it is nice that NATO can exercise in Norway. And I am confident that Norway and the participating countries will carry it out excellently."
Stoltenberg says that the exercise will be important for Norway – not only by testing the country's ability to receive and handle allied reinforcements.
"The credibility of NATO is based on us coming quickly to the rescue with large forces. To know we can do that, we must exercise. And that is important for Norway.
Dialogue and transparency
The Secretary General has busy days, to put it mildly. For the past four years, he has been the frontrunner in the Alliance's gigantic shift towards collective defence and more activity in Europe. The shift has resulted in Russian protests, but Stoltenberg emphasises that NATO wants to improve relations with Russia.
"We combine predictability with firmness, and at the same time we are improving the dialogue between us," Stoltenberg says.
One of his main priorities as Secretary General has been reviving the so-called NATO–Russia Council. For two years, the council was more or less inactive. Now it is up and running again. But how do the Russians react to Trident Juncture?
"Of course the Russians think that NATO is building up too much, but they appreciated being informed," Stoltenberg says.
He says that more military exercises also increase the risk of misunderstandings and incidents that can escalate.
"This makes it even more important for us to be transparent and to inform about our exercises and military activity. We have invited all the member states in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), including Russia, to the exercise."
I still meet generals and officers from many NATO countries that have exercised in Norway.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg
To NATO, regular large-scale exercises are the norm, and the Secretary General emphasises that Trident Juncture 2018 is nothing extraordinary. The Alliance also does not see any immediate danger of a military attack against any NATO country.
"But what we see, are other types of aggressive actions such as terror and cyber attacks. We live in a more uncertain time, but NATO has become stronger and people can sleep safely at night," he says.
Despite his hectic schedule, Stoltenberg takes the time to visit the exercise. He says that the cooperation between NATO and Norway is "brilliant" and looks forward to coming to Norway in October. And he regularly meets generals and officers from around NATO who have exercised in Norway, among them White House Chief of Staff, John F. Kelly. Still many years later, they remember the cold in Norway.
"I should perhaps be a little careful to say this, but they have probably spent more winter nights outside in Norway than I ever have!"