By Davis Florick
As the North Korean crisis mounts, the utility of the joint military exercises in the region involving South Korea and the United States (US) has come under increasing scrutiny. Beijing has gone so far as to propose that Pyongyang could suspend its nuclear and missile activities in exchange for a moratorium on Seoul’s training activities with Washington. Regardless of how much value one may attribute to China’s offer and to North Korea’s credibility, understanding the utility of military exercises is prudent. Given Pyongyang’s history of inflammatory rhetoric and weapon tests in response to training activities, North Korea’s objections to South Korea and US exercises is unlikely to abate. For any government conducting multilateral exercises, at least five overarching reasons underlie its decision to do so: providing technical demonstrations, improving integration and transparency, addressing challenging strategic problems, assuring partners, and deterring adversaries. Exploring the benefits of military drills can provide valuable takeaways for different actors globally.
Military exercises provide an ideal opportunity to demonstrate new technological capabilities. Given long development timelines, the culminating step of utilizing a system in an operational setting carries considerable military and political value. Using new capabilities in a simulated environment helps strategists and operators to plan and train with their equipment. On the one hand, partners have tangible evidence of how their military equipment and training needs are being addressed. On the other hand, potential adversaries are presented with new potential forms of deterrent effects to their strategies and tactics. For instance, during Russia’s Vostok-2014 exercise in its Far East, Moscow test-fired the Iskander-M. While Russia had previously claimed the system had been used during the conflict in Georgia in 2008, this was the first public launch, and doing so near China undoubtedly carried political utility. The spotlight placed on multilateral exercises presents a distinctive opportunity to display new technological capabilities.
While showcasing advanced military technology is a strategic move, just as important are the personal relationships, integration, and transparency through joint training. During a crisis, there is little room to overcome language barriers, technical hurdles, or policy discrepancies. Simulating combat situations allows people and machines to harmonize and to develop ways to overcome natural impediments. Furthermore, by integrating capabilities and improving human communication prior to an actual conflict, forces are much more synchronized during a crisis, thereby reducing potential vulnerabilities that could be exploited by adversaries. In the process of strengthening synchronization, working partners are likely to find that transparency is a valuable by-product of engagement. When states demonstrate the willingness to work with one another such as through the sharing sensitive information, trust can develop. Similarly, leveraging personal commonalities is a unique way of engendering lasting relationships that can serve to benefit all parties involved. Multilateral military exercises thus serve to improve macro-level and micro-level cooperation.
Beyond improving coordination and transparency, addressing serious conceptual and strategic dilemmas is a critical component of multilateral exercises. As international affairs become increasingly complex, the challenges faced by senior officials are becoming more difficult as well. Given that tomorrow’s conflicts may involve multilateral aspects, different cultures and equities will lead partnering states to see problems in disparate ways which, if not addressed, may themselves lead to discord. To minimize the chances of divergence during a conflict, parties should undertake important discussions which may include uncomfortable and challenging scenarios since dialogue during peacetime – including a wider range of whole-of-government options that may incorporate considerations as diverse as economic impediments and nuclear exchange scenarios – and occur at a more measured pace than dialogue during wartime. Conceptually, the different perspectives we all possess increase the likelihood of innovation and reduce the risk of groupthink. Leveraging these qualities can have a profound impact on the options provided to senior officials during a crisis.
Although it may not seem readily apparent, military exercises have an important role in assuring allies and partners of security commitments. By conducting training events abroad, a state can demonstrate its willingness to participate in conflicts, or promote mutual defence elsewhere. Practicing and preparing for various situations signifies that officials are thinking through problems and are taking an active role in preparing for potential scenarios. Beyond the simple act of displaying a regional presence, joint exercises with foreign partners carry a powerful message to those states’ domestic audiences and can display equality in the relationship. Moreover, cooperation signifies that the parties involved are analyzing and preparing for potential conflicts. As a result, should confrontation emerge, a state’s partners can function more securely with the knowledge that they will likely have support. The assurance value of joint exercises comes in the form of day-to-day strategy and acquisition while also serving as a valuable means to reinforce support should conflict occur.
Parallel to its assurance utility, joint military exercises abroad are instrumental in deterring potential aggressors. To a considerable extent, the same qualities that contribute to bolstering ties with partners can also play an important role in shaping adversary perceptions. Practicing how states respond in a conflict scenario demonstrates to potential adversaries that a first strike option may not be in their favor. In conjunction with other opportunities, such as deploying units forward, exercises are an important tool in showing that costs will be imposed and benefits denied if another state(s) chooses an aggressive path. From a political standpoint, exercises serve as an ideal means to demonstrate commitment. Where an adversary to attempt an aggressive act, it would do so with the knowledge that its decision would be forcibly countered. The response may raise the threshold for an aggressive adversary who might otherwise prefer to take decisive action. As an example, the annual US-South Korea Foal Eagle and Key Resolve exercises reminds North Korea of Washington’s presence on the Peninsula – precisely the opposite of the US position prior to the Korean War. Ultimately, by deterring potential aggression, regional and strategic stability are stronger.
Multilateral military exercises play a significant role in shaping decision makers’ perceptions of benefits and costs of their choices. By practicing how partners may respond in the event of a conflict, those states will be more comfortable in their disposition. As a result, they may be less likely to pursue a first strike option. Conversely, a potential adversary may be less inclined to risk a first strike because the likelihood of a successful campaign might be decreased. Alongside the assurance and deterrence utility of multilateral exercises, there is value in cooperating with the militaries of partner states. For instance, collaborating on military strategies could prove invaluable for synchronizing forces during inherently time-sensitive and complex operations. There are even technological benefits to joint exercises as states are able to experiment with new capabilities and improve multilateral communication while reducing technical barriers. Invariably, perhaps one of the best assessments for the utility of multilateral exercises is the degree to which they are criticized and looked at with suspicion by other parties – whether in the context of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s concerns over Russia’s Zapad, China’s objections to the US-India-Japan Exercise Malabar, or the North Korea’s anger over the US and South Korea’s Foal Eagle.
Davis Florick is a strategic policy analyst for the US Department of Defense, a Senior Fellow with the Human Security Centre, and a 2016 WSD-Handa Non-resident Fellow with the Pacific Forum. He earned a Master’s degree in East-West Studies from Creighton University. He specializes in North Korean strategic and human security issues.