Military exercises in strategic context

Amphibious assault during exercise “Cobra Gold 2014” . Courtesy: Cpl. Zachary W. Scanlon/USMC

There is a conspicuous absence of strategic reflection on the role of military exercises in the conduct of foreign policy. Unlike other military activities, such as defence spending, weapons procurement and acquisition, and research and development, there is no sustained tradition of enquiry into the strategic relevance of military exercises.

The existing literature in military studies focusing on exercises pays overwhelming attention to the value of wargames as learning tools in the military profession. In this field one can find studies on the role of exercises in perfecting tactics, fostering interoperability, improving integration of equipment into the force structure, developing and implementing new doctrines, and even in educating the officer corps in leadership skills. Consequently, the broader policy relevance of such exercises is either assumed away or promptly discarded.

More importantly, there is a divide amongst those authors that admit some strategic significance to military exercises. The first group believes that exercises are largely confidence and security building measures capable of stabilising a given security environment. Conversely, the second group posits that military exercises are destabilising because they constitute a show of force and improve military readiness.

Whichever the case may be, there is no consensus on the features that distinguish one exercise from the other, and thus no contemplation of the conditions in which exercises can contribute to one outcome and not the other. Examples abound, especially in the Asia-Pacific region. For instance, authors that see growing Chinese military capabilities and assertiveness in the region point to its combined exercises with Russia in the “Joint Sea” exercises as supporting evidence. On the other hand, those defending the need for greater allied cooperation between the United States and Japan (p. 6)[pdf], or United States and South Korea, point to military exercises as part of the solution.

But what exactly is the strategic relevance of military exercises? How can it be observed and categorised? Which factors influence its impact on the security environment? How can exercises be tailored to best meet their intended goals whilst reducing the probability of unintended consequences? These questions, in short, address the need for a study of military exercises not merely as training instruments but as tools of foreign policy.

This puzzle presents a promising avenue for academic- and policy-oriented research. Considering the growing number and scope of military exercises held around the world, this empirical wealth provides exciting hypotheses for us to explore.