A recent exercise in Iceland shows how the American military is forging new alliances with its former Cold War enemies in Russia and Eastern Europe.
ew events better illustrate the shifting strategic landscape as those that occurred in Keflavik, Iceland, on a rainy Friday morning in July. On a command from an Icelandic civilian, a Russian IL-76 cargo plane deployed from an American air base to drop a portable field hospital and medical personnel during a disaster relief exercise. When the load missed its target due to poor visibility, a U.S. military cargo helicopter lifted the Russian hospital and personnel to the chosen location.
Less than a decade ago, such events would have been unthinkable to U.S. and foreign military personnel who came of age during the Cold War. Before the exercise was over, the Lithuanian Air Force would ferry Estonian and Romanian troops on search and rescue missions, and U.S. firefighters would assist Austrian and Icelandic civil defense personnel in earthquake response procedures. Perhaps most striking of all, the five officers controlling military support to the exercise came from Germany, Denmark, Czechoslovakia, Latvia and the United States.
"It's a different world," says Gen. John Sheehan, who retired last month as NATO's supreme allied commander, Atlantic, and commander in chief of the U.S. Atlantic Command, both based in Norfolk, Va. "I'm very pleased with this exercise. NATO is developing a range of capabilities to respond to this new world we live in."
Sheehan has long advocated expanding U.S. and NATO military operations, such as disaster relief, peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance. But the Iceland exercise, dubbed Cooperative Safeguard, illustrates more than NATO's responsiveness to operations other than war. It was a demonstration of the alliance's growing cooperation with former adversaries-Russia and the former Soviet and East Bloc states-known as the Partnership for Peace.
New World, New Alliance
NATO was formed after World War II to check the expansionist agenda of the Communist Soviet Union. The alliance members' pledge to defend one another against Soviet aggression was a central component of the West's containment policy towards the Communist bloc. The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the emergence of democratic reforms in Russia and Eastern Europe since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 have forced an evolution in NATO's original mission. NATO's military intervention in Bosnia to stabilize the region and maintain peace between the formerly warring factions starkly illustrated the change.
The Partnership for Peace program, under which the U.S. and NATO are developing cooperative relationships with 26 emerging democracies, reflects the shift in U.S. strategic planning that is outlined in A National Security Strategy for a New Century, the Clinton administration's strategic blueprint published in May.
The document declares that the United States is "continuing to adapt and strengthen our alliances and coalitions to meet the challenges of an evolving security environment, and to improve other countries' peacekeeping capabilities. With countries that are neither staunch friends nor known foes, military cooperation often serves as a positive means of engagement, building security relationships today in an effort to keep these countries from becoming adversaries tomorrow."
Establishing military-to-military relationships between the U.S. and the nations in the Partnership for Peace will help transform the military institutions in Central and Eastern Europe along the U.S. military model for functioning within a democracy, administration officials believe.
"Truly the U.S. and the rest of NATO will maintain its [strategic] focus and will maintain a combat capability, but [nonwar operations] have to be a capability we develop also," Sheehan says. "There is a higher probability we'll have a volcanic eruption or an earthquake here in Iceland before we have NATO attacked by somebody. I think we need to figure out how we respond to that."
Iceland's role in NATO has been unique. The only member without a military force, Iceland's contribution has been geographic. "Iceland is like a big aircraft carrier here in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean," says Geir Haarde, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in Iceland's parliament. "Anyone who wants to control the sea lanes between the United States and Europe either has to have Iceland on its side or neutralize it, because it's an important piece of land."
Once a remote island of Cold War intrigue, Iceland is seeking a more visible role on the changing world stage. "This exercise is important for a number of reasons," Haarde says. "I believe it's good to get this country involved with the Partnership for Peace, and I see many benefits from our participation in this exercise. It's also an indication of our willingness to take part in all the changes that are happening in Europe. It's especially important that so many Eastern European nations, and particularly the Russians, are taking part."
But it's not just the strategic landscape that is shifting here. Formed 20 million years ago by lava-spewing volcanoes, many of which remain active, Iceland straddles the shifting continental plates of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Earthquake tremors and volcanic activity are frequent. If history is a guide, Iceland is due for a major earthquake any day now.
"There's a very high probability of a very high magnitude earthquake at any given time," says Solveig Thorvaldsdottir, director of the National Civil Defense of Iceland and the first civilian ever to direct a NATO-led exercise.
The exercise scenario was this: On July 25, a catastrophic earthquake devastates southwest Iceland, with the epicenter falling near downtown Reykjavik, home to nearly half of Iceland's 270,000 inhabitants. Roads and buildings are heavily damaged, and rescue work is hampered by high winds and heavy rain. Iceland declares a national disaster and requests NATO assistance. Several Partnership for Peace nations agree to send civilian and military forces, equipment and supplies to help in the relief effort.
"We have a strong civil defense system," says Thorvaldsdottir. The 130 volunteer search and rescue teams scattered around the island, along with a network of fire, police, and hospital units, are well trained and well practiced, thanks to the volatile weather and difficult terrain here. But the system would quickly become overwhelmed by an earthquake of the magnitude many scientists are predicting.
Eight NATO and 10 Partnership nations participated in the exercise, which comprised 1,100 civilian and military personnel, 16 aircraft and 1 ship. NATO picked up the $1.6 million tab.
Lessons Learned, and Learned Again
Volunteers spent more than a year preparing the exercise sites in and around Reykjavik, Thorvaldsdottir says. Real buildings were collapsed, and 250 civilians agreed to pose as victims, trapped in the rubble.
It's always difficult to achieve realism in an exercise such as Cooperative Safeguard, says Lt. Col. Andy Russell, chief of staff of the combined joint task force, which took its orders from Thorvaldsdottir in providing military support to the exercise.
"What they've done is create little snapshots of [an earthquake] and made those very realistic. The houses are collapsed, they're not just shoved over. It's unstable, the rescue operations are not planned, they're not staged. It's like an infantry guy talking about low-intensity war. If you're being shot at, that's high-intensity. It's the same thing here. If you're searching a house, you don't care if the whole block is knocked down. You're looking in this one house. That's your task, and that slice is as a intense as it gets for an individual," Russell says.
During the Russian hospital drop, conditions were particularly realistic. Heavy rain and a thick blanket of fog gave would-be rescuers and medical personnel a taste of how difficult such a mission could be. The only indication to personnel on the ground that the cargo plane was flying low overhead, ready to drop its load, was the loud drone of the engine. Paratroopers inside saw nothing of the terrain as they jumped into the mist below.
"I really don't think we would have taken a chance and done this mission during an exercise," says one American airman. "Those guys are fearless. It really was a dangerous mission."
But from a command standpoint, capturing the realism in an exercise is more difficult. At 9:30 a.m. on the second day of the exercise, the Russian deputy director of the combined joint task force hadn't arrived at the operations center and no one seemed to know where he was. An American officer was doing a crossword puzzle. There was no sense of urgency. Perhaps the most realistic aspect of the military operations center was the map, an airport rental-car company map projected on a wall at the front of the room. Maps always seem to be in short supply during emergency operations.
Language also was a problem. While all staff officers and pilots participating in the exercise were required to speak English, proficiency levels varied widely. Serguei Kozlov, a retired Russian lieutenant colonel now with a civilian search and rescue agency, says he will recommend more stringent language qualifications for exercise participants in the future. Kozlov, whose command of English is better than many Americans', says communication was a problem for many participants.
"These exercises are very important. We know that one day we may be called to do the real job. It is inevitable many of these countries will be working together again, perhaps soon. It's important that we establish procedures for doing so effectively," he says.
His point was clearly made when a Russian helicopter flew into the U.S. hangar in Keflavik, creating pandemonium among the American air crews inside. The move, which is standard procedure in Russia, is highly unusual in the U.S. military, where helicopters land outside and are then towed into hangars.
"That's a lesson we'd learned before, but forgotten," Russell says. "I doubt if we'll forget it again."
Unlike some U.S. military officers, Russell doesn't have any heartburn about the fact that the exercise was directed by a civilian. "The only problem I'd have would be if you had someone running this who didn't know what they're doing, trying to tell us what to do. That's not the case here."
With a masters degree in earthquake structural engineering from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and professional engineering experience in earthquake-prone Southern California, Thorvaldsdottir is well qualified for her job. During seven years studying and working in the United States she participated in the development of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Urban Search and Rescue Program and assisted with FEMA's response to the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in April 1995.
"There were a lot of things we learned in Oklahoma City," she says. "One of the critical things we learned was we need to make sure all the experience that is gained in an exercise or crisis doesn't leave when the international community leaves," she says. To that end, every exercise site in Cooperative Safeguard had an Icelandic commander coordinating relief efforts through the Emergency Operations Center headed by Thorvaldsdottir in Reykjavik. When military assistance was required, she contacted the combined joint task force via fax.
Such procedures were appropriate and effective, Russell says. "I'm an F-15 pilot. I'm not trained at search and rescue or medical triage and I don't ever expect to be," he says. "But I am trained as a staff officer, and this is an operation like any other operation. You've got certain things you have to be concerned with, like giving people a mission and getting them what they need to execute that mission, whether it's transporting patients from a triage site to a hospital or transporting a search and rescue team to a rubble site. My job is to facilitate that mission and also make sure the people executing that mission get something to eat, have a place to sleep and are basically taken care of."
Russell knows from personal experience that the military can be extremely helpful in nonmilitary situations. He was a staff officer at U.S. Forces Command at Fort McPherson, Ga., when Hurricane Andrew devastated Florida in 1992. "The missions the military performed down there were very simple military operations: transportation, providing communications when all the phones are gone, and food. The Army is the best in the world at creating big tent cities, feeding people, providing laundry, bath, latrines, drinking water. That's a normal mission for the logistics arm of the military."
However normal such missions are for the military during wartime, they're becoming much more common during peacetime. In response to the growing trend toward multinational operations other than war, NATO established the combined joint task force concept, along with plans for working with non-NATO nations.
"We have, over the last three years, worked out procedures for such exercises," Sheehan says. "They're NATO procedures but transferable to the Partnership for Peace countries. The command and control procedures, air drop procedures, they're very similar to what NATO would use.
"This whole business of how an alliance adapts itself for a peacekeeping operation is critical. The Russians are here as part of this exercise. They're no longer an adversary, so we really need to think through this world we currently live in. This is also part of the realization that we now live in a much smaller world," he says.
The significance of the exercise goes beyond the practical exchange of skills and enhanced readiness, says Halldor Asgrimsson, Iceland's minister of foreign affairs. "The importance of Cooperative Safeguard is not confined to its value as a disaster relief exercise. It also has great political significance as a practical manifestation of the intimate cooperation and friendly relationship that has developed among former adversaries through the Partnership for Peace program.
"This important partnership has truly served the whole of Europe in making it more stable and secure than ever before. We must see to it that this important partnership continues to flourish."