Military Exercises: What Are They?

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It seems like half the countries in Europe are engaged in military exercises this month, with forces from Russia, NATO, the United States and various Eastern European nations all practicing for a real-life conflict that may or may not take place. In February, military leaders say, U.S. troop exercises in South Korea and Thailand sent a message to potential rivals there -- North Korea and China -- about U.S. readiness to protect its allies.

With names like "Rapid Trident (Ukraine)," "Steadfast Jazz (Poland)" and "Shared Resilience" (Bosnia), these maneuvers can involve just a few U.S. troops or hundreds of ships, planes and personnel.

But what do these exercises really prove? In the era of computer simulations, spy satellites and remotely-operated drone weapons, do armies really need to roll across the countryside and capture the blue team's flag?

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Absolutely, says Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Arlington, Va.-based Lexington Institute and a military analyst.

"The United States spends as much on advanced military technology as the rest of the world combined," Thompson said. "The main value is to refine how our very capable force can coordinate in wartime with forces that are less well equipped."

"Ideally you want a military exercise to mimic relationships of a real war," Thompson said.

Exercises are usually planned months or years in advance and are designed to keep soldiers trained on the latest equipment and technology and to give U.S. commanders a chance to work alongside other nation's military leaders, from generals down to enlisted officers. But sometimes exercises carry a more political message.

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That may explain the arrival Monday of company-sized units (150 soldiers each) dispatched to the small Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, as well as Poland. The unscheduled training is focused on "small unit and leader training," according to a release from the U.S. Army in Europe. These nations are also former satellites of the Soviet Union, and have a reason to worry about events in Ukraine.

On the other side of the globe, about 1,000 soldiers are participating in "Angkor Sentinel" along with members of the Royal Cambodian Army with a focus on humanitarian missions in southeast Asia.

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