After focusing almost obsessively on the Russian threat following the invasion of Ukraine, the North Atlantlic Alliance admits it cannot ignore the threats on its southern flank.
Speaking in Zaragoza, where he attended a major NATO training exercise, secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said that “the instability and risks of the southern flank are very near NATO’s borders.”
Stoltenberg and Defense Minister Pedro Morenés were on site at at the San Gregorio Training Area to witness Trident Juncture 2015, a live military demonstration of Allied forces working together and NATO’s largest exercise in over a decade.
We see many different challenges and threats to the south of the Alliance” Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg
Stoltenberg mentioned “instability and extremism in North Africa and in the Middle East” as one of the alliance’s concerns regarding the Mediterranean region.
“We see many different challenges and threats to the south of the Alliance: we see turmoil, violence, instability and failing states stretching across from Afghanistan to northern Africa,” said Stoltenberg.
The post-Arab Spring scenario, the civil war in Syria, and the presence of Al Qaeda in Mali and Islamic State in Libya, on the threshold of NATO territory, have shown that the risks on its southern border are no less real than those on the eastern front – and a lot more unpredictable.
Spanish Defense Minister Morenés said that NATO’s gaze must now “encompass a 360-degree horizon.”
Next year, Spain will be the lead nation for NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), a spearhead unit of 5,000 troops ready for immediate deployment anywhere.
The exercises, which end on Friday, are taking place in Spain, Portugal and Italy with the participation of 36,000 troops from over 30 countries, 140 aircraft and 60 ships.
There was an attempt at changing the location to Eastern Europe, to acknowledge the Russian threat, but Spain opposed the move and the United States backed it up. On Wednesday, Allied senior officers admitted that changing the location of Trident Juncture would have been a mistake.
English version by Susana Urra.
Doubling as “Cerasia”
The landscape in San Gregorio (Zaragoza) is reminiscent of the deserts of the Middle East and North Africa. The hamlet of Casas Altas, with its flat-roof adobe homes, is doubling as a set where soldiers are pretending to be insurgents holding hostages in an imaginary country called Cerasia.
Hundreds of spectators were on hand on Wednesday to watch two B-52s crossing the Aragonese sky after taking off from the US without making any stopovers. The demonstration also involved Apache, Tiger and Chinook helicopters, Abrams and Leopard tanks and over 500 US airborne troops from the 82nd Airborne Division, who flew from their home base at Fort Bragg, North Carolina to parachute drop onto the training ground.
While the scenario is not real, the benefits in terms of experience and lessons are very real, said Stoltenberg, as is the message being sent out to potential adversaries: “NATO does not seek confrontation, but we stand ready to defend all Allies.”