By Adrian Croft
DRAWSKO POMORSKIE, Poland (Reuters) - NATO plans to sharply increase the size of its exercises in Europe in coming years to ensure allies keep working smoothly together despite winding down combat operations in Afghanistan, senior NATO commanders said on Thursday.
More than 40,000 soldiers may take part in war games planned for Spain and Portugal in 2015, according to U. S. Army Lieutenant-General Frederick Hodges, NATO's land forces commander.
That is far bigger than the 6,000 soldiers taking part in a major NATO exercise this week in Poland and the Baltic states showing the alliance refocusing on its core task of defending its territory as it winds down its role in the Afghan war.
"This kind of exercise, this sort of complexity, is going to be the norm," Hodges said after watching troops from Poland, Romania, Estonia and other NATO nations take part in a live fire exercise on a rain-soaked firing range in northwestern Poland.
Land, air, naval and special forces from 20 NATO countries are involved in the November 2-9 "Steadfast Jazz" exercise, designed to test NATO's ability to defend an ally if it comes under attack.
NATO forces fired shells from artillery, mortars and tanks as they repelled imaginary invaders during Thursday's maneuvers, setting off a chain of explosions that sent black smoke swirling across the sky.
NATO officials deny that the exercise is intended to beef up the alliance's defenses against Russia, but Russian officials have voiced concern about NATO staging a big exercise so close to their western border.
Officials from the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, who were alarmed by a much larger Russian exercise in September, have been reassured by the NATO maneuvers and the alliance's new focus on defending its home turf.
Despite lingering suspicions, particularly over NATO's planned missile defense system, NATO and Russia work together in areas such as counter-terrorism. Russian observers were on hand to watch the NATO exercise.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Thursday he did not rule out Russia and NATO one day holding joint military exercises. "Why not?" he told reporters.
Staging exercises with tens of thousands of soldiers is expensive and each nation involved has to pay for most of its expenses. So persuading allies to pay for large-scale exercises could be a challenge at a time when many Western nations are slashing defense budgets following the financial crisis.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)