Massive US Military Exercise in Europe Is Still a Go, Despite Travel Restrictions

KYIV, Ukraine—Due to the
coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. military has plans to scale back, but not
cancel, its biggest military exercise in Europe in 25 years.

Some
20,000 U.S. troops were slated to deploy to Europe and back this spring for the
Defender-Europe 20 exercise, which was to last through May and take place in 10
European countries.

U.S.
European Command said on Thursday that “in light of the current coronavirus
outbreak” it was “reducing” the number of U.S. participants in Defender-Europe
20.

“We take
the Coronavirus outbreak seriously and are confident that by making this
important decision we’ll continue to do our part to prevent the further spread
of the virus,” U.S.
European Command officials said in a statement.

That announcement followed
President Donald Trump’s Wednesday address to the nation in which he announced
restrictions on travel from Europe in a bid to limit the spread of COVID-19,
the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

“We can
always do another Defender. Right now public health concerns ought to take
priority,” said James Jay Carafano, vice president for The Heritage
Foundation’s Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy.

Triage

As of
Friday, the Pentagon had not yet specified the revised number of U.S.
participants in Defender-Europe 20. 

However,
Europe is now registering more new coronavirus cases than any other global
region, raising concerns about the wisdom of going forward with the exercise,
albeit on a smaller scale than originally planned.

“The
virus is the culprit. Leaders must take prudent action now to preserve the
force structure required to respond to a crisis should we need to,” said John
Venable, senior research fellow for defense policy at The Heritage Foundation.

“Without
an exercise, we could still deploy to fight,” Venable told The Daily Signal.
“It would be ugly, but we could make it happen. We need to exercise that
process but … we can always do it another time.”

Defender-Europe
20 is a unique chance for the U.S. military to practice the logistical
challenge of deploying a large force to Europe—and then bringing everything and
everyone home. 

According
to a U.S. military statement, the exercise’s overarching objective is to
“validate” America’s ability to deploy personnel and equipment to Europe, as
well as “to test the national support of hosting nations.”

The
American forces scheduled to deploy to Europe this spring comprise units from
15 U.S. states. An additional 9,000 American military personnel already
stationed in Europe were to participate in Defender-Europe 20, as well as 8,000
troops from other allied nations. 

“Nothing
has been lost,” Carafano said of the possibility of the
exercise’s cancellation. “Even the planning to this point is something to
build on.”

The
first coronavirus case among U.S. military personnel in Europe was announced on
March 6—a sailor stationed in Naples, Italy, reportedly tested positive for the
disease.

On
Wednesday, the Pentagon announced that Norwegian officials had canceled a military
exercise called Exercise Cold Response 20, in which the U.S. was also a
participant. 

According
to a U.S.
European Command press release, the decision was “a precautionary measure in response to the
ongoing outbreak of COVID-19 and to protect the health and safety of all
participants and local population.”

Deterrence

After a
generational focus on counterinsurgency warfare in the Middle East and
Afghanistan, U.S. armed forces are spinning up for a new era of conventional
threats from other nations. 

While
U.S. military planners didn’t call out Russia by name, exercises
like Defender-Europe 20 are clearly meant to show Moscow that the U.S.
is willing and able to defend its European allies by force.

The Obama
administration announced the European Reassurance Initiative, or
ERI, in June 2014, three months after Russia illegally annexed Ukraine’s
Crimean Peninsula and launched military
operations in eastern Ukraine. 

The program
called for a buildup of U.S. military forces and equipment in Eastern and
Central Europe, as well as rotating military exercises throughout the region.

Totaling
roughly $1 billion in 2014, the ERI was meant to be a temporary measure to deter
Russia from military provocations and show NATO and its European partners that
the U.S. was committed to their defense.

However,
since taking office, the Trump administration has boosted spending for the
Obama-era program, now known as the European Deterrence Initiative,
underscoring that the
Russian threat to NATO and its European partners has not dimmed since
2014. 

With
about $6 billion pledged for the program in fiscal year 2020, the number of
American troops scheduled to rotate in and out of Europe was set to ratchet up
this year.

“This
exercise is not a one-off,” Heritage’s Carafano said of Defender-Europe
20. “This
will be the new normal. The U.S. has to demonstrate it can reinforce Europe
quickly. It’s a key component of conventional deterrence.”

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