- The rapid spread of the coronavirus upended the US Army-led Defender-Europe 20 exercise, which was supposed to demonstrate NATO’s improving ability to move troops and equipment around Europe.
- The exercise is continuing in a modified form, but the pandemic and its lasting effects have raised concerns that the progress NATO and the European Union have made on that mobility will be squandered.
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In late January, the US Army started moving thousands of soldiers and their equipment across the Atlantic for Defender-Europe 20, its largest exercise in Europe in 25 years. But by mid-March, Europe had locked down and the US military had halted those deployments in response to the spread of the coronavirus.
Much of the exercise has been cancelled, raising concerns that the pandemic will stifle progress US and European countries had made on their ability to move troops and equipment around Europe, which Defender-Europe was supposed to demonstrate.
US European Command said on March 13 that exercises linked to Defender-Europe would not take place, but after further assessment, the command said on May 13 that Allied Spirit, a linked exercise originally scheduled for May, would take place in smaller form between June 5 and June 19.
“What was once 10,000 soldiers is now down to 6,000 US and Polish soldiers,” Brig. Gen. Brett Sylvia, deputy commanding general for 1st Cavalry Division, said at a June 5 briefing. The US and Poland are now the only participants, and NATO’s strategic airlift capability is no longer included, Sylvia added.
Allied Spirit is meant to show that NATO members can exercise safely amid coronavirus and demonstrate that the troops involved can work together and conduct an opposed river crossing – “one of the most complex manoeuvres that any army can attempt,” Sylvia said.
Defender-Europe had much loftier goals, designed as a deployment exercise to build strategic readiness towards US and NATO objectives.
US European Command said in May that many of those readiness goals were met during the deployment process, which included the US Navy’s first convoy operation in the Atlantic since the 1980s.
While truncated, Defender-Europe still brought more than 6,000 soldiers and 3,000 pieces of equipment from the US to Europe via air and sea and saw 9,000 pieces of equipment drawn from Army prepositioned stocks on the continent.
But there are concerns that Europe’s sudden lockdown and the pandemic’s lasting effects will impede NATO efforts to restore the mobility it let wither after the Cold War.
‘Now things are much more unclear’
NATO is more than 70 years old, but the alliance only recently spread east and south. Twelve countries joined the 30-member alliance between 1999 and 2009.
With the Soviet Union’s demise, attention shifted to threats elsewhere. A 2017 internal report concluded that NATO’s ability to rapidly deploy in Europe had “atrophied,” and NATO expansion has made restoring it tougher.
“It wasn’t just that we took our eye off the ball for a while. It’s that the space we were travelling across expanded vastly from the end of the Cold War until now,” Gen. Christopher Cavoli, head of US Army Europe, said at an Atlantic Council event on April 23.
“There are additional NATO members who previously were on the other side of the Iron Curtain, and their infrastructure was unknown to us. It was unused by us. It wasn’t built for our sort of equipment necessarily,” Cavoli added.
Railways in Eastern Europe and in Western Europe are different sizes, and many Eastern European roads and bridges can’t support the heavy vehicles used by NATO militaries. Moving off-road would be complicated by the region’s many rivers, which makes opposed river crossings all the more important.
Since Russia seized Crimea in 2014, NATO militaries have increased their presence in Eastern Europe, and the alliance created a new command in southern Germany to oversee movement around the continent. The US in particular has revisited mobility methods, including road marches and offloading at long-unused ports, to show it could still access the continent in different places.
“Our ability to move rapidly across formerly unknown territory to us to a wide variety of different places quickly really, really is the operational level requirement for military mobility,” Cavoli said.
Those issues, and Russian awareness of them, have complicated NATO’s battle planning.
“During the Cold War we had very good ideas on where we thought our adversary would attack and with what sort of force, and now things are much more unclear,” Cavoli said.
‘It’s going to take some political courage’
More than three months since European countries shut their borders, many remain closed. The EU Commission has called for internal EU borders to reopen by June 15, but its external borders will be closed until at least July 1.
“It was fascinating to watch the borders go back up across the Schengen Zone almost immediately,” Cavoli, referring to the EU’s free-travel area.
“But how we come out of it as an alliance, with the European Union, is going to be going to be very important,” Cavoli said, adding that it “could be easy to see” a future where mobility improvements “get left behind.”
“I think it’s going to require a great deal of attention and some political will on all of our parts to make sure that mobility reassumes that track that it was on,” Cavoli said.
NATO and the EU have made progress on mobility jointly and separately, through both infrastructure improvements and changes to regulations to ease cross-border movement.
“We’ve worked really together with the EU member states and of course with … NATO to define a common set of military requirements for infrastructure to really to see … what will be required when we invest in civilian infrastructure and what would be the additional military requirements,” Maja Bakran Marcich, European Commission deputy director-general, said during the Atlantic Council event in April.
But the two organisations and their members still have differing views on mobility, priorities for it, and the resources it needs, which is on display as the EU plans its budget for the 2021-2027 period.
EU defence spending was already facing downward pressure before the pandemic, which is expected to push more money to non-military priorities – though a proposal in late May included more than expected for the EU’s flagship defence programs: military mobility and the European Defence Fund, the latter meant to foster defence cooperation.
Patrick Turner, NATO’s assistant secretary general for defence policy and planning, said at the Atlantic Council event that NATO investment in mobility “does not stand or fall” on whether the EU funds dual-use infrastructure.
“We very much welcome that investment, but a lot of investment in enablement expenditure – air fields, mobility requirements, logistic requirements, supply requirements – goes in through the NATO defence planning process and through NATO common budgets,” Turner said.
NATO’s common funding, which members provide based on a cost-sharing formula, supports NATO’s main budgets: the civil budget to run NATO headquarters; the military budget for its command structure; and NATO’s Security Investment Program, which covers major construction and command and control systems.
While NATO can undertake certain infrastructure projects, like prepositioned stocks, it can’t pursue broader mobility needs, according to Ben Hodges, who commanded the US Army in Europe from 2015 until his retirement in 2017.
“When it comes to bridges and highways and rail and expanding seaports and airports, they don’t have the resources to do that. That’s why the EU is the critical player here,” Hodges said in a May interview.
Individual NATO members’ defence spending, which has been a point of contention with the US, is likely to be affected by the pandemic, as governments move resources away from the military.
But those governments may find that assets needed for mobility in a crisis, like a pandemic, can also support military mobility, noted Hodges, who is now the Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Centre for European Policy Analysis.
“I’ve heard some people say, ‘Well, I guess this is the end of the military mobility.’ Absolutely not. Of course there will be some downward pressure on budgets because nations are looking at how do they rebuild their economies, but the thing is that the same threats that were there six months ago are going to be there six months from now,” Hodges said.
“It’s going to take some political courage by our elected officials to tell their populations, ‘Look, the threats are still there.’ Now maybe we find ways to achieve improved mobility as a part of deterrence because it also helps in dealing with other crises.”
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