CORONAVIRUS: Defender Europe downsized. A new role for NATO?

(To Maurizio Geri)
23/03/20

NATO has decided to downsize the exercise Defend Europe 20, scheduled for next month, due to the Corona Virus emergency. The European American Command (EUCOM) stopped all personnel and equipment movements from the United States to Europe on March 13, reducing the objectives and scope of the military exercise, but not its strategic value.

Defender Europe, which will take place between April 20 and May 20, was to be the NATO exercise with the largest deployment of perhaps 20.000 Americans on European territory in the past 25 years. The primary goal of the tutorial is to “train and build greater preparedness to discourage potential external threats across the continent”, Therefore a target of deterrence.

On the American side, the aim is also to demonstrate "strategic readiness", that is, the ability to move and make an entire division operational to protect Europe, and in particular the small Baltic countries, from a possible Russian military intervention. The ability to deploy a combat force in Europe therefore has the main purpose of reassuring Eastern European countries and strengthening the US commitment in times of "isolation" of American power, but also to reaffirm to European allies the need to maintain the efforts required by a force such as the Atlantic, guaranteeing the commitments made, including the economic ones (in particular 2% of the GDP as defense expenditure1).

It is therefore an operation that does not aim at any provocation towards Russia, as has been recently insinuated into the various conspiracy theories and fake news appeared on social media. Also because Russia has done far more impressive exercises than NATO (the last two years ago, the Vostok 2018 with 300.000 men - photos) and, so to speak, at the time of the Cold War on the European front there were 70.000 stationed Americans.

The initial idea of Defender Europe was to have a total of 37.000 soldiers: in addition to eight thousand Europeans and nine thousand Americans already present in Europe, the USA would have sent 20.000 other soldiers (in addition to 20,000 pieces of equipment) but given the downsizing, there will be only six thousand soldiers from the USA and three thousand pieces of equipment (in addition to other nine thousand vehicles and pieces of equipment that will be used but which are already stationed in Europe). European soldiers will instead arrive from 17 instead of the 18 countries envisaged: Italy has obviously canceled its participation, employing its military personnel for the health emergency (v.articolo).

Although the deal will now be curtailed, however, the chief of staff of the U.S. Army, Gen. James McConville said that "strategic readiness has already been demonstrated”, With the ability to deploy American forces quickly and to perform efficient exercises with the Allies. In addition, learning was also about adapting the plans, with the ability to resize the deployment, and then use some units for other objectives and positioning.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg confirming the importance of completing Defender Europe, he also encouraged the Allies to keep their promises on military spending, despite the economic shock that will be produced by the pandemic crisis, also for the role that the military can play precisely during this type of crisis.

In many NATO states, recalled the secretary general, the armed forces are giving support, providing logistics, border control, and medical support with military hospitals and medical supplies.

The case Italian is the one where the army is playing a major role for this crisis, given that in addition to supporting the police with the many checkpoints against moving citizens, it is setting up two field hospitals in the shortest possible time in Piacenza and Crema in the province of Cremona, and supporting national health structures with Army doctors and nurses. Even the United States is helping Italy, recently for example, have airborne a mobile system for the treatment of patients from Germany to the Aviano base (En-Route Patient Staging System-ERPSS) which can receive up to 40 patients for 24 hours.

This could in fact be a key point in the use of the armed forces towards these new global threats, which as recently written the former Supreme Allied Commander Transformation NATO, Admiral James Stavridis, can play a crucial role in defending against increasingly insidious and complex threats, such as biological or natural disasters, in addition to the classic conventional, hybrid and irregular threats.

Maybe NATO, like recently commented, he really should think of a NBC (Nuclear, Biological and Chemical) tutorial afterwards Defender Europe, given that the future will be characterized more and more by these challenges, even more serious than what now seem to be mild conventional or even cyber threats.

1 The US covers around 70% of NATO's total spending, but it is also true that America spends 3.4% of its GDP on defense, with a budget of 728 billion dollars in 2019 (China which is second spends about 250).

Photo: US Army / MoD Russian Fed / US Air Force