NATO military exercise, Defender Europe 20, threatened by coronavirus; China comes to the aid of Italy

NATO’s biggest military exercise for over 25 years ‘Defender Europe 20’ is getting underway with 20,000 US troops due to participate in the United States’s largest deployment to Europe in over quarter of a century. With 18 countries involved totalling 37,000 troops, the exercise is due to take place in Germany, Poland and the Baltic states from 20 April to 20 May 2020, with personnel and equipment movements occurring from February through July 2020. However, the coronavirus (COVID-19) threat has already forced the military to alter other major exercises because of health concerns, raising questions about the feasibility of continuing with Defender Europe as planned.

The United States has already confirmed that it will reduce the number of personnel taking part in the exercise over coronavirus concerns. In a statement, US European Command said: "After careful review of the ongoing Defender-Europe 20 exercise activities and in light of the current coronavirus outbreak, we will modify the exercise by reducing the number of US participants”. The Pentagon is spending about $360 million on the effort, which is reminiscent of Cold War-era ‘Return of Forces to Germany’ exercises. The Russian broadcaster, RT, contemptuously suggested that the exercise is at risk of being “sneezed off”.

The US decision to reduce its commitment to the exercise may have been influenced by the top US army general in Europe, Lt. Gen. Christopher G. Cavoli’s earlier potential exposure to the coronavirus. This occured during a meeting on 6 March at his Wiesbaden headquarters, where NATO land commanders were gathered to discuss plans for the exercise, the service said on 10 March. The general and several staff members are now in self-quarantine. Twenty-four senior military representatives from NATO and partner countries attended the meeting, which also considered “proactive steps nations and military forces are taking to prevent the spread of [coronavirus] during the exercise”, US Army Europe said in a statement shortly after the meeting.

Elsewhere within the alliance, in a statement on 9 March, it was confirmed that one NATO staff member working at NATO HQ in Brussels had tested positive for COVID-19. NATO said that it was closely monitoring the outbreak and that all NATO allies have taken preventative measures.

On 5 March NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg had said that the alliance would press ahead with large-scale military exercises, including Defender Europe 20. But a number of non-NATO military exercises have already been cancelled or postponed in South Korea and Israel, and since then U.S.-led multinational exercises in Africa have been scaled back over the coronavirus concerns. Similarly, Norway’s armed forces cancelled the Cold Response military exercise on 10 March that was meant to gather 15,000 NATO and allied soldiers. “The coronavirus is out of control,” the head of the Norwegian army’s operations centre, Rune Jakobsen, told reporters on 11 March. “We would rather preserve our army’s combat capabilities so we can support society in the turbulent period to come”.

At the NATO Leaders’ Meeting in December 2019, the rise of China was addressed for the first time. The London Declaration recognised China’s growing influence and international policies and suggested that these “present both opportunities and challenges that we need to address together as an alliance”. The United States, in particular, has been in growing strategic competition with China. However, at a time when Italy - so far the country hardest hit in Europe by the virus - has received very little practical assistance from the EU and NATO in dealing with its coronavirus crisis, China stepped up to the plate and sent a plane carrying a team of specialist doctors and urgently needed medical equipment, including 2 million facemasks, 20,0000 protective suits and 10,000 ventilators.

NATO Watch comment: The ‘values-based’ NATO alliance should be rethinking some of its own priorities at this time. It is inconceivable that the Defender Europe exercise should take place when it risks adding to the spread of the virus. Cancellation of the exercise would also enable the alliance to focus on how it might support the civilian authorities in member states with emergency actions that are quick, concrete and effective.