NATO scales back exercises due to coronavirus

22 March 2020

NATO is scaling down military exercises in Europe to curb the spread of the coronavirus, and warns of “severe consequences” for member states economies.

“Some of our exercises have been modified or cancelled ... but our forces remain ready,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told a video news conference on 19 March, during the release of his Annual Report.

The US Army has already announced a halt to movement of military personnel from the United States to Europe and said Defender Europe 20 exercises (see NATO Watch comment), billed as NATO’s biggest war games in Europe since the Cold War, had been “slowed”. Air Force Gen. Tod D. Wolters, head of US European Command, said. "We've had to cancel some exercises that were live-play exercises that extended out of Poland and that extended outside of Germany”. But he added, "We've been able to get 30% or 40% accomplished, and as time goes on between now and the middle of May, and we continue to fine tune the number of forces that we have, we'll be able to get part-task training completed to the point to where, at least from a large exercise like Defender Europe 20, we'll wind up with a 40% to 45% readiness gain as a result of what we're able to do".

About 35 confirmed cases of coronavirus, have been detected among the 72,000 US troops in Europe and another 2,600 personnel are in self-isolation after returning from travel or possibly for other reasons.

Stoltenberg encouraged NATO countries to maintain their military spending despite the economic shock of the virus outbreak: “We have to remember that when NATO Allies decided to invest more in defence, they did so because we live in a more uncertain, more unpredictable world, and therefore we need to invest more in defence. This has not changed. So, I expect allies to stay committed to investing more in our security”, he said.

Stoltenberg said there had been no reports of infections of the disease among members of NATO’s military mission in Afghanistan and that troops would continue to come home as agreed under a US peace deal with the Taliban last month. The head of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan said on 19 March that there was a temporary pause in new troops moving into the country, however. Additionally, 1,500 service members, civilians and contractors who arrived within the past week have been quarantined as a precaution.

NATO’s train-and-advise mission in Afghanistan will draw down to around 12,000 personnel from 16,000 over the next 135 days, Stoltenberg said, although this he added would depend on the Taliban continuing to reduce violence.