March 17, 2020

The impact of COVID-19 on military exercises in Europe

U.S. Army Europe/Stephen Perez via AP/Scanpix
Land Force Commanders from allied NATO and partner nations with Poland's General Jaroslaw Mika, center, met to discuss the execution of DEFENDER-Europe 20 during a conference held at the Headquarters of the U.S. Army in Europe in Wiesbaden, Germany, March 6, 2020. The commander of Poland's armed forces, General Jaroslaw Mika, was diagnosed with the new coronavirus as he returned home, the Polish Defense Ministry said. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
Land Force Commanders from allied NATO and partner nations with Poland's General Jaroslaw Mika, center, met to discuss the execution of DEFENDER-Europe 20 during a conference held at the Headquarters of the U.S. Army in Europe in Wiesbaden, Germany, March 6, 2020. The commander of Poland's armed forces, General Jaroslaw Mika, was diagnosed with the new coronavirus as he returned home, the Polish Defense Ministry said. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

By mid-March, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have had a major impact on military live-exercises scheduled for the first half of 2020.

On 16 March, U.S. European Command (EUCOM) issued a press release which stated that exercise Defender-Europe 20 has been modified in size and scope. Essentially, all movement of personnel and equipment from the United States to Europe has ceased and several of the linked exercises have been cancelled. The list of cancelled exercises includes Dynamic Front (a Joint Fire exercise), Joint Warfighting Assessment (U.S. Army’s largest annual live, multinational experiment, focused on Multi-Domain Operations), Saber Strike (a combined-joint exercise to take place in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland) and Swift Response (to demonstrate the strategic employment of the Global Response Force to Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania).

A week earlier, on 11 March, Norway’s armed forces cancelled the Cold Response 20 exercise planned to involve 15,000 NATO and allied personnel because of concerns over COVID-19. The aim of Cold Response 20 was to exercise the capability to deploy large numbers of U.S. forces in support of European NATO allies and partners and to enhance allied cooperation in high-intensity warfighting in a challenging Arctic environment with rugged terrain and extreme cold weather.

The potential impact of COVID-19 on other exercises planned for late spring, including the Estonian Spring Storm and the Polish Anaconda, remains to be seen.

All in all, these important exercises were designed to improve NATO’s ability to deter and defend against Russian aggression and every one of them had a specific role in enhancing the Alliance’s military capabilities.

Currently, no information exists about the cancellation of Russian exercises. So far, Russian authorities have reported a relatively small number of people infected with the coronavirus. As often is the case with the reporting of serious incidents in Russia, news will be distorted and delayed. The Russian Armed Forces will most likely also have to eventually adapt to the pandemic.

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