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From The Baltic To Black Seas, Defender Exercise Goes Big, With Hefty Price Tag

The US Army is shipping 20,000 troops and their tanks to Europe in a major test of its ability to move bulk (relatively) quickly. NATO allies are helping clear the way.
WASHINGTON: In February, 20,000 soldiers from bases across the United States will begin boarding planes and loading gear on ships ships headed for Europe, where they’ll spend months taking part in the largest deployment of US forces to the continent in a quarter century.

The series of linked exercises will run the gamut from tactical live-fire drills to division-level operations and include an effort to build a battlefield network usable by all NATO allies in the event of a conflict. The ambitious drills, dubbed Defender 2020, will take place with 17,000 troops pulled from European armies who will extend their logistics trains and communications lines from the Baltic to the Black Seas. 

Army leaders and allies describe the massive exercise as “a little bit of everything,” as Chief of the Polish armed forces, Gen. Rajmund Andrzejczak told me recently. “A little bit of national regulation, a little bit of crisis, a little bit of high intensity, cyber, conventional, national, bilateral, NATO, everything. We have to accept we’re living in a complex security environment.” 

Moving and sustaining thousands of troops for months at a time, along with their tanks and armored vehicles, will cost the US about $340 million, US Army Europe officials said. That price tag might raise eyebrows in the Oval Office, where President Trump has long railed against the high costs shouldered by Washington in basing troops overseas. US officials say that the allies are picking up their own tabs in the multinational drills.

“We make every effort to prudently use taxpayer dollars to ensure that this event supports the U.S. government’s goals and interests,” US Army Europe said in a statement. A spokesperson also pointed out that planning for Defender “is already spurring strategic investments in host countries. For example, Lithuania is improving their rail system and Deutsche Bahn has invested in additional heavy rail cars ahead of the exercise.”

To this point, military exercises in Europe haven’t suffered the fate of US/South South Korean cooperation in the Pacific, where Trump has ordered a few military drills curtailed in an attempt to push forward negotiations with North Korea over denuclearization. The North has yet to bite and continues to test new rockets regularly, while US commanders admit that the readiness of American and ROK troops may have atrophied, even if slightly.

Last year’s Trident Juncture exercise in Norway was the NATO alliance largest since the end of the Cold War, and came off without any griping from the White House.

Brig. Gen. Sean Bernabe, deputy chief of operations at US Army Europe, recently told reporters on a conference call that during the exercises, they’ll loop in key headquarters from NATO like the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps and Multinational Corps Northeast to “allow them to practice commanding and controlling large-scale ground combat operations in simulation or in microcosm live exercises,” in order to build readiness for NATO as a whole.

Some US units, like the 116th Armored Brigade Combat Team of the Idaho Army National Guard will fall in on prepositioned stocks already in Europe, while others, like the 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division will load their Abrams tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and howitzers on ships bound for Bremerhaven, Germany. From there, the soldiers will link up with their gear “and then continue to move that equipment across the continent,” Bernabe said. 

Much of the heavy gear will move along the roads at night, he added, so as to not interfere with civilian traffic. 

Under Defender, the 1st Cavalry Division will lead a division-sized exercise at Poland’s Drawsko Pomorskie Training Area in northwestern Poland, a key part of Warsaw’s increasingly close relationship with Washington. As part of a recent deal with the Trump administration, Poland eagerly agreed to host another 1,000 US troops on a rotational basis in the coming years on top of the 4,500 who already operate in the country. 

Gen. Andrzejczak said while the Americans want to exercise how to project a divisional size element across the Atlantic, for Poland the most important piece is “how to absorb such a big role as well as how to synchronize a mission command system” for a multi-national force. The simultaneous, Polish-led Exercise Anaconda “will be our approach to test ourselves how to absorb the big American component, while still being responsible nationally.”

Beyond what Defender 2020 tells US military planners about mobility and logistics, Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies told me that it will also “help identify the ‘bugs’ in the European commercial logistics networks, which range from space to commercial rail systems to Chinese port control of select European ports.” Experts are also looking for any Russian disinformation activities around Defender 2020, along with any potential electronic warfare activities such as the GPS jamming that was prevalent during Trident Juncture.