NOVO SELO, Bulgaria --- The U.S. military has stood guard in Europe and supported European security since the end of World War II. But defense leaders say its role is evolving as the role of European partner nations in regional defense preparedness grows.
The annual multinational Saber Guardian exercise showcases this trend, said Brig. Gen. Timothy Daugherty, U.S. Army Europe's deputy chief of staff for operations, who noted that the exercise is transitioning from being a "U.S.-centric" activity to a more "NATO-centric" one.
"It is a collective movement forward," he said. "I think the next phase is to make it more NATO-centric and less U.S. Army Europe-centric so that a lot of this is being driven from a NATO perspective."
Saber Guardian is an annual combat-training exercise involving U.S. Army Europe and the armed forces of NATO allies and partner nations at numerous locations in the Black Sea region. The first Saber Guardian took place in Romania in 2013 as a staff exercise, and it has grown in scope each year as more nations join and commit larger numbers of troops.
This month, more than 25,000 personnel -- 14,000 from the United States and 11,000 from 21 nations across Europe -- took part in Saber Guardian. By comparison, Saber Guardian 2016 featured nine participating nations and 2,800 troops.
Its command headquarters has grown as well, and has diversified. Daugherty said Saber Guardian operated last year with a headquarters of about 40 personnel, all of them from U.S. Army Europe. This year, the headquarters staff is around 350, and more than half are from European partner nations.
"NATO is much more receptive -- and driving the train, even -- on Saber Guardian this year," he said. "The exercise is much more NATO-centric, and a more joint and holistic view of the way NATO fights than it was last year. I think next year it will be even better."
He said he would next like to see a NATO facility serve as Saber Guardian's command headquarters and have all of the exercise's operational structures feed into it: "Instead of putting something together, let's use a framework that's already there," Daugherty said.
The general explained that the U.S. military will continue to facilitate large-scale training programs in Europe. But the programs will expand and become more Europe-driven as partner nations join and progressively take up more of the heavy lifting.
Romania, for its part, has upped its troop commitment, said Brig. Gen. Gheorghe Visan, commander of the Romanian army's 2nd Infantry Division. Romanian military leaders are striving to enhance Romania's own defense capabilities and make it a stronger regional security force in its own right, he said.
"We increased the level of ambition for this type of exercise. And we have connected it with some of our regional training exercises," Visan said. "We have to demonstrate that our army forces are able to combine and demonstrate credible deterrent and defeating capabilities."
NATO provided a major impetus for increasing Saber Guardian's ambitions last year when, following a summit in Warsaw, NATO leaders decided to establish "tailored forward presences" -- consisting of amassed forces of alliance troops -- in Romania and Bulgaria, along with "enhanced forward presences" of similar size and scope in Poland and the Baltic states. For the forces in Bulgaria and Hungary, Saber Guardian became a training ground in the skills of combining their joint forces effectively and quickly in a crisis, officials said.
"The alliance said it is important to address possible threats in the Black Sea region," said Army Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, U.S. Army Europe's commander, during a July 20 news conference at Novo Selo Training Area in Bulgaria. Hodges was present that day to witness Bulgarian, U.S., Georgian and Greek forces conduct a live-fire exercise in which helicopters, armor, artillery and infantry coordinated a mass assault.
Hodges praised the commitment of Bulgaria and every other participating nation and noted that the U.S. presence in the live-fire exercise was "actually quite small," consisting of only 14 U.S. armored vehicles amid an otherwise all-European joint combined force. European participation and firepower in Saber Guardian and other regional exercises have grown by remarkable degrees, he added.
"Frankly, even I was surprised by the way this thing has evolved. And that's what we want. The alliance is 29-member nations, not the U.S. plus a bunch of other contributors," he said.
The general added that he hopes NATO's involvement in the exercises might continue to grow in years to come. Ideally, he said, the exercises and NATO's own exercises might integrate with each other.
"I anticipate [by] next summer, we'll have learned from this one and we'll continue to get even more synchronized between national exercises and alliance exercises," Hodges said. "That's what we would all prefer."