STUTTGART, Germany --- U.S. European Command has been a presence in Europe for more than 65 years. But its missions change -- sometimes dramatically -- when new developments in the region call for a new approach.
Eucom faced one such development in 2014, when conflict erupted in Ukraine and both U.S. and European military leaders shared concerns that similar conflicts might emerge elsewhere in Europe.
Preparing for this scenario became a top priority for Eucom and its European allies and partners, who have been collaborating on joint warfighting-training exercises across Eastern Europe and the Black Sea region every year to the present day.
Focus on Deterrence
"In 2014, the strategic environment changed in Europe, with the illegal annexation of Crimea and the crisis in Ukraine. So we had to re-look at what Eucom's role was in this theater," said Marine Corps Col. Mark Van Skike, chief of joint training and exercises for Eucom. "The reality is we've been a command that's been focused on assurance of our allies and partners. And we are transitioning to a command focused on deterrence."
Eucom and its European counterparts jointly carry out 18 annual exercises in the Black Sea region under the auspices of Eucom's Joint Exercise Program. Locations for these exercises range from Poland, Romania, Hungary, and Bulgaria to the Baltic states, Ukraine, and Georgia, among others. Each is independently run, but all pursue mutual objectives of strengthening alliances, building force capabilities and interoperability, and presenting a strong united force designed to deter regional aggression.
Each exercise features personnel from the United States and multiple European partner nations. And most involve combined groups of land, air, and sometimes naval forces joining together to practice coordinated offensive and defensive actions in battlefield settings.
One exercise, Getica Saber, concluded July 15 in Cincu, Romania. Armor and artillery units from U.S. Army Europe and Romania's 2nd Infantry Division trained together in the live-fire exercise, along with soldiers from Montenegro, Ukraine, Croatia, and Armenia. The units practiced providing coordinated ground cover for a hypothetical allied infantry or armor force in the field.
Sharing Ideas, Experiences
"My country's forces and my comrades-in-arms from the U.S. Army are here to share their ideas and experiences and to improve together our operational procedures, as well as mutual understanding," said Romanian army Brig. Gen. Gheorge Visan. "We train to integrate our soldiers and to be more maximally effective at all levels."
Seventeen other Black Sea region exercises reinforce these objectives. The largest is Saber Guardian, a combined effort of 25,000 military personnel from the U.S. and 22 other partner nations. It ran July 11-20 and consists of combat training activities in Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary.
Exercise Swift Response took place July 13-23 in locations in Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania. It featured combined forces of airborne personnel training in air assaults and rapid deployment into combat-scenario areas.
A third exercise, Sea Breeze, focused on maritime security. About 25,000 troops from the United States, Ukraine and nine other nations conducted naval exercises July 10-22 in the Black Sea.
Special operations forces had their own concentrated training exercise in Hungarian-led Black Swan. U.S. and allied special operations forces from Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Poland and Slovenia, as well as paratroopers from U.S. Army Europe's 173rd Airborne Brigade, practiced executing missions to support conventional forces June 26-July 22.
Special Operations, Conventional Forces Interoperability
Interoperability among special operations units and conventional forces is a critical theme for Eucom's exercises, said Army Col. Jeff Shoemaker, chief of training, readiness and exercises for U.S. Army Europe. Shoemaker said Eucom and its European partners are working to ensure they have a combined coalition force presence that can deploy and respond quickly and efficiently in a crisis.
"We're going to combine all of our different elements of our firepower to work together to destroy the enemy," he said. "And we want to do that in a multifunctional environment. We're never going to fight by ourselves."
Saber Guardian began as a staff exercise in 2013 in Cincu, but initially did not involve live fire, said Timothy Lemley, the lead U.S. Army Europe exercise planner for Saber Guardian.
"It was combat training, but it was for the headquarters staff versus the soldiers," he said.
Van Skike said that the command was operating at the time with a training budget that had shrunk 50 percent since 2008, and its activities were geared toward peacetime alliance-building, security assurance, and enabling the United States' European partners to deter regional challenges. All of this changed with the aggressive activities that occurred in Crimea in 2014, he said. European military leaders elsewhere in Europe expressed concern that armed incursions into their own countries' territories might be possible in the future and would require preparation now.
The U.S. responded with a thorough revamp of Eucom's mission. 'The command led the formation of a new five-year plan and "north-south" exercise construct designed to achieve greater joint/combined training and interoperability that made combat training and armed deterrence top priorities.
"Our joint exercise program is, we believe, a pathway to a warfighting command," Van Skike said. "Through a joint exercise program, we are more able to increase the readiness of our joint forces, increase capability and interoperability with our NATO allies and European partners in order to allow us to exercise our theatre campaign plan, be prepared for contingency plans, and respond more quickly and rapidly, and have the agility to respond to the current environment."
Eucom's partners' investments in the Black Sea region exercises have expanded markedly, as well, Visan said. Romania's land forces have connected some of their regional training exercises with Getica Saber and Saber Guardian over the years and have adapted Romanian army training objectives to "build the objectives established by U.S. Army Europe" this year, he noted.
"It's very important to have the U.S. Army soldiers here. This could be and should be a very good training opportunity for us to deepen our countries' relationships on different levels, in order to improve and tailor our forward presence as well as our regional capabilities," Visan said. "Training with the U.S. soldiers and other allied nations' soldiers will be a catalyst to increase the force rotational presence throughout the Black Sea region."