In the U.S. European Command area of responsibility, where approximately 35 cases of COVID-19 have been reported among the 72,000 service members assigned there, some participation in Exercise Defender-Europe 20 has slowed — but readiness to participate in the defense of the continent hasn't changed at all, said the Eucom commander.
"We in the military plan for tragic events like this often, and we continue to adjust not in weeks, not in months, but in days and in hours," said Air Force Gen. Tod D. Wolters, Eucom commander, who dialed into a teleconferenced press briefing at the Pentagon today. "As we currently sit, based [on] the trajectory of the virus spreading across Europe, we're in a position, based [on] the commanders in the field at all components and in all domains, to be able to sustain the current readiness posture that we have."
Wolters said planners in Eucom are preparing for "worst-case scenarios" in regard to the spread of coronavirus. A worst-case scenario, he said, might mean having to call on U.S. forces from outside Eucom to pick up the mission there. "At this point, we don't forecast that to occur, but conditions in the environment will dictate that in the future."
For now, Wolters said, he thinks Eucom will be able to handle its mission on its own and continue to effectively participate in the defense of Europe, along with partner nations.
"Based on all the factors that we've been able to embrace, we should be in a position to where we can sustain our force at a readiness level to effectively deter on [the] continent," he said.
While readiness remains, Wolters said, Exercise Defender-Europe 20 activities have been slowed. The exercise, which runs February through May of this year, is in part meant to demonstrate the U.S. military's ability to deploy a large combat force to Europe in support of both U.S. and NATO objectives there. As part of the exercise, more than 20,000 U.S. service members were expected to deploy from the U.S. to Europe.
"What we're going to wind up getting when it's all said and done is approximately 5,000 to 6,000 additional U.S. soldiers to be able to accommodate the pieces and parts of Defender-Europe 20," Wolters said. "We've had to cancel some exercises that were live-play exercises that extended out of Poland and that extended outside of Germany."
Nevertheless, Wolters said, portions of training will continue inside of Germany and Poland.
"We've been able to take the forces that we have up to this point, and we'll be in a position to where they'll get some part-task training on shoot, move and communicate within the confines of Germany and Poland," he said. "And they'll certainly get the basic gunnery training requirements filled that they need to get."
As a result of coronavirus concerns, Wolters said, Eucom will see less of Defender-Europe 20 that it had hoped — but there will still be some gains.
"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," Wolters said.
When it comes to partnerships involving the fight against coronavirus, Wolters said there's been no reduction at all. There, he said, the partnerships between the U.S. and NATO nations on the continent are strong.
"I would contend that the solidarity that I've witnessed for NATO and NATO partners has been incredibly powerful," Wolters said. "I don't think there's any shortage of energy for the nations to come forward and join hands to make sure that we're all doing all we can to beat this virus."