NATO will press ahead with large-scale military exercises mobilizing thousands of troops despite worries about the coronavirus, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told AFP on Wednesday, March 4.
The 29-member alliance has more than 20 exercises planned this year, and will take part in the U.S.-led Defender-Europe 20, which will see 20,000 troops deployed from the United States to Europe.
Stoltenberg said NATO was making contingency plans in case of a significant outbreak, but for now exercises would go ahead as planned.
“We are of course monitoring and following the situation very closely because this potentially has consequences also for NATO,” he said in an interview in Croatia’s capital Zagreb, where he attended a meeting of European Union defense ministers.
“No cancellation of exercises, but this is something we will assess as the situation evolves. We are ready to to step up the efforts and step up the measures we are implementing,” he added.
Italy – the European country worst hit by COVID-19, with more 2,500 laboratory-confirmed cases and 80 deaths according to World Health Organisation data for March 4 – is currently hosting NATO’s Dynamic Manta submarine warfare exercise, involving 10 allied nations.
It is also set to host a five-day electronic warfare exercise starting on Sunday.
Visitor access to NATO headquarters in Brussels has been restricted, Stoltenberg said, and military commanders have been given advice on limiting the spread of the virus.
“And of course we have plans in place for business continuity, if we, for instance, have many cases in the NATO command structure or NATO headquarters,” he added.
Largest deployment from the US to Europe for more than 25 years
Defender-Europe 20 and six other linked exercises in April and May will see the largest deployment of U.S.-based forces to Europe for an exercise in the more than 25 years. The exercises will involve more than 37,000 participants, including 20,000 troops from the continental U.S. as well as 9,000 U.S. service members based in Europe. Around 8,000 soldiers from other countries will also participate in the exercise, including almost 3,000 from Poland.
With troop and equipment deployments underway since early February, Defender-Europe 20 takes place until June in six European states – Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – all of which have reported COVID-19 cases.
According to World Health Organization data on confirmed coronavirus cases, Lithuania and Latvia have reported a single case each, Estonia has reported two cases and Poland reported its first case on Wednesday. Local transmission of the virus has been reported in the Netherlands (28 total cases) and Germany (196 cases).
Germany’s Health Minister Jens Spahn said on Wednesday that the coronavirus outbreak has “become a global pandemic,” and warned that worse was to come.
The WHO has so far stopped short of declaring a pandemic – an epidemic that spreads throughout the world through local transmission.
“The situation is changing very quickly,” Spahn told German lawmakers. “What’s clear is that we have not yet reached the peak of the outbreak.”
U.S. troops are traveling to Europe from more than 20 states, including some with reported confirmed and presumptive coronavirus cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Deployments to Europe from affected states include active personnel from Washington, Georgia and North Carolina; reserves from California, Arizona and Illinois; and National Guard from Arizona, Florida, Oregon and New York.
The Defense Post has asked U.S. Army Europe about risk mitigation procedures in place to prevent coronavirus transmission from the U.S. to Europe.
Last week, the U.S. and South Korean militaries postponed forthcoming joint exercises due to coronavirus. South Korea as of March 4 had more than 5,300 confirmed cases, according to the WHO.
With reporting from AFP