The United States military is to reduce the number of U.S. participants and adjust its showcase Exercise Defender-Europe 20 over coronavirus concerns, European Command said on Wednesday, March 10.
“After careful review of the ongoing Defender-Europe 20 exercise activities and in light of the current Coronavirus outbreak, we will modify the exercise by reducing the number of U.S. participants,” EUCOM said in a release, adding that “activities associated with the exercise will be adjusted accordingly” and that the “highest priority training objectives” would be met.
“The health protection of our force, and that of our Allies and partners, is a top concern. We take the Coronavirus outbreak seriously and are confident that by making this important decision we’ll continue to do our part to prevent the further spread of the virus,” EUCOM said.
The release not specify by how much U.S. participation would be reduced.
The original plan for the U.S.-led Defender-Europe 20 and six other linked exercises in April and May would have seen the largest deployment of U.S.-based forces to Europe for an exercise in more than 25 years.
The exercises were to include more than 37,000 participants from 18 NATO member states – 20,000 troops deploying from the continental U.S. to join another 9,000 U.S. service members based in Europe and 8,000 soldiers from other countries, including almost 3,000 from Poland.
With troop and equipment deployments underway since early February, Defender-Europe 20 was scheduled to continue until June in six European states – Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – all of which have reported COVID-19 cases.
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).
A spokesperson for U.S. Army Europe told The Defense Post on March 5 that, as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, it was “monitoring the situation to mitigate the risk to the force in accordance with the latest guidance” from the CDC, World Health Organization, and EUCOM Headquarters.
“We will continue to work closely with our host nations in Europe to ensure our policies align with local and national response plans,” the spokesperson said.
Also on Wednesday, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic – an epidemic that spreads throughout the world through local transmission.
“We’re deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
U.S. President Donald Trump later on Wednesday suspended travel from Europe to the U.S. for 30 days in an effort to halt the spread of the “foreign virus,” blaming “travelers from Europe” for “a large number of new clusters in the United States.”
Just last week, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg insisted that planned exercises would go ahead, although contingency plans were being developed in case of a significant outbreak.
But on Wednesday, Norway’s armed forces cancelled Exercise Cold Response that was planned to include 15,000 NATO and allied soldiers.
Since February, a number of exercises have been cancelled in South Korea and Israel, and U.S.-led multinational exercises in Africa have been scaled back over the coronavirus concerns.