UDINE, Italy -- The European Union's major Battle Group will this month launch a key exercise in Italy ahead of a six-month tour of duty as it expands its membership to five European countries.
Troops, tanks and assault helicopters will be involved when Italy, Hungary, Slovenia, Austria and Croatia hold the exercise, dubbed "European Wind," in northern Italy in November before starting a rotation as the EU's on-call Battle Group — its third rotation to date.
The group, which was formed in 2007 by Italy, Hungary and Slovenia, is adding new members Austria and Croatia, with Albania taking observer status, resulting in an increase in troop strength to 2,500, the majority of which are Italian.
The exercise comes at an interesting moment for the Battle Group concept, which was launched a decade ago, but has failed to fully take
off as countries balk at paying for a six-month rotation when the EU has yet to deploy a formation.
That changed this year when the UK — a chief opponent of the idea of an EU defense capability — voted to leave the Union, prompting Italy, Germany and France to re-propose the concept, complete with a beefed-up headquarters in Brussels.
That drew a cautious welcome from NATO, which may see its ability to draw on member assets threatened if the EU makes demands for rival missions. Reasserting its role, NATO called on European troops to deploy to the Baltic states in a show of strength against Russia's recent aggressive posturing.
Meanwhile, the Italy-based Battle Group is picking up momentum and offering itself as a model should European leaders get serious.
"We've been doing this for years and it's bread and butter for us now," said Italian Brig. Gen. Paolo Fabbri. "If people are curious
after Brexit about EU Battle Groups, they can spend some time here."
Fabbri is commander of Italy's Giulia Brigade, based in Udine in northern Italy, which has taken a lead in the Battle Group, hosting a
permanent group of Hungarian and Slovenian officers at its HQ.
The group is a natural evolution from an existing Italo-Hungarian-Slovenian Multinational Land Force, which was set up in 2002 as a defensive response by the nations t instability in the Balkans.
That means the group is the only permanent, multinational force offered up for Battle Group duty, whereas others have come together on an ad-hoc basis.
"We are the only permanent multinational force supplying the EU Battle Groups, and that's key," said Lt. Col. Andrea Bettella, chief of staff
of Italy's Giulia army brigade, which numbers 5,000 troops. The unit has carried out tours in Afghanistan and the Balkans and specializes in mountain warfare.
When on call, Battle Groups are expected to be ready to deploy 1,500 troops within ten days up to 6,000 km from Europe. Apart from the
November training, the units making up the Italian-led Battle Group will remain in their own countries while on call during their rotation next year.
Hungarian units for the MLF and Battle Group are drawn from the army's 5th brigade, while Slovenian units hail from the country's 1st and 72nd army brigades.
The Italians may use Beretta rifles, the Hungarians upgraded AK-47s and the Slovenians' Belgian FN F2000s, but the biggest challenge is
communicating in "Combat English", said Fabbri. The MLF uses NATO standards and the EU instructed the Udine-based unit to do the same when it shifts to Battle Group duty, unless told otherwise.
The live-fire European Wind exercise will create a hypothetical intervention along a border to keep two countries apart following a fragile peace deal and provide backup to UN peacekeepers.
Italy, Hungary and Slovenia will contribute combat troops as well as military police and other support staff, while Austria and Italy
will provide helicopters, including Italian AW129 assault helicopters.
Italy will also provide its Lince vehicles, Centauro wheeled tanks, while Hungary will provide BTR80 armored vehicles, and Slovenia will use its Valuk armored vehicles.
Mortars, howitzers and a Stinger battery will also be deployed.