WASHINGTON — As the last portions of the altered Defender 2020 exercise kick into gear, the U.S. Army is beginning to plan its 2021 edition, a top general said Thursday.
Speaking at a Defense News virtual panel on trans-Atlantic alliances Brig. Gen. Sean Bernabe, deputy commander of U.S. Army Europe, expressed confidence that Defender 2021 will be able to happen despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“We’ve been continuing to look forward now that we’ve gained some confidence that we can train large-scale, collective [military exercises] in this environment,” Bernabe said. “We’ve been looking further and further forward. As we speak, we’re planning exercise Defender Europe 2021, to take place in the late spring, early summer of 2021, focused in the Black Sea and Balkans.”
Planning “is underway, again informed by our experiences between March and June. Having validated that we can do it, we’re confident that we’ll figure it out in partnership with our allies,” he added. “I feel confident that we will [be able to] maintain readiness and interoperability across Europe, despite COVID, regardless of how long it may be a part of our operating environment.”
Bernabe predicted the 2021 exercise will likely be smaller than 2020′s planned version, which should be no surprise.
Defender 2020 was billed as the third-largest military exercise in Europe since the end of the Cold War, a major test of the United States’ ability to move stateside forces to locations across Europe, including Poland, the Baltics, some Nordic nations and Germany. A total of 20,000 soldiers were expected to participate.
However, the COVID-19 outbreak forced the Army to hit pause on the exercise in March just as it was starting. Several smaller, related drills were canceled outright, and U.S. forces were sent back home. A smaller associated exercise picked up again in June.
Bernabe’s comments came just hours before the Army announced that a combined arms battalion would deploy to Europe between July 14 and Aug. 22 as part of the “final phase” of the modified Defender 2020 exercise.
The deployment will involve 550 soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division out of Fort Hood, Texas, with the 1st Cavalry Division Headquarters in Poznan, Poland, serving as mission command.
Approximately 55 Abrams tanks and Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles will take part. The tanks will be equipped with the Trophy active protection system so the Army can “assess and experience the dynamics of moving and installing the system in a field environment.”
At the end of June, the European Union put citizens of the United States on a list of countries barred from traveling to EU member states due to the continued spread of COVID-19. However, military movements are exempt from that rule, and Bernabe believes the Army has a good plan in place for the intake of forces into Europe.
“To be good neighbors, we are using some very, I’d say, aggressive approaches to make sure that we are screening and testing for COVID as personnel arrive,” he said. “Make sure that we’re putting in the mandatory 14 days’ [quarantine], making sure that we continue screening, we wear masks, we practice physical distancing to make sure that we’re not bringing infection into Europe while we focus on maintaining the military readiness.
“So thankfully we’ve worked with our host nations to continue to flow personnel into and out of Europe.”
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.