Thousands of troops to take part in largest US-led exercise in Europe

The U.S. Army will deploy a division headquarters, three tank brigades and thousands of other troops to Europe early next year to take part in what will be the largest American-led military exercise on the Continent in 25 years, U.S. European Command said.

Defender Europe-20, which will resemble the massive “Reforger” drills held during the Cold War era, will involve 37,000 troops, including about 20,000 American soldiers. Equipment will begin arriving in Europe in February and the exercises will be held in April and May.

Military drills will take place in 10 different nations, but the main action will happen in Germany and Poland, EUCOM said.

“Readiness is not only about having the right forces and capabilities in place throughout the theater, it’s about exercising our ability to quickly receive and integrate forces with our own and those of our allies and partners,” Lt. Gen. Christopher Cavoli, U.S. Army Europe commanding general, said in a statement. “This ability is critical in projecting force at a moment’s notice.”

During the Cold War, massive exercises, which focused on getting large numbers of troops to Europe quickly, were an essential part of preparing for a potential war with the Soviet Union. Known as Reforger, or Return of Forces to Germany exercises, the drills were a military staple that made the logistics of combat second nature for troops deployed to Europe.

But the skills needed for such large force movements slowly faded as the risk of large-scale conflict in Europe diminished after the collapse of the Soviet Union. While American military concerns have shifted to wars in the Middle East during the past two decades, Russia’s 2014 intervention in Ukraine forced the Pentagon to refocus on defending Europe and how to get American troops across an ocean in a crisis.

“A lot of those skills that the units are going to practice, loading up to go to another theater, have atrophied,” said Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Kramer, who is in charge of EUCOM exercise programs. With Defender, “You’ll have the better part of a heavy division move all their equipment and all their people, which is tremendous at the tactical level.”

Defender Europe-20 will be the culmination of a five-year push by EUCOM to reinvent itself, transforming from an organization focused on peacetime relationship building to one able to command in a conflict. As part of that effort, EUCOM has sought to make its exercises more complicated and realistic.

It will also be the largest piece of EUCOM’s 2020 war game series, with 10 major drills included across northern Europe.

“At a strategic level, we are showing resolve to any adversaries,” Kramer said.

The Army will send a fires brigade and a sustainment brigade, along with three heavy brigades and a division headquarters to Europe for the exercise. Elements from the U.S. Air Force and Marine Corps will also participate, along with troops from 18 other countries, EUCOM said.

The exercise will involve 14 air and sea ports in eight European countries: Belgium, Estonia, Georgia, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands and Poland. Expanding military access to European ports has been a focal point for the Army’s logisticians in recent years. Soldiers will come from four U.S. Army divisions and three corps along with numerous Guard and Reserve units, EUCOM said.

“Conducting tough, realistic training alongside our allies and partners in Europe” is needed to effectively fight together and “deter potential threats,” Cavoli said.

Defender 20 and linked activities will cost about $340 million, EUCOM said.

“It’s probably the biggest thing since Reforger,” Kramer said. “It’s a lot of moving pieces.”

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