Week of February 21, 2020

NATO “Defender 20” Exercise
Demonstrates Trump’s Policy Change

Since before Trump was even elected, experts have openly worried that his skepticism of NATO could lead to its dissolution. Russia would take advantage of that weakness, and the security guarantees America has given its European allies for decades would fade away.

But Trump in recent days has seemingly become a NATO fan.

Despite President Trump’s threats in the past not to defend NATO countries that don’t “pay their fair share,” the US is spending more on NATO readiness and has more forces in Europe than three years ago.

Another sign of the American commitment to NATO is the current NATO exercise “Defender 20,” the largest NATO exercise, in terms of American manpower, since the Cold War.  It will deploy 20,000 American soldiers to Europe from bases in the US and test America’s ability to move from the US to the European mainland, move across Europe on highways, bridges, and railroads, and carry out military maneuvers close to the Russian border.

When these American based forces are combined with US troops already stationed in Europe and other NATO countries, the total number of forces that will be involved in the exercise will be 37,000.

Britain is the largest non-American force to take part.  Their Royal Engineers are expected to participate in the bridging operation in Poland as well as their Army Air Corps helicopters.

Unlike previous exercises in recent years that were held at brigade level, this one will deploy division level forces, including the American 82nd Airborne, the 1st Armored, 1st Infantry, 3rd Infantry, and the 1st Cavalry divisions.  It will include 15 NATO nations and two non-NATO nations (Finland and Georgia).  20,000 pieces of equipment will be shipped from the US and 13,000 pieces of pre-positioned NATO equipment will be broken out of storage in Europe.

The goal is for an American based armored unit to land in Europe on military aircraft, draw pre-positioned stocks and become an armored brigade combat team in 96 hours.

Ironically, after years of saying the Abrams M-1 Tank was no longer needed, it will be used in the exercise.  These will include the new Abrams active protection system.

The exercise is clearly targeting a potential Russian threat.  One of the exercises taking place under Defender 20 is Allied Spirit.  It will entail a bridging exercise across a major river in Poland.  It will include the US 1st Cavalry Division, Czech forces, British forces, and the Polish 12th and 9th Mechanized.  The goal is to see if an international force can carry out the complex goal of building bridges and moving divisional sized units across it while under fire.

US Ambassador to Poland emphasized Poland’s place in NATO by noting, “In a crisis, NATO must be able to respond as quickly as possible.  Defender Europe 20 simply could not happen without Poland.”

Another aspect that makes it clear that this is an exercise against potential Russian threats is the “Forcible Entry” of Immediate Response Forces into Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania.  This will include elements of America’s 82nd Airborne Division, which is part of America’s fast reaction force.  It was this unit that quickly deployed to the Middle East, when the US Embassy in Baghdad was attacked.

The 6th Polish Airborne Brigade, American 173 Airborne Brigade Combat Team, and Spanish and Italian paratroopers will also be part of the paratrooper drops in Latvia, and Lithuania.

Another “Forcible Entry” of NATO airborne forces will also take place in the nation of Georgia.

While NATO appears to be operating seamlessly at the military level, there remains dissention at the political level.  Turkey will not be participating, even though one of the exercises is taking place in neighboring Georgia.

There is also the ongoing question of a European Union military force that would take the place of NATO, although an EU without Great Britain makes this force considerably less of a threat.

French President Macron, a major fan of the EU, has been especially critical of NATO.  In December, Macron said that NATO was experiencing “Brain Death.” –  a comment that met with puzzlement and distrust from many NATO nations, including Germany.  While Macron has attacked NATO publicly, France works well with the US military and carried out military strikes in Syria.  Macron has also called for enlarging NATO to include specifically Albania and North Macedonia.  They also rotate troops in the Baltic nations as part of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence.

France will be sending troops to Defender 20 too.

One NATO nation not participating is Turkey.  However, Turkish President Erdogan will be very aware that NATO will be carrying out an airborne operation in Georgia – a Turkish neighbor.  The message will be clear – that NATO can carry out operations in the region without Turkish help.

Germany will be participating in the NATO exercise.  Although much of the equipment will be arriving in Belgium ports, many soldiers will be landing via military transport aircraft in Germany.  In fact, one critical part of the exercise is to make sure that US and British forces moving forward to the front can transverse German roads, bridges, and rail lines.  German rail is also investing more on heavy rail cars that can handle the heavy armored equipment of the US Army.

There will also be a focus on Eastern European nations and their transportation infrastructure.  These nations, who joined NATO after the Cold War, don’t have the extensive infrastructure of Western European nations.  As a result, Lithuania is improving its rail system to better handle the movement of NATO troops in an emergency.

For Western European nations, attention will be paid to the growing Chinese control of some major European ports that will pose a potential threat in a wartime situation.

One difference between the Defender 20 exercise and the annual Reforger NATO exercises of the Cold War era is that they will not focus on Germany, which was the expected route of invasion at that time.  Instead, they will focus on “front line” nations like Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Georgia.

This has engendered some criticism of Poland’s importance by German military leaders.  German General Hartmut Renk criticized Polish forces and their readiness.  He noted that the Polish forces had problems in previous exercises and said, “Lack of professionalism and complete irresponsibility which the command of the Polish Army keeps demonstrating from year to year, may be a reason to cancel the planned actions during the exercise Defender 20.”

Despite this criticism, Poland is one of the NATO countries that is meeting its defense spending goal set by NATO.  It also has one of the largest tank forces of NATO.  It has also made it clear that they are willing to pay for American forces stationed in Poland.

Although much has been made of President Trump’s criticism of NATO and its funding, the US has clearly decided to spend the money for this exercise.  Moving 20,000 soldiers and their tanks and armored equipment will cost the US about $340 million.

The number of troops and units involved demonstrates that America’s and Trump’s commitment to NATO isn’t just lip service.

The Defender 20 exercise demonstrates that what European NATO leaders say at meetings is just rhetoric.  Despite their criticisms of NATO, France and Germany still participate in NATO exercises in a major way.  While an EU military may be the wish of some European leaders like Macron, it isn’t practical.  An EU military without Great Britain becomes a continental military with little ability to project military power.  Meanwhile, NATO is a reality, despite its shortfalls.

NATO has shown its ability to respond to situations around the world.  And, although European leaders may criticize the US, it is America’s ability to move NATO forces with its massive Air Force transport aircraft fleet that allow European nations to deploy its forces.  And, an EU military force couldn’t achieve such capability for over a decade and would require a major expenditure.

Then, there is American airpower that can support other nation’s militaries anywhere in the world.

Like it or not, the EU nations are stuck with NATO.

It is expected that Defender like the Cold War maneuvers called Reforger will become an annual event.  But the focus will not always be on Russia.

Plans are for two Defender exercises every year – one in Europe and one in the Pacific.  Later this year there will be the Pacific Defender exercise – although much smaller than the one in Europe this year.  The two exercises will alternate between being a major or minor exercise.  The Pacific exercise will be lighter in 2020 but will be the major exercise in 2021.  The exercise will alternate with every other year being the “major” exercise.

“Defender 20” will continue until the spring.