The spread of the coronavirus will force U.S. European Command to cut back on its exercises in the coming months by up to 65 percent, but the command’s top general said the reductions in training would only affect the “fine-tuning” aspects of his units’ combat readiness.
There are “approximately 35 reported cases” of the coronavirus among the 72,000 U.S. troops in Europe, Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters said Friday during a Pentagon briefing. A further 2,600 personnel were in what he termed “the category of concern,” meaning they had been quarantined.
But Wolters acknowledged that the longer the pandemic lasts, the tougher maintaining readiness becomes. “Can we do this in perpetuity?” he said. “We would be challenged.”
As head of U.S. European Command, Wolters is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s senior military commander. As COVID-19 spreads, Wolters said he anticipates that European Command and NATO will be able to deter potential adversaries, even in a “worst-case scenario.”
Such a scenario, which Wolters said European Command had been preparing for, would be any situation in which he had to draw on U.S. forces not already stationed in Europe. “At this point we don’t forecast that to occur, but conditions and the environment will dictate that in the future,” he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has already wreaked havoc on NATO’s principal military exercise this year, Defender-Europe 20. Wolters has been forced to cancel several sub-exercises that formed part of the larger exercise, and all movement of U.S. forces from the United States to Europe to participate in Defender-Europe 20 has been halted.
Original plans called for the exercise to involve the deployment of an additional 17,000 U.S. forces to Europe, a number that has now been reduced to between 5,000 and 6,000 soldiers, according to Wolters.
Overall, NATO will likely be able to accomplish only about “40 to 45 percent” of the “readiness gains” that it had planned to achieve through the exercise, Wolters said. But he sought to put the best face on the substantial reductions to an exercise that had been years in the planning.
Although NATO has had to cancel some “live play” parts of the exercise that were scheduled for Central Europe, those troops will be able to get some training — including gunnery — in Germany and Poland, Wolters said. Just being able to plan the exercise “was a gain in training, and it certainly built trust” between NATO allies, he said.
In the coming months, the spread of the coronavirus will likely result in reductions of between 30 percent and 65 percent in future exercises, according to Wolters. But he said those numbers did not equate to a corresponding drop in combat readiness. “It’s not a reflection of our overall readiness,” he said. “It’s a reflection of fine-tuning our readiness.”
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