U.S. Africa Command announced Monday that the upcoming, multinational exercise African Lion will be canceled to safeguard against the spread of COVID-19 — less than a week after the command announced plans to scale back the exercise.
“Cancellation of this exercise is a preventative measure to ensure U.S. and partner force protection and to alleviate coronavirus concern,” AFRICOM spokesman Air Force Col. Chris Karns told Military Times. “It does not lessen our resolve to our partners nor our commitment to countering common enemies and threats on the continent.”
The exercise, the largest one organized by U.S. Army Africa, was scheduled to start on March 23 and involve roughly 3,800 U.S. troops from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. Additionally, more than 5,000 troops from more than a dozen countries — including Morocco, Tunisia, and the United Kingdom — were slated to participate.
Originally, AFRICOM was planning to modify the exercise and eliminate components that required troops to remain in close quarters.
The exercise, which was supposed to occur in Morocco, is designed to foster interoperability among partner nations to counter transnational threats and threats from violent extremist organizations, according to AFRICOM.
Despite the exercise’s cancelation, the command has stressed that it will keep working with partner nations to quash threats on the African continent.
“In Africa, we will continue to work together to counter mutual threats and strengthen collective readiness via a collaborative and collective approach,” Karns said. “Whether it is preventing the potential of an infectious disease or preventing the spread of dangerous violent extremist ideologies and activities, cooperation and working together will reduce both in size, scope, and potential to do harm.”
There are more than 150,000 cases of COVID-19 around the world, and more than 5,000 deaths, according to the World Health Organization.
The virus has infected multiple service members and dependents stationed worldwide, including a soldier in South Korea, a sailor in Italy, and a Marine in Virginia.
Soldiers in Europe for Defender 2020 to return home amid pandemic
U.S. officials are significantly reducing the size and scope of the long-awaited Defender 2020 exercise intended to test the Army’s ability to move a division-sized force from U.S. seaports to European training grounds this spring.
The exercise included 20,000 soldiers who were meant to conduct training across 10 European countries. Several linked exercises — Dynamic Front, Joint Warfighting Assessment, Saber Strike and Swift Response — will no longer be conducted, Army Europe officials said Monday.
Approximately 6,000 soldiers had already deployed from the United States to Europe since January, including a division headquarters and an armored brigade combat team.
“We anticipate the armored brigade combat team already deployed to Europe will conduct gunnery and other combined training events with Allies as part of a modified Allied Spirit exercise," Army officials said in a statement. "Forces already deployed to Europe for other linked exercises will return to the United States.”
The exercise is being curtailed due to the outbreak of the novel form of coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, which has made its way through Europe. As of Friday, all movement of personnel and equipment from the United States to Europe were suspended.
Equipment for the exercise already started to arrive at ports like Bremerhaven, Germany, earlier this winter, as part of the opening salvo of the largest deployment of soldiers from mainland United States to Europe in a quarter century.
Army Europe leaders said this fall that they planned to have the 116th Armored Brigade Combat Team, from the Idaho Army National Guard, draw from pre-positioned stocks rather than bring equipment with them, testing the Army’s ability to equip units rapidly on the continent if needed.
U.S. forces have already moved roughly 9,000 vehicles and pieces of equipment from pre-positioned stocks in Europe and about 3,000 pieces of equipment by sea from the United States. Other troops have already been moved from multiple ports to training areas in Germany and Poland.
The major participating units originally included the 1st Cavalry Division, 1st Armored Division, 1st Infantry Division, 3rd Infantry Division and 82nd Airborne Division.
Defender 2020 drew parallels to the Cold War-era REFORGER exercise in Europe, which simulated a NATO deployment to West Germany in the event of a conflict with the Soviet Union. This year’s exercise was planned to simulate a fictional near-peer competitor in a post-Article V environment set in the year 2028.
The Army still plans to conduct another division-sized exercise in the Indo-Pacific region in fiscal year 2021.
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter who has covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq. Follow on Twitter @Kyle_Rempfer