WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army is pushing back on claims made in congressional language that the Defender Europe exercise is canceled and will be replaced by smaller drills in 2022. However, the exercise will not be the division-level event it was originally intended to be.
“The committee notes that the Department of Defense cancelled the largescale theater level Defender Europe exercise for fiscal year 2022 at a time of increased escalatory Russian military activity and replaced it with smaller-scale activities,” the House Armed Services Committee chairman’s markup of the fiscal 2022 defense policy bill stated.
The committee directed the defense secretary to provide a report by Jan. 5, 2022, detailing a strategy to “mitigate the impacts on readiness, deterrence, and interoperability of the modifications made to this exercise.”
Additionally, the committee said the decision to modify the exercise was “made years ago but was not shared with Congress until the fiscal year 2022 President’s Budget request.”
“The committee urges the Department of Defense to review this decision and the benefits of conducting a theater-level European exercise to deter Russia in future years,” the markup read.
The Army began in 2020 what was to be an annual exercise series in Europe. It was set to be the third-largest military exercise on the continent since the Cold War as a division-scale exercise that would test the Army’s ability to deliver a force from “fort in the United States to port in the United States,” and then to ports in Europe, and from there to operational areas throughout Europe, including Germany, Poland, the Baltic states, other Eastern European nations, Nordic countries and Georgia, U.S. Army Europe and Africa Commander Gen. Chris Cavoli told Defense News in late 2019.
At the same time, the Army established a smaller Defender exercise in the Pacific. In 2021, the service planned to make the Defender Pacific exercise bigger, while limiting the size of Defender Europe. The countries would subsequently trade off being the bigger or smaller exercise each year.
But the big division-level exercise in Europe has yet to materialize due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Army hit pause on its first stab at the exercise in March 2020 and picked up again in June with a smaller associated exercise. The service ultimately deployed a combined arms battalion to Europe in summer 2020.
The Defender Europe 2021 exercise focused on the Black Sea and the Balkans. Serbia and Russia launched joint military exercises near Serbia’s capital at the same time.
The exercise hosted 26 different countries and more than 28,000 U.S. and allied troops in 30 different training areas, “doing everything from joint forcible entry operation to theater opening exercises,” Army Secretary Christine Wormuth told Defense News at its conference last month.
“We always gain tactical lessons from those kinds of exercises, but I think one of the things that is really powerful is not just building the relationships with our allies and partners with that interoperability, but also, frankly, signaling that those exercises provide of what we can do with our allies and partners,” she said.
The U.S. Army’s goal for the Defender series in 2022 “is to focus on modernization efforts and implementation in the United States, which will be done through various combat training center rotations and Project Convergence,” according to a U.S. Army Europe and Africa statement sent to Defense News last month. Project Convergence is an annual stateside campaign where the Army focuses on experimenting with emerging technology to develop future capability.
Cavoli was unavailable for an interview ahead of the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference.
The European-based exercise, dubbed Defender Europe 22, is still happening, according to the statement, and “is scaled and scoped to facilitate this effort, not necessarily scaled back or cancelled.”
The exercise will continue to “demonstrate the U.S. Army’s ability to aggregate combat power on the European continent in support of European stability,” the statement added.
The exercise will focus on building strategic and operational readiness. Units will draw from Army pre-positioned stock and deploy through five different ports in the northern Atlantic Ocean, Baltic Sea and Mediterranean Sea, using new logistical lines to send equipment to locations in Europe by convoy, rail and barge to “key areas” throughout the continent, the command said.
At the Defense News Conference, Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville acknowledged the service had to scale back its exercises because of the pandemic.
“Strength comes from working very closely and bringing together and converging our allies’ and partners’ systems, and if we don’t have a good command-and-control system to do that, we don’t get the benefit of that,” he said.
The only way to accomplish interoperability between nations is to exercise, practice, and “get out there and talk to each other and work through the friction that goes along with these exercises in different parts of Europe and different parts of the Pacific,” McConville said.
“So that’s what we are trying to achieve, given the resources we have, given the COVID environment that we live in. And I’m very, very pleased with, quite frankly, how everyone’s working through these challenges that we see and still getting the job done.”
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.