DEFENDER-Europe 20


The ability for the United States to reinforce NATO in Europe in the event of a conventional war with Russia will be the centerpiece of DEFENDER-Europe 20. This months-long exercise will take place from February to April this year.

Editorial Note: On Thursday afternoon, March 11, 2020, the Department of Defense announced some significant cutbacks on the personnel who will participate in this exercise in light of the Corona Virus outbreak.

Thousands of American troops will be transported to Europe – one of the largest movements of U.S. troops for an exercise in 25 years. In addition, another 17,000 troops from almost 20 countries will be participating as well. The premise of the exercise is the response to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. Some of the exercise locations include the Baltic States, Poland, and Georgia.

Why Conduct DEFENDER-Europe 20? The exercise will show that NATO allies and partners stand stronger together. It supports U.S. National Defense Strategy and NATO deterrence objectives. It demonstrates the ability of the U.S. military to project power globally. The exercise will enhance the strategic readiness of the U.S. military.

A Lot of Moving Parts – Logistics is Huge. The movement of U.S. troops will also be tied to moving lots of equipment from the states to different locations in Europe. In addition, it includes the use of equipment and vehicles in pre-positioned locations in Europe. This includes:

  • 2,500 equipment containers
  • 6,000 vehicles
  • 1,500 tracked vehicles

The exercise is logistics heavy – the major phases of the exercise involve ‘deploy‘, ‘draw equipment‘, ‘move‘ to training location, conduct 6 linked exercises, and then ‘redeploy‘. Parts of the exercise will involve the quick deployment of paratroopers to the ‘battle zones’. In addition, thousands of U.S. troops permanently based in Europe will participate in Defender-Europe 20 as well.

Exercise includes:

  • Transferring 20,000 U.S. troops and pieces of equipment from the United States to Europe. This will be the largest force from the U.S. to Europe in more than 25 years.
  • Movement of 8,000 U.S. troops and equipment from various locations in Europe.
  • Conducting a series of smaller exercises with partner nation forces. Some of these include Allied Spirit XI, Dynamic Front 20, Joint Warfighting Assessment 20, Saber Strike 20, Swift Response 20, and Trojan Footprint.
  • U.S. paratroopers will be conducting airborne insertions into Latvia, Lithuania, and Georgia.
  • Cyberspace and space will be components of the exercise – in accordance with the U.S. DOD incorporating the doctrine of a ‘multi-domain battle’.

Comparisons with REFORGER. During the Cold War the Soviet Union posed a real threat to Western Europe. The conventional strength of the Warsaw Pact was considered strong enough that they could mount an attack on Europe and perhaps reach the shores of the Atlantic within weeks. The ability of the United States to rapidly reinforce Europe was tested through the REFORGER exercise. However, thinking that Defender-Europe is a repeat of REFORGER is off the mark. The Soviet Union and its ‘client states’ in Eastern Europe are no more. Russia’s conventional capability is a far cry from that of the Cold War-era Soviet Union. Lt. Col. (Ret) James Carafano, of the Heritage Foundation, explains this further in “DEFENDER-EUROPE Not a 21st Century REFORGER”, Association of the United States Army, January 23, 2020.

Russian Concerns. Of course, the Russians will be tracking this exercise very closely. Much of the Defender-Europe 20 activities will center on Georgia, the Baltic States, or Poland which are very close to Russia’s borders.

SOF and Trojan Footprint. This annual U.S. Special Operations Command Europe-led exercise brings together U.S., allied, and partnered special operations units. It is tied into the DEFENDER-Europe 20 exercise. Read about Trojan Footprint 19 and Trojan Footprint 18.

Future of DEFENDER-Europe. It is projected that this exercise will be an annual event. On even-numbered years it will be a large exercise and in between it will be scaled-down.

The months-long DEFENDER-Europe 20 exercise will attract a lot of attention from military observers from NATO. The endeavor should reveal some important lessons for future large scale exercises. Of course, the Russians will likely be paying very close attention as well.



DEFENDER-Europe 20, U.S. Army Europe

About John Friberg 201 Articles
John Friberg is the Editor and Publisher of SOF News. He is a retired Command Chief Warrant Officer (CW5 180A) with 40 years service in the U.S. Army Special Forces with active duty and reserve components.