NATO's Defender Europe 2021 strategic exercise, which began last month, confirmed the alliance's return to the practice of holding an annual series of exercises united by a single plan, that was interrupted in the 1990s. Last year's Defender Europe 2020 (DE-20) came to replace Reforger and Autumn Forge.
Having started out strong, the DE-20 caused a huge hype in the press, but things don't work the first time. Being the largest-scale drills in a quarter of a century to involve 40 thousand military personnel from 18 countries and to witness a transfer of 20 thousand soldiers and hundreds of military equipment pieces from the United States to Europe, the Defender Europe was officially ceased on March 19 last year over the coronavirus pandemic outbreak.
This year, even though the European continent's epidemiological situation leaves much to be desired, the Defender exercises have started over again – the show must go on, as required by both the political situation and the need of disbursing the hefty military budget.
What are this year's plans of NATO strategists? The Defender Europe 2021 (DE-21) suggests the engagement of 28 thousand military personnel from 27 countries of the alliance and partner countries. As we can see, the number of military personnel has decreased as compared to the last year, but the upcoming maneuvers' geography and participant list have expanded. The latter is brought about by the latest wave of states and partner countries that have joined the alliance. The partner country of Georgia, which took part in last year's drills, was joined by Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ukraine, Kosovo, Moldova and CSTO member Armenia (!).
The exercise envisages several stages. The preparatory one in March saw the transfer of 1,200 heavy equipment units and a limited number of US military personnel to four European ports.
In April, an "air bridge" will be launched for major American troops (about 3,000 people) and light equipment projection to the airfields of 12 European countries. Along with that, it is planned to demothball 1,000 US military equipment units kept in warehouses of Belgium, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, while creating five logistics centers in Albania, Croatia, Greece, Montenegro and Slovenia. The reduction of equipment and personnel brought from the American continent to Europe as compared to 2020 may indicate a shift in the event's emphasis, as well as the bloc leadership's concern over the fragile epidemiological situation.
In May and June, the main phase of DE-21 should take place against the general operational background, including specifically targeted sequential exercises, namely:
Security cooperation exercise Immediate Response to be attended by 5 thousand military personnel of eight countries' joint service units. It is planned to conduct live-fire exercises at 31 combat ranges equipped in 13 countries.
Saber Guardian drills to involve 13 thousand military personnel from 19 countries. During the exercise, issues of air and missile defensive layout with live firing and launches will be polished.
Exercise Swift Response to engage 7 thousand military personnel from 11 countries. It envisages four airdrop mission in the territories of Estonia, Bulgaria and Romania.
The final event, scheduled for June, will be a Command Post Exercise with 2 thousand military personnel from 14 countries in Europe and Africa, after which the detachments and units will start returning to their home bases.
Analyzing the overall DE-21picture, the following features that are typical for this year should not go unnoticed:
The first evident thing is the predominance of politics over the event's military aspects. NATO's military and political leadership clearly sought to bring in the ceiling amount of countries, thus demonstrating the alliance's cohesion.
Secondly, amid the muted engagement of the bloc's old-timers busy with combating the coronavirus, NATO's "new jacks" and zealous applicants exhibit hyperactivity. Ukraine, for instance, in contrast to the accepted standard formulations like "containing the growing belligerence of an external threat", has made it clear that the drills would help work out a war with Russia.
Third, the exercise places a premium on NATO's southern flank and Black Sea water areas. According to commander of the US Air Forces in Europe and Africa General Cavoli, this is where the outbreak of hostilities is most likely. At that, the exercises cast Albania in the role of the key host party in the Balkans, with Romania and Bulgaria to dominate in the Black Sea basin. Turkey as the southern flank's forward stronghold, causes "serious concerns", according to NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg, and its performance disrupts the alliance's unity.
Russia is closely monitoring everything related to the ongoing exercises, enjoying its considerable expertise in monitoring developments and adequately responding to them, including any possible provocations. All the types of intelligence, as well as alert resources of the border areas, get things done in a calm atmosphere.
In this regard, the Russian President's press secretary made an illustrative statement in response to Kiev's hysteria about the "concentration of Russian troops" at the borders of Ukraine. He said: "the Russian Federation moves troops within its territory at its own discretion, this should not bother anyone." An answer of dissimilar nature will be given in September during the West 2021 joint Russian-Belarusian military exercises expected to be broader-scale than last year's Slavic Brotherhood drills.
There is one more fact important in the context of Russian and Belarusian defense capabilities. A news has broken that a draft is going to be approved as regards changing the Union State's military doctrine. The essence of changes has yet to be disclosed, but those will unlikely produce cheer from the "defenders of Europe" and their recruits.