NATO mobility: lessons learned from defender Europe 20

A cornerstone of NATO is the ability to move troops from the US to Europe to defend its member states, but after years of diminished infrastructure spending these abilities are ever tested. Harry Lye finds out from US Army Europe and the Atlantic Council how military mobility in Europe can be improved.

// A US Army Bradley fighting vehicle crosses a Polish floating bridge during Exercise Allied Spirit, part of Defender Europe 20. Image: NATO

Despite being curtailed by Covid-19, Defender Europe 20 aimed to show that the US could move a large number of troops by sealift to Europe and back again. The exercise had one key goal: building readiness between the US and NATO allies across Europe.

Mobility in Europe and the ability of allies to move across the continent is a key component of the alliance’s power. After all, it is all well and good having the personnel and equipment, but if they cannot be deployed effectively, they cannot act as a deterrent.

Since the premature end to Defender Europe, the think tank the Atlantic Council has released a report titled ‘Moving out: a comprehensive assessment of European military mobility’, which explores the state of military mobility in Europe.

“While NATO and EU efforts on military mobility have the potential to buttress allied readiness and responsiveness over the long term, today’s military mobility activities risk failure for two reasons,” the report found.

“First, today’s military mobility effort lacks the overall sense of urgency and permanency necessary to drive robust resourcing, exemplified by EU discussions in early 2020 to potentially zero out funding for military mobility in its 2021-27 budget. Second, a lack of political and military coordination between nations and the two organisations inhibits political decision-making.”

Reflections on Defender Europe

Commenting on Defender Europe, US Army Europe Deputy Chief of Staff US Army Europe Brigadier General Sean Bernabe said: “At its heart, Defender Europe 20 was designed as a deployment exercise to build strategic readiness in support of the US National Defense Strategy and NATO deterrence objectives.

“It clearly demonstrated the US’ steadfast commitment to NATO and our ability and willingness to deploy a large, combat-credible force to Europe to respond to crisis. Furthermore, it demonstrated the unity of the alliance and strengthened our relationships with our allies and partners across the theatre.”

“In terms of building strategic readiness, Defender Europe 20 was a success as a mobility exercise.”

Rather than just testing the physical mobility, Defender Europe also allowed the US and allies in Europe to test, and prove procedures for future mass troop movements across the continent- something vital for ensuring the conventional deterrent of NATO in Europe.

“In terms of building strategic readiness, Defender Europe 20 was a success as a mobility exercise,” Bernabe said. “The exercise at least partially accomplished seven of its 11 training objectives, and three objectives are still ongoing.

“Only one training objective, the Joint Warfighter Assessment (JWA), was completely cancelled due to Covid-19 travel restrictions. And although the execution of JWA was cancelled, we did benefit significantly from the planning and rehearsal of multi-domain operations using future concepts and capabilities. These planning efforts and rehearsals informed the army’s modernisation and concept development efforts.

More than roads and bridges

Despite the coronavirus pandemic cutting into the troop movement and affecting international travel, Bernabe says the effect of the pandemic on the exercise was limited, and the exercise still proved its main goal of moving personnel is achievable.
“In terms of what was gained, military mobility is about more than just roads and bridges,” he said. “It is about exercising the processes and procedures necessary to deliver a large force from ports in the US to ports in Europe, and then on to a point of crisis, wherever that may be across the theatre.  

“We’ve exercised those procedures at smaller scale over the last five years during Atlantic Resolve rotations. Defender Europe 20 provided us the opportunity to work with our allies to exercise this at a large scale – and that was accomplished.”

“We successfully integrated Polish and British brigades into command structure, leveraged the NATO Support Procurement Agency and created eight life support areas in Poland and Germany.”

Aside from moving personnel, the exercise also explored technologies that allow for better and easier cooperation. Troop movements don’t just rely on moving people from A to B, but also required that the logistics and timescales are matched up so that when troops arrive at their destination, they are ready for the challenges awaiting them.

“There were technological achievements as well,” Bernabe said. “Use of the mission partner environment allowed all participants to share classified information during the exercise. The logistics functional area services system was used for the first time to manage live movements, movement security and in-transit visibility while coordinating with the National Movement Coordination Centers and Joint Security Coordination Center.
“Such accomplishments would not be possible without allied and partner cooperation at all echelons during the exercise. We successfully integrated Polish and British brigades into command structure, leveraged the NATO Support Procurement Agency and created eight life support areas in Poland and Germany with capacity to support 25,000 soldiers.”

US equipment arrives in Germany for Defender Europe 20

US equipment arrives in Germany for Defender Europe 20. Image: NATO

Does military mobility in Europe need to be improved?

The Atlantic Council made a number of recommendations for improving mobility on the continent. They include ensuring sustained funding for military mobility and infrastructure, hardening cyber resilience, expanding strategic lift and prepositioning of equipment and developing common terms to ease communication between the EU and NATO.

“Ensure sustained and robust funding for military mobility by the European Union, NATO, and member nations,” the report suggests. “Political momentum peaked in 2018, but is currently at risk of stagnating as nations, the EU, and NATO focus on other issues and continue to underfund the military mobility effort.

“It is critical to maintain an immediate and long-term focus on mobility as a national and multinational issue of priority, backed up by a multiyear commitment to provide the necessary resources. In particular, the EU should make a multibillion-euro commitment for military mobility in its 2021-27 Multiannual Financial Framework”

“What the EU considers a priority with a focus on economic and social issues of the continent does not necessarily match up with the priorities of NATO’s military focus.”

A challenge that emerged as NATO expanded is the lack of compatibility in infrastructure, something that has become particularly apparent as post-Soviet states joined the alliance. In Eastern Europe bridges were often designed for Soviet military vehicles and cannot support the weight of a NATO standard formation. 

Another challenge Europe needs to overcome to improve mobility is priorities and terminology. As NATO countries have such a diversity of budgets, and many European NATO members are also in the EU, focus on projects between the two blocs can become fragmented. What the EU considers a priority with a focus on economic and social issues of the continent does not necessarily match up with the priorities of NATO’s military focus.

“NATO and the EU have different terminologies around military mobility, which has often led to a misaligned prioritisation of projects and mixed messages sent to member states,” the Atlantic Council report points out. “Given the EU and NATO have differing mandates, they have distinct definitions that serve each organisation’s objectives. 

“For example, the EU has a narrower definition of mobility versus NATO’s focus on broader enablement. In addition, the EU’s primary infrastructure focus has been on improving its civilian TEN-T program, which is limited in its utility to prioritise infrastructure of military need. To overcome these shortcomings, NATO’s North Atlantic Council and the EU’s Political and Security Committee should develop and agree on terms of reference.”