Middle East crisis could mean adjustments to Europe’s largest military exercise in decades

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Middle East crisis could mean adjustments to Europe’s largest military exercise in decades

STUTTGART, Germany — The burgeoning crisis in the Middle East may complicate the Army’s plans to hold the largest military exercise in a generation in Europe this year.

Defender-Europe 20, which is set for this spring, is expected to send 20,000 U.S. soldiers to Europe in the largest Army deployment to the Continent in 25 years. The units include an immediate response force from the 82nd Airborne Division that would conduct air and parachute assaults in the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

However, about 4,000 crisis response soldiers from the 82nd Airborne were dispatched to the Middle East after Iran vowed retaliatory strikes against the U.S. for the killing of Iran’s Gen. Qassem Soleimani last week.

“We are monitoring the situation closely, but as of today DEFENDER-Europe 20 planning is unchanged,” Beth Clemons, a USAREUR spokeswoman, said in a statement Sunday. USAREUR will “remain flexible to adjust as needed,” she said.

The 82nd Airborne serves as the Army’s first responders, which makes it a linchpin in crises but also a sought-after unit when it comes for training in quick reaction scenarios. 

With tensions soaring between Iran and the U.S., and Iraqi lawmakers voting to kick foreign troops, including Americans, out of the country, the 82nd Airborne’s immediate response force is taking up positions in various locations in the Middle East. 

The Army will deploy elements of the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vicenza, Italy, to the Middle East. Special operations troops have also deployed to the Middle East to boost military capabilities in the region, defense officials have said.

The crisis with Iran has already forced the military to cancel the African Sea Lion exercise in Morocco, which was slated to begin later this month, U.S. Africa Command said. A contingent of 4,500 sailors and Marines aboard the USS Bataan that was to join the exercise is instead moving closer to the Middle East, an unnamed defense official told USNI News on Friday.

Large exercises in Europe and the Pacific are part of a Pentagon strategy to shift focus away from the Middle East and prioritize “great power competition” with Russia and China, which Defense Secretary Mark Esper has repeatedly stated is the top priority for the U.S. military.

But attempts to shift away from the Middle East, dating back to the Pacific pivot of the Obama administration, have proven difficult. The Pentagon last year sent 14,000 additional troops to the Middle East amid concerns about Iranian aggression in the region.

The effect of the deployments on other combatant commands will likely depend on how long the crisis with Iran and Iraq lasts, and whether even more forces will be tapped for deployments to the region. The Army will adapt as needed, USAREUR officials said.

“U.S. Army Europe routinely supports multiple operations, exercises and events concurrently. We remain flexible to adjust as needed,” Clemons said.

Twitter: @john_vandiver

U.S. Army paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division arrive at Ali Al Salem Air Base, Kuwait, Jan. 2, 2020. The division is slated to play a big role in the upcoming Defender Europe exercise, but unrest in the Middle East could throw a wrench into plans for the biggest military exercise in Europe in 25 years.

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