Over the next six months, thousands of U.S. service members will participate in the largest NATO exercise since the end of the Cold War.
Dubbed Exercise Steadfast Defender 24, it will feature about 90,000 service members from the 31 NATO allies and Sweden. It will test the ability of the alliance to quickly deploy forces and will test NATO’s new defense plans, officials said.
“The alliance will demonstrate its ability to reinforce the Euro-Atlantic area via trans-Atlantic movement of forces from North America,” said Army Gen. Christopher G. Cavoli, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, in a press release. “Steadfast Defender 2024 will be a clear demonstration of our unity, strength and determination to protect each other, our values and the rules-based international order.”
The first movement in the exercise began yesterday as the dock landing ship USS Gunston Hall sailed from Norfolk, Virginia. Following a series of operations, the ship will sail across the Atlantic.
The overall exercise will run through June. It is NATO’s principal multidomain exercise for 2024 and will consist of a series of national and multinational large-scale, live exercises conducted across various geographical locations.
Officials said Steadfast Defender is the largest exercise since the last Reforger exercise in 1988.
The exercise is the first, large-scale test of alliance defense plans approved at last year’s Vilnius Summit in Lithuania.
At its base, the exercise is a demonstration of alliance unity and determination to defend every inch of NATO territory. The exercise will demonstrate “NATO’s ability to deploy, move and use reinforcements from North America and other parts of the alliance to continental Europe,” alliance officials said. “It will show that we can conduct and sustain complex multidomain operations over several months, across thousands of kilometers, from the high north to central and Eastern Europe and in any conditions.”
The exercise will take place primarily in Finland, Estonia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Sweden and the United Kingdom, officials said. There will be more than 50 naval assets, including aircraft carriers, destroyers, frigates and corvettes.
Air assets will include F-35s, FA-18s, Harriers, F-15s, helicopters and myriad unmanned aerial vehicles.
There will also be more than 1,100 combat vehicles, including more than 150 tanks, 500 infantry fighting vehicles and 400 armored personnel carriers.
Officials said the exercise is based on a fictitious Article 5 scenario “triggered by a fictitious attack against the alliance launched by a near-peer adversary,” officials said. “NATO exercises are not directed against any country. In an unpredictable security environment, we must remain ready to deter all threats and to defend all allies.”
Still, Russia has launched the largest war in Europe since World War II, attacking neighboring Ukraine. Since Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014, NATO has strengthened defense and deterrence on the continent. While Steadfast Defender has been in planned for years, the exercise incorporates defense plans based on Russia’s actions.
“Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine will shape our understanding of conflict for years to come,” a NATO official said. “NATO is observing the conflict in Ukraine closely in order to improve our readiness and refine our future training, capabilities and innovation.”