Constanta, Romania, July 28, 2017.- The Danube River shore was shrouded in mist from smoke grenades as shells fired from naval guns burst in midair and legions of Romanian infantrymen, paratroopers and armored vehicles amassed on the beach. From behind them, a small contingent of U.S. Army Stryker vehicles cleared the way for the troops by raining gunfire down on the beach sands.
The event, a river crossing exercise that took place July 16 outside Bordusani, Romania, was one of dozens of combined combat-training exercises that U.S. Army Europe and the armed forces of 21 European partner nations conducted together as part of Saber Guardian 2017. The annual multinational combat-training exercise took place July 11-20 in locations across Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria and involved 25,000 troops — 14,000 from the United States and 11,000 from Europe.
The exercise was the military’s largest land-force exercise in Europe this year, said Marine Corps Col. Mark Van Skike, the chief of joint training and exercises for U.S. European Command. Saber Guardian is one of 18 exercises in Eastern Europe and the Black Sea that fall under the Eucom Joint Exercise Program.
Led by Bulgaria and the U.S., Saber Guardian was hosted by Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania. ‘Other participants include: Armenia, Croatia, Czech, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Lithuania, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Netherlands, Poland, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Turkey, Ukraine and the United Kingdom.
The U.S. and European units work and train together in realistic combat scenarios that prepare them to respond in unison to any new security crisis that emerges on the continent. They practice coordinating air, land, and sea forces to launch multidomain assaults or defense operations. And they cooperate to mobilize and transport multinational forces to an area at short notice.
“This is a tremendous experience. We’re getting better in interoperability and in establishing secure communications, secure fires and a common operational picture,” said Army Col. Jeff Shoemaker, chief of training, readiness and exercises for U.S. Army Europe.
Deterrence is also a core component of the mission. Brig. Gen. Timothy Daugherty, deputy chief of staff for operations for USAREUR, said the United States demonstrates through these exercises that it will stand with its European partners, and that all the participating nations together show that they can be a powerful unified fighting force — and that adversaries who see this may be much less likely to launch an attack in the first place.
“That is absolutely a viable deterrent. When an adversary sees that we can consolidate … troops very quickly and relatively effectively, that is a deterrent. We’re deterring them, because they know that it would be costly to attack,” Daugherty said.
U.S. Army Europe and its partners conducted the first Saber Guardian exercise in 2013. It took on added importance in its organizers’ eyes a year later with Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, said Army Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the commander of U.S. Army Europe. European military leaders needed assurance that they and the United States could act together to prevent warfare from erupting further west into Europe’s heartland, he said.
Hodges noted that NATO nations held a summit in July 2016 in Warsaw, Poland, in which they called for building a stronger “forward defense force” in Central and Eastern Europe to counteract new regional threats.
“With its illegal annexation of Crimea, Russia changed the security environment in Europe. That’s why the alliance made the decision that we had to reassure our allies and deter further aggression,” Hodges said.
In the meantime, the exercises can better prepare the militaries of NATO member nations if new crises emerge, Shoemaker said. But he, too, foresees Saber Guardian offering NATO some pathways forward.
“The goal is to synchronize the NATO exercise program with the USAREUR exercise program so that they complement one another,” he said. “We have a number of countries that will leave Saber Guardian at a much better level of training, and certainly NATO will benefit from that. It builds the entire multinational military capability.”