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NATO starts unprecedently large Exercise Steadfast Defender 2024.

| Naval News Navy 2024

Exercise Steadfast Defender 24, NATO’s largest exercise in decades, began on Wednesday, January 24, 2024, as the dock landing ship USS Gunston Hall (LSD 44) departed Norfolk, Virginia, starting her transit across the Atlantic.
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Russian Vyborg Shipyard laid the Purga ice class coastguard ship of project 23550 925 001 The Whidbey Island-class dock landing ship USS Gunston Hall (LSD 44) departed Naval Station Norfolk on January 24, 2024, commencing operations for Steadfast Defender 2024 (Picture source: NATO)

The departure of USS Gunston Hall marks the first tactical movement of Steadfast Defender 24. His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Charlottetown, will depart Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada for Europe later this month.

“The Alliance will demonstrate its ability to reinforce the Euro-Atlantic area via trans-Atlantic movement of forces from North America,” said General Christopher Cavoli, Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR). “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 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 planning 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 to improve our readiness and refine our future training, capabilities and innovation."

A reminder of the REFORGER exercises against the Warsaw Pact

Such a large exercise reminds the REFORGER exercises. Exercise Campaign Reforger (REturn of FORces to GERmany) was an annual military exercise and campaign conducted by NATO during the Cold War. The exercise was intended to ensure that NATO had the ability to quickly deploy forces to West Germany in the event of a conflict with the Warsaw Pact. Although most troops deployed were from the United States, the operation also involved a substantial number of troops from other NATO countries.

The last REFORGER exercise was REFORGER 93. Exercise Steadfast Defender is the most similar military exercise that has taken place in the 21st century, also involving North American troops deploying across the Atlantic Ocean to exercise with European NATO allies. There is also the biennial Exercise Bright Star that involves operations in the Middle East. However, while NATO members (and other countries friendly to Egypt and the US) are free to participate, Exercise Bright Star is not a NATO exercise.

The Reforger exercise itself was first conceived in 1967. During the ongoing Vietnam War, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson announced plans to withdraw approximately two divisions from Europe in 1968. As a demonstration of its continuing commitment to the defense of NATO and to illustrate its capability of rapid reinforcement, a large scale force deployment was planned that would deploy a division or more to West Germany in a regular annual exercise. The first such exercise was conducted beginning on 6 January 1969.

These exercises continued annually past the end of the Cold War, except for the year 1989, until 1993. Reforger 75 marked the operational presence of the U.S. Marine Corps in Europe for the first time since World War I, when the 2nd Marine Division's 32nd Marine Amphibious Unit was deployed from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina as part of that exercise. Reforger 88, involving around 125,000 troops, was billed as the largest European ground maneuver since World War II.

Reforger was not merely a show of force—in the event of a conflict, it would be the actual plan to strengthen the NATO presence in Europe. In that instance, it would have been referred to as Operation Reforger. Important components in Reforger included the Military Airlift Command, the Military Sealift Command, and the Civil Reserve Air Fleet.

The U.S. Army also increased its rapid-reinforcement capability by prepositioning huge stocks of equipment and supplies in Europe at POMCUS sites. The maintenance of this equipment has provided extensive on-the-job training to reserve-component support units.

The last Reforger exercise was Reforger 93. No further Reforger exercises were held after due to German reunification, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, and the end of the Cold War.

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