US military cuts back troops to participate in European exercise over virus fears

US military cuts back troops to participate in European exercise over virus fears
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The U.S. military will reduce the number of troops expected to participate in a multinational exercise in Europe for the “health protection” of forces, U.S. European Command announced Wednesday, citing concerns about the coronavirus.

“After careful review of the ongoing Defender-Europe 20 exercise activities and in light of the current Coronavirus outbreak, we will modify the exercise by reducing the number of U.S. participants,” the command said in a statement.

“Activities associated with the exercise will be adjusted accordingly and we'll work closely with Allies and partners to meet our highest priority training objectives.”

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Defender-Europe 20 — which began last week and was to include 20,000 U.S. troops and thousands of allied and partner nation forces — was to be the largest deployment of U.S.-based forces to the continent for such a drill in decades.

European Command did not provide details on how far U.S. forces would be reduced.

“The health protection of our force, and that of our Allies and partners, is a top concern. We take the Coronavirus outbreak seriously and are confident that by making this important decision we'll continue to do our part to prevent the further spread of the virus, while still maximizing our efforts to advance our alliances and partnerships and enhancing our comprehensive readiness to address any crisis or contingency,” the command said in its announcement.

The news comes the same day the Defense Department announced it would pull U.S. forces from a multinational Arctic exercise in Norway that also has been curtailed due to concerns over coronavirus, which causes the disease known as COVID-19.

That exercise, which began earlier this month but ended a week early, involved more than 15,000 service members from 10 countries.

In addition, several exercises based in South Korea have been canceled, as have two joint drills with Israel, and the multinational Operation African Lion has been pared down.

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The cancellations come amid widespread concern in the U.S. military over the illness, especially in Europe and Asia, where tens of thousands of service members and their families are based and where the virus has most widely spread.

On Monday, the Army announced that the commander of U.S. Army Europe, Lt. Gen. Christopher Cavoli, as well as several staff members may have been exposed to the coronavirus during a Defender-Europe 20 conference in Wiesbaden, Germany, on March 6.

As of March 10, three service members, four military dependents, a Defense Department civilian and a contractor have been diagnosed with coronavirus.