Exercises help NATO fill gaps in air and missile defenses: general

BERLIN (Reuters) - Short-notice military exercises and forthcoming deployments will help NATO fill gaps in its air and missile defenses as it revamps its approach to deter Russia in eastern Europe, a top U.S. general said.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg addresses a news conference during a NATO defence ministers meeting at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, October 27, 2016. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

This week, for instance, some 100 U.S. forces received “shock” orders to move a Patriot missile defense system from Germany to Romania by rail for a joint exercise to be carried out in early November with 100 Romanian soldiers.

“We’ve got work to do ... but now everybody’s got these gaps in our crosshairs and we’re working together to fix them,” Major General Timothy McGuire, deputy commanding general of the U.S. Army in Europe, told Reuters in an interview by telephone.

Exercises boost readiness and hone the military’s ability to respond to threats at short notice, he said.

“We do not want a war, but the best way to maintain the peace is through strength and by being ready,” he said. He said the U.S. Army Chief of Staff Mark Mille and leaders of 38 European armies agreed on that view during a meeting in Wiesbaden, Germany, on Wednesday.

Britain, the United States and other NATO allies - responding to Russia’s military expansion - are bolstering forces and equipment in eastern Europe under NATO’s biggest buildup on Russia’s borders since the Cold War.

Russia, meanwhile, is beefing up its warship presence in the Baltic Sea and Mediterranean, after stationing nuclear-capable Islander missiles in Kaliningrad, Russia’s enclave between Poland and Lithuania.

Given the increased threat from Russia, McGuire said the United States and its allies were working urgently to improve coordination among ageing air and missile defense systems of the east European allies. Some still use Soviet-era equipment dating from their time in the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact.

A live-fire test involving German, Dutch and U.S. forces in Crete, Greece, in October, and a separate exercise in Slovakia last month had proven the ability of countries to develop and share a common view of potential airborne threats, he said.

“This is all about getting our systems to talk to each other. That will better prepare the alliance to deal with (threats) and leverage the capabilities that each one of the countries brings,” he said.

McGuire said he was impressed by the German-developed Surface to Air Missile Operations Center used in a new German-Dutch concept of operations that was declared ready for combat use after the live-fire exercise in Crete.

U.S. forces will take part in the same exercise next year, and Spain has expressed interest in joining the German-Dutch project, said Brigadier General Michael Gschossmann, who commands ground-based units for Germany’s Air Force.

McGuire said eight countries participated in the Slovakia exercise but it will expand next year to include even more countries and multiple training areas, including Romania, Lithuania and the Czech Republic.

Deployments of NATO troops to eastern Europe next year would further bolster cooperation, with one former Warsaw pact member also planning to bring in a Soviet-era short-range air defense system, he said.

“This is one of the areas that is really ripe for an alliance approach and everybody is bringing their assets to the table,” he said.

Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Richard Balmforth