Remarks by General Wolters in a Press Briefing via Teleconference on COVID-19 Response

March 20, 2020
General Tod Wolters, Commander, U.S. European Command

STAFF: Once again, we are joined here with General Tod Wolters, the commander of U.S. European Command. Sir, do you have a -- would you like to give us -- starting with an opening statement?

GENERAL TOD WOLTERS: I would, Carly, and thank you, and -- and good morning to all, and it's good to be with you virtually, as all of us execute social distancing, and I thank you for that.

As many of you know, U.S. European Command, together with all of our NATO allies and partners, is combating the -- the coronavirus with extreme intensity. This is serious, serious business, and for months we have embraced precautionary measures to safeguard the health not only of our personnel, but also of our communities and the mission.

In keeping with our allies and partners, we continue to take the necessary steps to reduce the further spread of the virus. This week, we made the decision to further modify and cancel some length exercises to the long-planned Exercise DEFENDER-Europe 20. Yet, we are still maintaining our readiness through adjusted local training, despite the outbreak. We remain ready.

We've implemented prudent measures to reduce the exposure and transmission of the coronavirus to or from our forces, family members and home stations. We are adhering to the Center for Disease Control health protection measures, and the United States secretary of defense's guidance on health protections and travel restrictions.

We're also following World Health Organization guidance, along with our allies and partners.

The modification and, in some cases, reduction of exercises, is a precautionary measure. It does not impact the ability of our forces to respond to threats now or in the future. Our military men and women and civilian employees who serve across the EUCOM theater remain well prepared, (inaudible) and vigilant.

We are focused on sustaining our skills in all domains. And while we may not have completed all of what DEFENDER-Europe 20 was set out to do, there are valuable lessons learned that we've embraced along the way.

Just the mere aspects of the cooperation and planning that went into each one of the compartments of our exercises was a gain in training, and it certainly built trust.

We will continue to execute daily operations with measures implemented to reduce the exposure and potential transmission of the virus. Continuous assessments are ongoing and our willingness to listen to all chains of command is very, very important. Our nation's allies, partners and potential adversaries should know that our forces remain ready. We are steadfast in our commitment to protect all allies and our shared values.

I look forward to embracing your questions. And, Carly, that's it for my opening statement from this end.

STAFF: Sir, thank you. We'll go ahead and get started with Bob Burns, A.P.

Q: Good morning, General, this is Bob Burns from A.P.

A question following up on your comments about the precautions you're taking to limit the spread of coronavirus. I'm wondering a couple things.

As you plan for more -- are you planning that -- and anticipating that a greater percentage of your force is going to be contracting the virus, possibly potentially incapacitated by it?

And what steps -- you say you constrained training exercises but remain ready. But how long can you remain ready if this becomes a protracted pandemic that lasts a matter of months?

GEN. WOLTERS: Bob, as you know, we -- we in the military plan for tragic events like this often. And we continue to adjust not in weeks, not in months but in days and in hours. And as we currently sit, based off the trajectory of the virus spreading across Europe, we're in a position, based off the commanders in the field in all components and in all domains, to be able to sustain the current readiness posture that we have.

Don't know exactly what the future unfolds. Can we do this in perpetuity? We would be challenged, but we are preparing for worst-case scenarios with respect to the potential spread. And at this point, based on all the factors that we've been able to embrace, we should be in a position to where we can sustain our force at a readiness level to effectively deter on-continent.

STAFF: Barbara Starr, CNN?

Q: General, you just said you are prepared to -- for the worst-case scenario. For you, as the commander, what is that scenario? What are you looking at as you plan that, in terms of people not being available to you, troops not being available to you, spare parts, things that you will not be able to do now that you raise the issue of worst-case scenario?

And my follow-up is, what else do you think you have in your medical stocks that at this point you could potentially transfer to the civilian sector in the United States to help out hospitals in this county?

But tell us more about what your worst-case scenario is.

GEN. WOLTERS: You know, Barbara, let me go with the second one first, with respect to stocks.

And this brings up a -- a point that I'm not certain that has been addressed. As many of you know, in Europe we've been embracing this virus from a length and severity standpoint probably to a greater degree than what is occurring in the United States. And all you have to do is just take a look at the -- at the tragedies that have occurred in Italy. And -- and so, from a stocks perspective, we're in a position already to where we've seen cases where there has been sharing by European nations who -- who have weathered some significant storms to bring resources back to the U.S. And -- and that already happened from Italy to the United States with -- with respect to -- to swabs, a basic ingredient in -- in the deterrent campaign to make sure that a nation is fulfilled with.

On the second side of the equation, Barbara, I -- I won't give you a mathematical number but I will tell you this: Completely in compliance with our secretary of defense's basic priorities, we have to make sure that we -- we do job one, which is to protect our people. And when we examine severity, it has to do with the -- the population of the forces in the military and the environment with which they're working.

So worst-case scenarios I -- I won't give you numbers, but what I will tell you is, we -- we closely keeps tabs on the serviceability of each and every one of our military members. And the added advantage that we happen to have in Europe is the fact that the 29 nations that are in NATO, and certainly all of the nations that exist in Europe, offer numerous tactics, techniques, and procedures from the people perspective to make sure that we can cover down and take care of our most precious resource, which happens to be the people.

And I know that you would adore for me, Barbara, to give you a specific number or percentage, but I -- I'm not going to be able to do that, because it always depends upon the willingness of -- of the nation and the alliance to be able to weather the storm with respect to protecting our people. And because right now we've seen trends.

But we've seen terrific cooperation from a national perspective of the nations in Europe to be able to accommodate military members for support.

Thank you.

Q: If I could just have a quick follow-up, General, what I'm asking in fact is, as the EUCOM commander, you have just raised the notion, the fact that you have to plan against what you call the worst-case scenario. I'm just asking you if broadly you could sketch out what that means to you? You raised it. I don't -- I'm unclear what you're saying. What do you mean by worst-case scenario?

GEN. WOLTERS: For me, Barbara, it's when I have to go outside of the forces that I currently command as the U.S. European commander and seek assistance from -- from other U.S. forces outside of the AOR that I -- that I currently command. And -- and at this point we -- we don't forecast that to occur, but conditions in the environment will dictate that in the future.

STAFF: All right, let's go to Shawn Snow, Military Times.

Q: Thank you, general.

I was just wondering if you could give us, like, a breakdown, a general sense of what the total impact on the training reductions have been, and if you could provide some examples of what some of the adjusted local training has been.

GEN. WOLTERS: One of -- one of the key things to look at is just DEFENDER-Europe 20, a -- a U.S.-led exercise commanded by U.S. (inaudible) in command with the executive agents of execution inside of Europe being U.S. Army-Europe.

And -- and in that large exercise, we had hoped to have approximately 17,000 U.S. additional soldiers in Europe to be able to effectively shoot, move and communicate and stress the system, if you will, from our ground maneuver perspective. And what we're going to wind up getting, when it's all said and done, is approximately 5,000 to 6,000 additional U.S. soldiers to be able to -- to accommodate the pieces and parts of DEFENDER-Europe 20.

So we've -- we've had to cancel some exercises that were -- that were live-play exercises that extended out of Poland and that extended outside of Germany. But we've been able to take the forces that we have up to this point, and we'll be in a position to where they'll get some part-task training on shoot, move, and communicate within the confines of Germany and Poland, and -- and they'll certainly get the basic gunnery training requirements filled that they need to get.

So I -- I would tell you that from a large exercise perspective, we -- we probably were only able to accomplish about 40 percent of the desired effects that we sought in DEFENDER-Europe 20, but we've been able to get 30 or 40 percent accomplished.

And as time goes on between now and the middle of May and we continue to fine-tune the number of forces that we have, we'll be able to get part-task training completed to a point to where, at least from a large exercise like DEFENDER-Europe 20, we'll wind up with a 40 to 45 percent readiness gain as a result of what we're able to do. So instead of getting 100 percent, you get to about 45 percent.

And I think those numbers are pretty reflective of the exercises that we were going to embrace across Europe, from a European perspective and a U.S. perspective, for the months of February, March and April. And -- excuse me -- we're continuing to plan for adjustments for exercises as we roll into the summer and fall timeframe.

And my suspicion is if -- if we're able to get recovery soon or we're able to get recovery later, you can expect to see that from an exercise standpoint, there'll probably be a reduction somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 to 65 percent from an exercise standpoint, which is not a reflection of our overall readiness. It's a reflection of fine-tuning our readiness.

STAFF: Okay, thank you, sir.

Let's try one from the phone. Sylvie from AFP, are you on the line?

Q: Hello, do you hear me? Hello, General.

Can you tell us if you have already cases of coronavirus in -- in your -- within your troops in -- among your troops in Europe, and if they are confirmed?

And what are the measures that you take practically to protect your troops?

GEN. WOLTERS: Well, we -- we have approximately 72,000 U.S. uniformed military members. And -- and at this very moment, we -- we have approximately 35 reported cases of the coronavirus. And -- and the measures that we are taking are all of those that -- that nations have put in place -- to include the United States -- and one of the very effective ones that we believe is -- is helping is social distancing.

But -- but all of the practices that -- that you're familiar with and all of us have read about in the news, we are embracing here in Europe. And one of the good things we're doing is -- is coalescing the best practices of all the nations to ensure that we are eyes-wide-open with respect to the inputs from all generations and all nations about what we can do to improve.

But -- but so far, shift changes and social distancing are two of the key that we feel are making a difference.

Thank you.

STAFF: Okay, let's try one more from the phones. Courtney Kube are you on, with NBC news?

Q: I'm on, but if Sylvie has a follow-up, I can wait.

Q: Yes. I had a follow-up. 

Oh, I forgot my follow-up. Okay, go ahead, Courtney. I -- you...


Go ahead.

Q: That's okay. If you think of it, just break right in.

Q: Yes, yes.

Q: General Wolters, it's Courtney Kube from NBC News.

I'm wondering if you, in your NATO capacity, are urging the secretary general or the NAC to enact Article 4 or 5 against coronavirus? And you know, especially at a time right now, like, you know, you were in Munich and there was all this talk about the alliance fracturing and whatnot, so it seems like it would be a time where this could be something that could bring the alliance together.

And I'm also wondering if there's been any consideration of bringing non-NATO partners like Russia, some kind of a -- I don't know, a way for everyone to work together.

GEN. WOLTERS: Courtney, that's -- that's a great question.

I -- I will tell you that we've convened as a NAC once recently, and we did so with the secretary general ensuring that we -- we practice good spacing with respect to social distancing.

I -- I would contend that the -- the solidarity that I've witnessed for NATO and NATO partners has been incredibly powerful. I don't think there's any shortage of energy for the nations to come forward and join hands to make sure that we're all doing all we can to beat this virus.

So with respect to the -- the viability of Article 4 or Article 5 declaration, as you know, Courtney, that -- that comes from a nation and that -- that certainly is up to the nation. I haven't heard of any that have elected to take that course. And I would suspect that they probably haven't marched down that path just because of the tremendous solidarity that we are seeing among the -- the NATO allies and the partners in the region.

And obviously, the last issue that you talked about with respect to non-NATO partners, I -- I will just tell you that all of the nations are -- are very keen to try to get through this. And -- and they're listening to all of the possible tactics, techniques, and procedures that -- that any nation in the region can offer for assistance.

And I'll just say that I -- I am aware of the fact that some of the nations are talking to some non-NATO partners and they're certainly willing to entertain conversations about best practices to try to beat the virus.

Q: Can you just -- are you able to say just what exactly -- if in fact Article 4 or 5 was invoked specifically for coronavirus, what -- what would that open up or what might that provide that doesn't exist right now? Is there (inaudible)? Can you give any specific examples?

GEN. WOLTERS: Courtney, I -- I will tell you, based off the consultations that I have just embraced in a -- in a North Atlantic Council NATO secret environment, given the cooperation in all domains -- diplomatic, (inaudible), financial, military, I -- I don't see a need to do this just because the level of cooperation, diplomatically, from an information perspective, certainly from a military perspective and certainly from a fiscal perspective, has been very, very sound.

So I would -- I would just have to admit to you that I believe, based off the consultations that I've been able to be a part of at -- at -- at a classified level, that the cooperation amongst the nations has been powerful. I'm not certain that the declaration of Article 4 or 5 would -- would add much to the equation.

Q: Thank you very much.

STAFF: Okay, Tara Copp, McClatchy?

Q: Hi, General.

I wanted to follow up on some of these questions, just some of the very practical things you're doing in the command such as maybe at the commissaries as one goes in, one goes out. And then can you describe kind of in detail, how are you communicating with your NATO allies, and how are you doing with, basically, the technology? You know, we've seen a couple of hiccups here in having video teleconferences, and has it impeded your ability at all to talk to your allies? What have been the work-arounds? 

And then finally, have you seen any indications that Russia is taking advantage of this time with the coronavirus to make any gains in Ukraine?

GEN. WOLTERS: Let me -- let me address the -- the -- the technological aspect of what you just talked about.

One of the -- one of the things I think we've done a good job at, certainly in our U.S. Department of Defense, and with my NATO hat on, certainly from a NATO perspective with the 29 that are side-by-side, soon to be 30, is our ability to communicate with telephone and our ability to communicate with -- with classified video teleconferencing has -- has -- has been fantastic. And I -- I -- I can tell you that I -- I talk to each one of my component commanders, all that are in my NATO chain of command, all that are in my U.S. chain of command at least once every 48 hours, and I've got the luxury of -- of not seeing their face on a VTC or I've got the -- the luxury of just talking to them via phone.

So from a -- from a communications standpoint to be able to execute effective command and control and feedback with all the forces, we're in -- we're in very, very good shape.

From a workforce perspective we -- we -- we have the appropriate policies in place from my level down to our components to make sure that if the headquarters (inaudible), effective command and control all the way down to the tactical level with the -- with the -- the smallest force elements, that the rotation of forces, that the -- the duty cycles based off the needs to effectively deter and defend in Europe are all manned appropriately, so that while we're complying with social distancing, putting ourselves in a position to -- to smartly fight the virus, coupled with maintaining our readiness.

And as you can well imagine -- and I -- I -- in public, I'm not keen to talk about numbers that are manned at headquarters -- all those headquarters that I just alluded to have -- have different rotation cycles and they have different manning cycles, but they're all accomplished for the -- for the purpose of making sure that we can effectively take care of our people to effectively deter.

And with respect to your -- to -- to your -- to your last comment -- and you've heard me say this before -- I'm -- I'm focused on the readiness disposition of the forces that I command. And it's my duty to -- to make sure, certainly, for the 1 billion people that we protect in Europe from a NATO perspective, and certainly to the 72,000 uniformed military members that represent the United States and Europe, we're -- we're going to do everything that we can to ensure that our readiness is sky-high. And -- and -- and we do so to make sure that anybody that would elect to -- to -- to compromise our sovereignty is in a position (inaudible) readiness -- ready enough to not allow that to occur.


Q: Just a quick follow-up: Have you seen any activity by Russia that would suggest it's taking advantage of everybody being so focused on coronavirus?

GEN. WOLTERS: No, I'll -- I'll -- I'll tell you I haven't, but I will tell you that I'm -- I'm looking very, very closely. That's a huge part of my job. So my vigilance is -- is 100 percent in that particular area from a malign influence perspective with respect to the information domain. And at this point, from my perch, I haven't seen that.

STAFF: Okay, I think we're going to take our last question from Mosheh Gains.

Q: Hi, Mosheh Gains with NBC. Thanks so much for doing this.

You talked about the 35 reported confirmed cases. How many service members have been tested?

And then, of the 35 that have been tested positive, have you been able to talk to any of them? How are they doing?

GEN. WOLTERS: We -- we -- we've had about 2,600 personnel that -- that fall into the category of concern, and -- and I think that -- that kind of coincides. And -- and I've -- I've had the opportunity, via phone and VTC, to talk to at least a dozen of those, and -- and -- and all of them, those who have tested positive and those who are in quarantine remain in good shape, and very, very positive.

And my biggest challenge for those that have been quarantined for 14 days, as you can well imagine, is making sure that they understand that they, by golly, will adhere to the tactics, techniques and procedures and the rules and the regulations that we put out, and -- and they're doing so. This is a -- this is a good order and discipline issue that -- that we take great pride in accomplishing from a military perspective, and -- and -- and part of it is making sure that we stick to the rules.

But so far, the force remains in good shape all -- all those who haven't been infected, and certainly, those who have.

Carly, thank you so much for the opportunity to -- to share some thoughts.

STAFF: Yes, sir. Thank you.

(UNKNOWN): (inaudible)

GEN. WOLTERS: That -- that includes all the people that -- that have been self-isolated.

Q: How are you self-isolating 2,600 people?

GEN. WOLTERS: That -- that includes -- it's all -- it's not all 2,600 that are -- that -- that are -- that are self-isolated. A portion of that is those that are in self-isolation.

STAFF: All right, if you -- if you have any follow-up questions, feel free to e-mail me and I will get them directly as soon as I can. Thank you, everyone, for participating today.