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Local Marines and sailors are in Europe for the largest NATO exercise since Cold War

Finnish marines board the USS Gunston Hall in Norway. Mar. 3, 2024 Department of Defense
Finnish marines board the USS Gunston Hall in Norway. Mar. 3, 2024 Department of Defense

NATO’s Steadfast Defender exercise includes 90,000 troops from 32 countries. It’s been taking place across northern Europe since January as NATO flexes its combined muscle after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

“40 naval vessels, over 80 aircraft and 1100 combat vehicles all coming together in this operation. It really shows our interoperability with NATO,”  said Rear Admiral Benjamin Nicholson, commander of the Norfolk-based Expeditionary Strike Group Two.

Nicholson has been in Norway for weeks, where over the weekend they wrapped up an amphibious operation.

“We've actually got a very large contingent of Marines from North Carolina that are ashore right now,” he said. “And part of the training that they've been doing is learning how to operate in the cold weather, in the snow and the arctic. Some of them have never seen snow and they’re strapping on skis.” 

Steadfast Defender is an expansion of exercises that have been going on for years. The naval component grew. The crew of the Norfolk-based USS Gunston Hall highlighted the international partnership.

“It has about 320 U.S. sailors on board there from the Hampton Roads area,” he said. “But it also has on board about 100 Finnish, Norwegian, French and Swedish forces that we are during this exercise.”

This is the largest NATO exercise since the Cold War. It has been in the planning stages for several years but the Russian attack on Ukraine galvanized the alliance, pushing Finland to become a full member last year. Sweden officially became a full member last week.  

“The exercise had always been planned, but now there's a renewed interest in ’ You know, what? We really have to pay attention to what's going on. Let's get the most out of these exercises, because there's some things happening in the world that are not that great that we always want to be prepared for,’” Nicholson said. 

The alliance has come up on the campaign trail, with former President Donald Trump stating the U.S. would not come to the aid of a NATO country if they hadn’t paid enough into the alliance. Nicholson said the comments have not had an impact on the exercise.

“Down to this level, it's about the partnership that we have,” he said. “The partnership that's been going on for decades. It's about working together to be the best that we possibly can be, and to make sure that we have a cohesion across our alliance. We're committed to peace, but we're ready to defend our allies and partners as part of NATO.”

Steadfast Defender runs through May.

Steve joined WHRO in 2023 to cover military and veterans. Steve has extensive experience covering the military and working in public media, most recently at KPBS in San Diego, WYIN in Gary, Indiana and WBEZ in Chicago. In the early 2000s, he embedded with members of the Indiana National Guard in Kuwait and Iraq. Steve reports for NPR’s American Homefront Project, a national public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Steve is also on the board of Military Reporters & Editors.

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