As US soldiers prepare to join the major exercise in non-aligned Sweden, Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, the commanding general of the US Army forces in Europe, described Gotland as a strategically important location ahead of the exercise.
"You have a strategically very important task here. I do not think there is any island anywhere that is more important," Ben Hodges told the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter, adding that he was looking forward to using the opportunity of training with Swedish soldiers to the fullest.
Earlier this year, Swedish troops were permanently stationed on Gotland for the first time since 2005, following dramatic evaluations from the country's defense experts who identified Gotland as the primary entry point for "Russian aggression." At Tofta shooting range, south of Gotland's capital city of Visby, soldiers from the newly established unit recently started to arrive with their Stridsfordon 90 tanks.
Russia's joint exercise with Belarus, Zapad 2017, which will be held around the same time as Aurora, has therefore been described as an attempt to "flex its muscles," despite the fact that the US has been stepping up its presence in Eastern Europe with troops and tanks as part of a comprehensive NATO buildup in the Baltic states and Poland.
Nevertheless, it was Russia that "changed the security environment," according to Ben Hodges.
"We have to react to that, and not just the US, but the whole of NATO. The countries closest to the bear have historical experience. They feel the bear's hot breath — and they are the ones most worried," Ben Hodges told Dagens Nyheter.
Aurora 17 will take place in September, incorporating sea, land and air units from all over Sweden. About 20,000 troops are set to take part, including some 1,500 soldiers from the US, 270 from Finland, 120 from France and between 40 to 60 from Denmark, Norway, Lithuania and Estonia each.
According to Dagens Nyheter, Aurora 17 will stage a mock scenario in which tensions increase between superpowers, with parts of Sweden being attacked by a fictitious country bearing "clear features of Russia." The US is designated to mostly play the attacking "red" side against the defending "blue" side.
In the years following the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Swedish Armed Forces were largely dismantled, as the country almost entirely focused on international efforts. Today, the Swedish Armed Forces only number some 20,000 active soldiers, as opposed to the 180,000 in the 1980s.