Preparations for Defender 20 Are Underway

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At the German port of Bremerhaven the first wave of US troops and equipment started arriving on Friday as preparations for the Defender 20 exercise move into high gear. In the coming days and weeks they will be followed by 20,000 troops and roughly a division’s worth of equipment. The equipment will make the trans-Atlantic crossing by ship and arrive at ports in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany. Troops will fly across, mate up with their equipment and then move east from staging areas in Germany to Poland and the Baltic States where the bulk of the exercise will take place. For citizens of Germany and the Low Countries who remember the later years of the Cold War, it might seem more like 1987 than 2020 for the next few weeks. Defender 20 bears more than a passing resemblance to the REFORGER exercises held by the US during the Cold War.

Defender 20 will be the biggest NATO military exercise in Europe in 25 years. The purpose of the maneuvers is more significant than the size. This will be the first time since the REFORGER days that the US has practiced moving a division sized force across the Atlantic and then deploying to a potential battlefield. Europe in 2020 is a very different place than it was in 1987, but the emergence of the Russian threat in recent years highlights the need for the US and NATO to take the defense of Eastern Europe seriously. NATO’s creation the Enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltics is a sign of this. But if a conflict should break out in Eastern Europe or the Baltics, US heavy-maneuver forces will be essential to defending Europe, as was the case during the Cold War when the main opponent was the Soviet Union. The main difference now is geographic location of potential fighting. In a future conflict it will be Poland and the Baltics, not West Germany and the rest of Central Europe.

The exercise will start in April and the bulk of it will run through the end of May. As the start dates gets closer I’ll talk more about Defender 20, and Russia’s reaction to it.

Thursday 31 March, 2016 Update: US Armored Brigade To Be Stationed In Eastern Europe In 2017

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While the Obama administration has struggled to construct a cohesive policy to deal with an aggressive Russia, the Pentagon not having any trouble. Plans to increase US military capabilities in Eastern Europe continue to evolve and move forward at a respectable pace. Recognizing the need for a credible combat presence on the ground in Eastern Europe, the Pentagon unveiled its plan to base an armored brigade there in 2017. The equipment will remain in place while the troops rotate in and out at six or twelve month increments. The equipment going to Eastern Europe in the future will be best available to the US Army. M-1A2 Abrams battle tanks, the latest version of the M-2 Bradley IFV, M-109A6 Paladin and MLRS artillery systems, to name some. The move is hoped to reassure allies in the region of how committed the US is when it comes to European security.

The basing and rotation concept is not new and bears a striking resemblance to the REFORGER system used by the US during the Cold War. REFORGER was a simple but effective system where troops from the United States would fly to Europe in the event of increased tensions, marry up to prepositioned equipment in Europe and deploy forward.

Rotations of the brigade will increase US Army combat strength in Europe to three brigades. The 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team in Italy and the 2nd Cavalry Brigade in Germany are the main US Army combat units currently in Europe. Neither brigade is a heavy maneuver force. The 173rd is made up of airborne infantry and the 2nd Cav is a Stryker unit. They do not have the combat power to go head to head against Russian armor or motorized infantry units. A US armored brigade, on the other hand, does. Should a crisis between NATO and Russia ever break out in Europe, US tanks will be in high demand. Basing a heavy brigade near a potential Eastern European flashpoint only makes good strategic sense.

Weekend Update: POMCUS Site In Poland Closer To Becoming Reality

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The notion of positioning of US heavy equipment in Poland appears to be moving forward and gaining momentum. On Sunday,  Poland affirmed that it is in talks with the United States regarding the possible storage of US heavy weapons in Poland. The discussions are part of wider negotiations between Washington with its Eastern European allies concerning an increase in the US military presence in their countries.  The New York Times broke the story earlier in the weekend and since then, a number of news agencies around the world have been reporting the news.

The concept of creating prepositioned storage sites for a US armored brigade in Poland has been discussed and explored in recent months by defense analysts. It has even been mentioned a number of times on this blog. For what it is worth, I am a firm supporter of the idea. It is practical, cost effective and gives NATO ground forces a significant advantage in a potential conflict in Eastern Europe.

The timing of this development dovetails perfectly with the Defending Poland series. I will elaborate more on pre-positioned material and possible POMCUS sites in Poland this week.

East Is Forward: The NATO Response

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Happy New Year!

Christmas and the holiday season are now officially behind us. A new year has arrived, and with it will come challenges, crises, and conflict. Some will be extensions of previous conflicts and crises like the war against ISIS, Syria and the fighting in the Ukraine. Others will be entirely new and unfamiliar in their textures and complexities. In any event, 2015 promises to be no less violent than the previous year.

I will begin 2015 with the final East Is Forward post. This post will focus on the NATO military response to events in the Ukraine and Baltics. As Europe struggles to maintain a united front against Russia with regards to what is happening in the Ukraine, NATO is moving ahead with plans to strengthen its military capabilities in Eastern Europe and widen its response options should a new crisis with Russia appear out of the simmering tensions. The Alliance’s response to heightened Russian air and naval activity has been resolute, however, nowhere near as decisive as its reaction to facing a potential conflict with Russia on the ground.

Baltic Air Policing

The 37th rotation of NATO forces assigned to the Baltic Air Policing mission officially stood up today ( 2 January, 2015) with the Italian Air Force taking the lead. Since last May, the force had been heightened in response to the annexation of Crimea and events in the Ukraine.  For the current rotation, four Italian Eurofighter Typhoons will be fly from Siauliai Airbase, Lithuania. Four Polish MiG-29 Fulcrums will support them, flying out of the same base. Four Spanish Typhoons are being based at Amari Airbase in Estonia, along with four Belgian F-16s at Malbork Airbase, Poland.

From September 2014 through the end of the year, Russian air activity in the region was very high. NATO aircraft flew 250+ sorties, intercepting Russian aircraft that were flying close to member nation airspace, flying without flight plans or transponders and not communicating with civilian air traffic controllers.  Until the situation in the Ukraine reaches a conclusion, the level of activity will probably not be diminishing. Therefore, the expanded NATO mission should be expected to continue through 2015.

One advantage of the expanded air mission has been in the number of airbases available to NATO in the Baltics. Until 2014, NATO fighters flew almost exclusively from Lithuania. Now, Amari Airbase in Estonia has been utilized for use by the alliance and the Polish airbase at Malbork has seen an increase in activity since last year. In the event of hostilities, the familiarity with these airfields will be an advantage for NATO pilots and ground crews, allowing them to operate with a greater degree of ease.

Boots And Treads On The Ground

A lot of attention has been given to plans for a strengthened NATO rapid-reaction force and for good reason, given what has been happening lately. Whether or not this force will come into being in time to be of use is another question entirely. With constricting defense budgets and a lack of alliance resolve, there is no guarantee that the 5,000 man force can even be created. Fortunately, SACEUR has not been idle on the matter of contingency plans for reinforcements in Eastern Europe if a crisis calls for it.

In October, 600 troops and accompanying armored vehicles from the 1st Brigade/1st Cavalry Division deployed to Poland and the Baltic states for a series of exercises over three months. The move was made to reassure nervous allies as tensions with Russia increased. Now, the US presence is going to be permanent, it would seem. Plans to preposition equipment and supplies for a US armored brigade in Europe are moving forward. The bulk of the equipment will probably be placed in Poland in storage sites similar to the POMCUS facilities in West Germany during the Cold War. US troops would fly from bases in the US to Eastern Europe and mate up with their equipment. Smaller numbers of tanks and other armored vehicles will be placed at US training sites, namely Grafenwoehr in southern Germany. The presence of heavy US forces would serve as a deterrent in a time of crisis and as an effective instrument of war if fighting broke out.

Concluding Remarks

Think of Eastern Europe and the Baltics as a chessboard, with military units acting as the playing pieces for both sides. The board is becoming increasingly crowded. The buildup is nothing comparable to the number of NATO and Warsaw Pact forces that faced off against each other for over 40 years in central Europe. Nor is the level of tension as great as it was during the Cold War.

All of that can change in an instant. And if war should ever come between NATO and Russia, the first shots will be fired in the Baltics or Eastern Europe.