WASHINGTON ― The U.S. military has nearly 80,000 troops on average on rotational or permanent orders in Europe.

Now, it’s sending thousands more to support those units. About 3,000 combat troops are on their way to Poland to join 1,700 already assembling there in a demonstration of American commitment to NATO allies. Their mission will be to train and provide deterrence — but not to engage in combat in Ukraine.

An Infantry Brigade Combat Team with the 82nd Airborne Division is in Poland, and a joint task force headquarters with the 18th Airborne Corps was sent to Germany. A Stryker squadron permanently stationed in Vilseck, Germany, will also move through the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary to get to Romania, to join 900 troops already there.

Prior to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, the Army had been drawing troops and equipment out of Europe. In the 1980s, the Army had 200,000 personnel in theater, but by 2015, that had declined to 33,000. Over 100 U.S. Army sites had closed, with the service’s presence mostly concentrated in Germany and Italy ― nowhere near NATO’s eastern flank.

But the U.S. began to change course following 2014, rapidly pulling troops and equipment back into Europe and requesting additional funding.

The Obama administration made its first request for the European Reassurance Initiative, seeking $3.4 billion. Some $2 billion funded the first armored brigade’s rotation in Europe, beyond a Stryker brigade and infantry brigade already there, with another $1.8 billion for an entire armored brigade’s worth of equipment.

Later renamed the European Deterrence Initiative, the effort’s funding peaked at $6.5 billion in FY19. After a drop attributed to one-time expenses like infrastructure projects, the fund stood at $4.5 billion in FY21. That year, it also included $250 million for military aid to Ukraine.

“The European Deterrence Initiative had a major impact on the U.S. presence, particularly in Eastern Europe,” said Mark Cancian of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The problem the United States and NATO faced was that U.S. forces were in Central Europe because that’s where they stopped after World War II, and they were not in the east where the threat now lies.”

Amid the prospect of Russia invading Ukraine, top experts say the unfolding crisis will test the U.S. military’s ability to seamlessly and rapidly move American troops and heavy armor across the borders of multiple countries and could also magnify potential gaps in both strategy and capability.

Indeed, one of the biggest questions is how nimbly those forces can move from positions in central Europe or from the Baltics to the Black Sea to change the alliance’s deterrence posture as needed; a conundrum that has long plagued planners on both sides of the Atlantic.

“Military mobility is still a challenge,” retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the commander of U.S. Army Europe from 2014 to 2017, told Defense News.

The challenges of mobility

After the annexation of Crimea, the U.S. military moved to demonstrate it could quickly send equipment and troops across borders to Eastern Europe to respond to a Russian attack.

In 2017, the first rotational heavy brigade, the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division out of Fort Carson, Colo., was tapped to participate in a large-scale combined arms live-fire exercise, called Saber Guardian, and show off its ability to move an ABCT into position.

Driving to the Center for Joint National Training Center in Cincu, Romania, isn’t easy because the only arteries in and out of town are narrow, winding roads occasionally blocked by herds of sheep. Even with their M1 Abrams tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles and Paladin Howitzers, among other vehicles, the brigade made it to the facility.

But sheep are a lesser obstacle than the bureaucratic red tape involved with moving military equipment through Europe. Because in many European countries, the necessary permissions can take weeks, Hodges has been calling for a “military Schengen zone,” ― a reference to the visa-free system that allows people to transit the European Union.

European countries are working with the U.S. to streamline the border crossing process, but it remains a challenge. If France follows through on an expressed desire to deploy a battle group to Romania, the logistics are unclear.

“They haven’t practiced that,” Hodges said of the French. “This will be an interesting test to see are we, as an alliance ready to do that ― to be able to move quickly through multiple countries with heavy equipment to get to a place in pre-crisis conditions, meaning you don’t get special exemption from [the European Union] road regulation, you don’t get special access to rail.”

Where the U.S. Army is

The U.S. has long maintained a large footprint in Germany, its primary military operational staging ground and home to major installations that house and train troops.

Former President Donald Trump planned to cut by about 12,000 troops the U.S. military’s presence in Germany, but after entering office, President Joe Biden froze Trump’s directive.

“We’ve got a very good launching pad from which to project American power,” Hodges said. “All of this capability that’s in Europe, in Germany, it’s essential.”

The Army late last year declared operational V Corps with a forward headquarters in Poland, established to defend Eastern European allies. The forward element acts “as the controlling headquarters for specific operations, activities and initiatives,” U.S. Army Europe and Africa has said.

“The headquarters elements are really, really important,” Bradley Bowman of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank, told Defense News. “It creates people who are focused on the problems full-time so that when emergencies arise like the one we have now, then you have the contingency plans in place.”

The U.S. Army has also established a Multidomain Task Force in Europe as well as a new Theater Fires Command. The task force consists of a headquarters element, an intelligence, cyberspace, electronic warfare and space detachment and a brigade support company.

The Army established the task force in mid-2021 and conducted its first exercise in Norway focused on targeting for long-range, precision fires using high-altitude balloons.

U.S. troops also make up part of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence Battalions in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, which have contributed to deterrence in the region.

Though NATO has four battalions of multinational forces in the northeast those forces wouldn’t be capable on their own of stopping a large Russian invasion, Stacie Pettyjohn of the Center for New American Security said. More heavy forces would be needed to allow enough time for NATO to bring its air power to bear.

The U.S. force deploying to Europe in recent days is likewise a symbolic tripwire force, experts say. It’s meant to show rattled Eastern European allies ― some with long, sometimes violent histories with Russia ― the U.S. will be there for them, said Cancian, and to “send a signal to Putin’s brain, to convince him the United States is serious.”

“There’s some questions about how effective that will be because the numbers are small, and they’re 700 miles from where the combat will likely be and given they’ve said they’re not going to get involved in combat,” Cancian said. “I think it’s important to emphasize that these forces are there to reassure our allies. They are not there to fight a war, and any talk about that, I think, is just not appropriate.”

The role of equipment

The U.S. Army has sought to ensure it has the equipment it needs to deter or defeat Russia. The Stryker unit traveling to Romania has 30mm cannons, a direct response to an urgent operational need issued following the Crimea annexation. The Army rapidly integrated the capability onto Stryker combat vehicles.

While commanding the Army in Europe, Hodges identified a gap in short-range air defense and in 2016 called for the service to rapidly provide the capability. The Army held a competition to integrate a system, also onto a Stryker, to defend against short-range threats; by 2021, the first unit began receiving those vehicles.

The Army also outfitted Trophy Active Protection Systems on M1 Abrams tanks and deployed them to Europe, including adding the systems to Army prepositioned stock.

Still, Hodges said he was never able to address a lack of air and missile defense capability. While allies do have some air and missile defense capability beyond the one Patriot battalion the U.S. Army has in Europe, he said he’s concerned that might not be enough.

The Army has also changed where it keeps its prepositioned stock and how it’s used. APS locations include Germany, Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands, and the service has a site in Poland under construction. There is an additional staging center in Germany.

An APS now houses an ABCT’s worth of equipment and engineering, artillery, military police, sustainment and medical capabilities, far less than the six divisions of equipment held in Europe during the Cold War.

The Army is also moving to ensure the prepositioned equipment is more modern and responsive to troops’ needs. While prepositioned stocks were historically only there for a crisis, now the equipment is used regularly during exercises and other activities.

Army Materiel Command commander Gen. Edward Daly told reporters recently he is “satisfied” APS in Europe can provide what troops need in the region.

The southeastern flank

Experts say allies have made NATO’s northeastern flank their strategic focus, leaving the southeastern flank potentially vulnerable. There remain gaps on the Black Sea, according to Pettyjohn.

“You can see that there’s a significant lag, and it would take weeks to get [equipment and troops] from the prepositioned sites in the northeast to the south because, I think, the rail network is a little dicier to Romania and Bulgaria than in Northern Europe,” she said. “NATO could easily bring air power and maritime forces … but it’s much harder for the ground forces.”

If a Russian invasion of Ukraine spills over into a broader conflict, southeastern Europe is where “entanglement and inadvertent escalation could happen,” she said. It’s unlikely Russia intends to attack Romania, but what if it seizes Ukrainian territory adjacent to Crimea, which sits on the Black Sea with Romania?

“You could imagine Russia using some of its lower level gray zone tactics and coming into contact with Romania there,” Pettyjohn said. “I think they certainly feel insecure, especially if Russia completely controls the Black Sea and expands its controlled territory in Ukraine and potentially positions more offensive systems.”

Since 2014, the U.S. Army has conducted several important exercises in the Black Sea region, including Saber Guardian.

The service held short-range air and missile defense exercises at Capu Midia in Romania overlooking the Black Sea, live-fire exercises in Cincu, a river-crossing over the Danube and joint force entry missions from the 82nd and the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team in both Romania and Bulgaria.

Since Saber Guardian in 2017, the Army has grown its exercises in scale and frequency, including kicking off a now annual exercise — dubbed Defender Europe — that practices moving a division from the U.S. to Europe and then spanning it across a large swath of territory in theater to include some operations in the Black Sea region.

While U.S. forces are now moving into position in strategic countries like Romania, the U.S. military still lacks a strategy to secure the Black Sea region to deter Russian aggression there, Hodges said.

The possibility that Russia could invade Ukraine, and potentially use the Black Sea to its advantage, has pushed the U.S. to start developing a strategy, Hodges said, but it has to also include security cooperation, diplomatic efforts and economic development of the whole Black Sea region.

The arrival of Russian amphibious ships in the Black Sea “is ominous,” Hodges said. “I’m not seeing ... a single sign of de-escalation or they’re even tapping the brakes. I think of what they’re doing is like a giant boa constrictor around Ukraine, that’s squeezing it, trying to wreck its economy, trying to get the Ukrainian government to blink, trying to get all of us to blink.”

Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.

Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.

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