U.S. Marines and troops from five Eastern European nations will band together to stop an enemy's tank invasion as tensions in that part of the world mount over increasingly aggressive behavior from Russia.
About 300 Marines are headed to Georgia where they'll join troops from Ukraine, Latvia, Romania, Georgia and Bulgaria for a 13-day exercise that kicks off on Thursday. Their mission: To stop an enemy armor attack in the city of Akhaltsikhe, which is about a couple hundred miles from the Russian border.
Georgian tanks and Marine armored vehicles will be on defense in the exercise, during which the TOW anti-tank missile and other anti-armor weapons will be demonstrated, Marine Forces Europe and Africa announced on Tuesday. The training is part of an annual exercise called Agile Spirit, but this year's event is more robust than year's past, said Marine 2nd Lt. Joshua Hays, public affairs officer for Exercise Agile Spirit 2016.
"There will be more multinational participants than ever before, demonstrating the U.S. commitment to deepening the defense and security relationship with Georgia, as recognized in a memorandum signed during the visit of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to Georgia in July 2016," Hays said.
Kerry committed more military aid to the former-Soviet state during his first visit to Georgia as secretary of State, Reuters reported this summer. The two countries agreed to greater military and security cooperation, enhanced information sharing, and improving combat readiness, according to Reuters.
Thousands of Marines have rotated through Georgia to help train the Georgian military. In May 2014, Marines embedded with a Georgian light infantry battalion to help with intelligence, communications, logistics, operations and medical aid. A group of Marines later trained Georgian troops to defend Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan.
Exercises like Agile Spirit help military partners prepare for real-world missions, said Lt. Col. Christopher Rogers, the exercise's deputy director.
Hays said the Marines and other troops aren't training to respond to a specific threat. But the Russian military is a highly mechanized force that has successfully used tanks and other armored vehicles in Eastern Ukraine.
Although Russia has officially denied invading Ukraine, pictures have emerged of Russian tanks like the T-72B3 in action against Ukrainian troops. Russia has also made strides in using drones to direct tube and rocket artillery, the combination of which has proved to be devastatingly effective against Ukrainian forces.
Akhaltsikhe is about 95 miles from the capital of South Ossetia, one of two breakaway regions of Georgia which Russia effectively annexed in 2008. At the time of the war, the U.S. Air Force flew home 2,000 Georgian troops, who were serving in Iraq.
Georgia has been concerned about another Russian invasion for quite some time. Retired Army Lt. Gen, Mark Hertling recalls seeing the Georgians training to stop tanks in a simulator as they prepared to deploy for Afghanistan. Hertling asked the Georgian battalion commander what his troops were doing.
"He says: 'We're training for the mission in Afghanistan, but as part of our down time, we're also training to fight the Russians should they come back over our borders like they did in 2008,'" Hertling said. "They were literally going from counterinsurgency training ... into a training facility that had simulations and practicing anti-armor techniques with AT4s and TOW missiles."
After Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimea region and then invaded Eastern Ukraine, the U.S. began rotating troops and aircraft through Poland and the Baltic states to reassure them of NATO's commitment to defend them.
The U.S. mission in Europe is moving from reassurance to deterring possible Russian aggression, with the Army planning to add about 80 tanks, 140 Bradley fighting vehicles, 18 large artillery systems and about 4,500 soldiers by early 2017.
The Marine Corps plans to make several upgrade to 400 of its M1A1 Abrams tanks next year that will make it easier for crews to identify and attack targets, but the improvements do not come in response to advances in the latest Russian tanks, such as the T-90, said Mike Kreiner, M1A1 project officer for Marine Corps Systems Command.
The upgrades, which include better day and thermal sights and a button that would allow tank commanders to move the main gun to a target, will be installed between October and December 2017, Kreiner said in an Aug. 25 interview.