Col. Steve Gilland, left, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, said the unit's upcoming rotation through the NATO Response Force gives soldiers 'an opportunity for our subordinate units and individual soldiers to experience something that they may not have experienced.' (Capt. Angel Jackson-Gillespie / Army)
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SAN ANTONIO — U.S. soldiers are preparing for a rotation with the NATO Response Force, marking the first time the U.S. has committed one of its primary fighting formations to the international effort.
The soldiers are with the 1st Cavalry Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team (BCT).
The NATO Response Force is a multinational force designed to deploy quickly wherever needed, whether it be for disaster response and humanitarian relief, or stabilization operations and combat operations. The force, which was announced in 2002, also serves as a tool to maintain and grow the ability of forces from across NATO to work together.
It is similar to the Army’s global response force, in which elements of the 82nd Airborne Division are capable of responding to contingencies around the world with little to no notice.
“It sends a strong signal when the U.S., for the first time in how long, says, ‘We’re going to be part of the NATO Response Force,’ ” said Lt. Gen. Frederick “Ben” Hodges, commander of NATO Allied Land Command, which is responsible for the effectiveness and interoperability of all NATO land forces.
“When the war started, everybody was focused on the main effort, which was Afghanistan and, of course, Iraq,” Hodges said. “The NATO Response Force continued, but the real focus was headed toward Afghanistan and Iraq. Now when we think about life after [the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan], how do we maintain the interoperability we’ve achieved? There’s hope that a revitalized NATO Response Force will help to do that.”
Col. Jeffrey Kulmayer, an American officer who serves as the director of staff for the Rapid Reaction Corps-France, agreed.
“In the past, the US was just overcommitted in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. “We didn’t have any spare BCTs to put on standby for NATO.”
The Army’s commitment also is linked to the reduction in Europe-based forces, he said.
“When I was a lieutenant in Europe, there were 200,000 guys there,” he said. “Now we have just two brigades there, yet it’s so important to have interoperability because that’s how we’re going to fight, together.”
The U.S. also doesn’t want to lose the relationships and lessons learned from fighting alongside its NATO allies in Afghanistan for more than a decade, Kulmayer said.
“Those are perishable skills, so the NATO Response Force is a good way to maintain your combat readiness,” he said.
While the NATO Response Force is relatively new, elements of the force have been put to real-world use, Hodges said, when aviation and medical assets assisted with humanitarian aid and disaster relief after severe flooding in Pakistan in 2010.
The force is designed to be able to conduct the whole spectrum of operations, Hodges said.
It also is able to respond anywhere in the world, depending on what the 28-nation alliance decides to do, he said.
“If there was going to be a deployment of some sort, keep in mind you’ve got 28 nations in NATO, and if NATO is going to act, all 28 nations have to agree on it,” Hodges said.
The Three Pillars
The NATO Response Force, which features troops from almost all of the NATO nations, has three pillars, Kulmayer said.
■Operational command and control is the responsibility of NATO’s two Joint Force Command (JFC) headquarters. The two four-star-led headquarters, JFC-Brunssum (Netherlands) and JFC-Naples, rotate every 12 months to be the command on standby.
■Immediate Response Force is made up of a land component command, typically a three-star corps headquarters, and a brigade-size force with combat support and combat service support. There are nine European-led corps headquarters, each with about 300 to 450 troops, that rotate on an annual basis. In 2014, the Rapid Reaction Corps-France, for which Kulmayer works, will be the corps on standby. The French also will provide the brigade-size force, if needed, in 2014.
When they’re not on standby for the NATO Response Force, these troops are conducting their nation’s business, Hodges said.
“They’re not sitting around waiting for emails from Brussels or Mons to do things,” he said. “They belong to their nations. They are all constantly looking at the world and doing their own analysis and what the potential threats are. They’re all working very hard in making sure they stay relevant and ready, not just waiting on their turn on the NATO Response Force.”
This includes deploying to Afghanistan. For example, the Rapid Reaction Corps-France did two six-month tours in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011, Kulmayer said.
■Response Force Pool is made up of additional forces designated to augment or follow on the Immediate Response Force, if needed. The 1st BCT, 1st Cavalry Division is part of this pool. The brigade remains under US authority, but if it is called as part of the NATO Response Force, the unit is earmarked to NATO and will fall under the NATO chain of command. In 2014, the brigade, if called, will fall under the command of the Rapid Reaction Corps-France.
Soldiers from 1st BCT have been training for their upcoming regional alignment with Europe and are scheduled to complete a rotation at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., next year, said Col. Steve Gilland, the brigade commander.
“When you look at it from the aspect of going to a different environment, conducting training with our allies in Europe, and, specifically, as we look at the reduction in forces that is occurring in Europe, this is an opportunity for the Army to continue to engage with our partners,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for our subordinate units and individual soldiers to experience something that they may not have experienced. We’re excited about it.”
The Fort Hood, Texas-based brigade, while committed to the NATO Response Force, is “dual-hatted” and is also available to US European Command (EUCOM), Gilland said.
This is part of the Army’s effort to regionally align its forces with geographic combatant commands around the world.
Gilland and his staff are coordinating and planning with NATO and EUCOM to map out upcoming exercises, engagements and training missions for the brigade to participate in.
“We’re looking at this as a long-term commitment,” Gilland said.
In addition to the upcoming rotation at Fort Irwin and training on mission-essential tasks, the brigade is conducting cultural awareness training, Gilland said.
“As we’ve identified through our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and other places, our Army has had a deficiency with cultural awareness,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is apply those lessons learned, given the environment being Europe, which is different from what we’ve been immersed in for many years.”
This includes bringing in experts from the Naval Postgraduate School, Texas A&M University and the University of Texas-Austin to teach soldiers about allied and partner nations in Europe.
“Militaries are different, and we’ve got 28 NATO nations,” Gilland said. “The last thing I want to do is not have an awareness of our partners as we go over and train and conduct exercises with them.”
Each European nation is different, and they each have their own “unique and distinct” histories and social, political and economic processes, Gilland said.
“We haven’t had a lot of exposure” to that, he said.
Next Up: 'Steadfast Jazz'
In October and November, elements from 1st BCT will participate in Steadfast Jazz, a key certification exercise for the units that will take on the standby role for the NATO Response Force in 2014.
About 50 soldiers from the brigade will participate in the command post exercise, Kulmayer said.
Joint Force Command-Brunssum and the French corps will deploy their entire command posts, while 1st BCT will be a response cell during the exercise, Kulmayer said.
“They’ll be the role players,” he said.
Steadfast Jazz, which is an annual event, is “the major exercise that brings together all the components” of the NATO Response Force, he said.
This year’s exercise will feature about 8,000 troops from 17 countries and include more than 40 aircraft and about 15 naval vessels.
The brigade also will send its headquarters to Hohenfels, Germany, for training this fall, said Lt. Gen. Don Campbell, commander of US Army Europe.
“Ideally, we’re looking at a six-week to eight-week rotation for that brigade two times a year and rotate it through NATO exercises and our exercises … or where we think we need that capability,” Campbell said.
The commitment of 1st BCT, 1st Cavalry Division, helps to offset the inactivation of two Europe-based BCTs, Campbell said.
“When we inactivated the 170th and, just recently, the 172nd [BCTs], the US Army and [Defense Department] plan was to backfill that with the rotational force,” he said. “So we kept the two BCTs [still in Europe] and, over time, two times a year, we’ll rotate a BCT through to demonstrate our commitment to NATO and to the alliance and our European partners.”