WASHINGTON — The Senate Armed Services Committee wants a review of how the U.S. Army is postured in Europe to deter Russia.
As part of a larger effort to enhance the U.S. military and its allies in order to deter Russian aggression laid out in the SASC’s defense authorization bill, released June 6, lawmakers want to ensure the balance of Army presence in Europe is on point from the proper positioning of troops to the right equipment.
The language asks for an assessment on whether it makes more sense to forward-station units in Europe as opposed to rotational deployments, which will reignite the debate that has surfaced periodically over the past several years as the Army relies on a rotational deployment of an Armored Brigade Combat Team (ABCT) to Europe in order to deter Russia.
The review would include “an examination of transitioning the rotational presence of a United States Army [ABCT] in Europe to a forward-stationed ABCT,” according to the bill, and would consider “the significant recurring fiscal costs of rotating heavy, equipment-intensive units.”
The Commission on the Future of the Army — which was tasked in 2015 to examine the service’s structure and policies relating to its size and force mix between the active, Army National Guard and Army Reserve — determined in its 2016 report that the Army should forward station an ABCT in Europe to deter Russia.
But the commission also acknowledged the political pushback that might occur if the Army chooses to take an ABCT from a lawmaker’s district stateside.
The commission made the determination as the Army was still looking to operate with a smaller future force.
Yet as Congress and the Pentagon look to grow the force in size, the debate on whether to forward-station is resurfacing with the possibility of even creating brand new brigade-sized units.
But Army leadership seems to be very satisfied with sending ABCTs to Europe on a constant rotational basis instead, touting that the exercise of deploying a unit from the U.S. to Europe with all of its equipment has been invaluable training and has enhanced readiness.
Now retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, who commanded U.S. Army Europe until late last fall, said recently that he’d still advocate for rotational forces because the level of readiness for U.S. troops has been paramount.
At the same time, in the same section of language in the SASC’s authorization bill, lawmakers want the Army to look at conducting exercises that demonstrate “the capability to flow United States forces from the continental United States and surge forces from central to Eastern Europe in a non-permissive environment.”
This capability is exercised already — in a peactime environment — through the heel-to-toe rotational deployments of ABCTs to Europe. And each time a new ABCT rotates in, the movement of troops and equipment across Europe gets faster and more streamlined.
In another section of the bill, the committee wants to assess the feasibility of permanently stationing a brigade combat team sized unit in Poland. Poland recently proposed hosting the permanent stationing of a division sized unit.
Lawmakers also want, in order to “strengthen the defense of allies and partners in Europe” for the Pentagon to prioritize additional U.S. Army forward presence in Europe to include increased forward-stationed combat enablers such as long-range fires, air-and-missile defense, combat engineering, logistics and sustainment, warfighting headquarters elements and electronic warfare.
The Pentagon should also review whether it makes sense and is feasible to maintain “a continuous and enduring” presence of at least one company in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
NATO has already deployed Enhanced Forward Presence battle groups to Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as the result of a 2016 decision at the NATO Summit in Warsaw and their presence has instilled confidence in the countries along the Eastern flank.
Additionally, the Defense Department should look at prepositioning certain equipment and ammunition in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the bill states.
The Army has been working to build up and update its prepositioned stock in Europe. NATO is funding the fifth APS site in Povitz, Poland, which is scheduled to be completed by 2021 and will round out equipment storage for a full armored division in Europe.
Senators also encourage the Army to continue rotational deployments to Romania and Bulgaria to take advantage of training opportunities at military locations there. The Pentagon has invested some funding in improving training sites in both countries in recent years.
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.