- US and NATO forces drew down and shifted focus after the Cold War.
- But Russia’s interference in Ukraine in 2014 forced the alliance to refocus on the abilities it had let wane.
- The skills and capabilities the alliance is now practicing look a lot like what it had to do during the Cold War, according to the US Army in Europe’s former commander.
Since Russia’s incursion in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014, the US and its NATO partners have worked to reverse the drawdown of forces that took place in the decades after the fall of the Soviet Union.
“After the end of the Cold War and the reunification of Germany, everybody, including the United States, had hoped for this period of partnership with Russia and a significant reduction in the threat of a conflict. It really was a lot of optimism,” said Ben Hodges, a former Army lieutenant general who led the US Army in Europe between 2013 and his retirement in 2017.
“But also one of the side effects was that everybody began to significantly disarm, including the United States,” Hodges said.
The tendency to reduce forces after a conflict is “understandable,” Hodges said. “The problem with that is because there was a widespread belief that Russia was going to be a partner, that we could start disassembling a lot of the infrastructure that was needed” for military operations in Europe.
The US Army alone saw its presence in Europe fall from about 300,000 troops during the Cold War to about 30,000 today. Bases were shuttered, and units were withdrawn or deactivated. In early 2013, the Army pulled its last 22 Abrams tanks from Europe,ending its 69-year run of having main battle tanks on the continent.
“So that left us with no armour force in Europe, and then of course … the maintenance and sustainment and all the things that are required to keep armoured vehicles functioning was also dismantled,” said Hodges, who is now the Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis.
But the absence of armour was short-lived. In January 2014 – two months before Crimea was annexed – 29 upgraded Abrams tanks returned to Germany to be part of a pre-positioned equipment set for use in training areas there and across Europe.
Since April 2014, land forces on the continent have taken part in Operation Atlantic Resolve, which the US Army in Europe has led “by conducting continuous, enhanced multinational training and security cooperation activities with allies and partners in eastern Europe.”
The US and its NATO partners have focused on redeveloping many of the capabilities they had during the Cold War – “so increased artillery and air interaction, manoeuvre, river crossings, all of these things,” Hodges said.
The change in focus “started under the Obama administration, after the Wales summit and in the Warsaw summit, where the alliance said we’ve got to transition to a deterrence posture vs. just assurance,” Hodges said, referring to NATO meetings in the UK in late 2014 and in Poland in summer 2016.
“So that meant increasing capabilities and capacities and regaining some of … what we call joint and combined warfighting skills that we used to have.”
Tanks, helicopters, and logistical units have all returned to Europe over the past four years, carrying out scores of joint exercises along NATO’s eastern flank. The Army has also launched nine-month, back-to-back rotations of armoured brigade combat teams.
“We no longer have an armoured brigade in Europe, so we have to depend on the rotational brigade, and so you had to relearn how to manoeuvre, which by the way we used to do back during the Cold War quite a bit,” Hodges said.
“In Iraq and Afghanistan, [for] everything we were doing you had individuals or units come over and fall in on the equipment that’s already in place,” he added. “So this is a different [approach.] We’ve had to practice the deployment.”
A NATO internal report seen by German news outlet Der Spiegel at the end of 2017 found that the alliance’s ability to rapidly deploy throughout Europe had “atrophied since the end of the Cold War.” NATO forces would be unable to move troops fast enough and lacked sufficient officers and supplies in Europe, the report said.
NATO’s bureaucratic and logistical obstacles were highlighted in January 2017, when a convoy of US Army Paladin self-propelled howitzers travelling from Poland to southern Germany was stopped by German border police because the Polish contractors transporting them did not have the proper paperwork and had violated several regulations.
Over the past year, NATO has made a number of organizational and operational changes to address these problems.
The NATO internal report recommended setting up two new commands to streamline military operations. One would oversee operations in the Atlantic Ocean, supporting the movement of personnel and material. The other would manage logistical operations on the ground in Europe, facilitating movements across an alliance that has grown considerably since the Cold War.
“This command is going to be responsible for the rapid reception and responsiveness and reinforcement of NATO forces to the eastern flank, or anywhere, actually,” Hodges said.
Germany’s location and transportation capacity makes it the ideal location for the command, Hodges added, calling it an “important step to improve our ability to not just move, but to reinforce and to further develop the logistics infrastructure that’s needed.”
“Some people have asked me, ‘Well, didn’t we do this for like 40 years during the Cold War?’ and the answer is yes, we did, except it was all in West Germany,” Hodges said.
“So the inter-German border was as far east as we had to go. Now with the alliance including the Baltic countries, Poland, Romania, the distance to go from our main logistical hub in central Germany to Estonia, for example, is the same thing as going from St. Louis to Bangor, Maine,” he said. “So it’s huge challenge logistically, and the infrastructure has got to be further developed to enable that.”
Several recent “firsts” for NATO forces in Europe illustrate that renewed focus on mobility.
In September 2017, the 2nd Armoured Brigade Combat Team from the US Army’s 1st Infantry Division arrived in Gdansk, Poland, and with multinational brigades already on site in Eastern Europe, the unit and its firepower were NATO’s largest reinforcement in Eastern Europe since the end of the Cold War.
When that unit disembarked in Gdansk, it was “the first time two armoured brigades transition[ed] within the European theatre, sending a full complement of soldiers and equipment into Germany and Poland in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve,” a US Army spokesman said at the time.
The 2nd ABCT also finished its nine-month stint with a first. In late April, the unit carried out a tactical road march with over 700 vehicles on public roads between the Grafenwoehr and Hohenfels training areas in southeast Germany – the first time the exercise has been done at the brigade level in 15 years.
A few weeks later, the next force arriving for a nine-month rotation in Europe – the 1st Armoured Brigade Combat Team from the 1st Cavalry Division – disembarked at the port of Antwerp in Belgium, across the continent from its base in Germany.
By arriving in Western Europe, the force could practice manoeuvring across the continent by road, rail, and barge.
“Sometimes what is old is new again, and that is coming in here,” Maj. Gen. Steven Shapiro, head of 21st Theatre Sustainment Command, said at the time. “Antwerp and Rotterdam were major ports when we were operating during the Cold War … We are coming back to Antwerp in a big way.”
NATO began adding ports to its repertoire about three years ago, Hodges said, and doing so had several benefits.
“One was to reestablish capabilities in all these ports, because the port labour force, they had to relearn how to unload Abrams tanks and helicopters and all, so we needed them to get back in the game, and we also frankly wanted to demonstrate that we could come in in a variety of different places,” he said.
“We’ve focused on Bremerhaven” in Germany, Hodges added.
“That would obviously communicate a vulnerability to the Russians or other potential adversaries, so we’ve used Gdansk. We’ve used Bremerhaven. We’ve used Klaipeda in Lithuania. We’ve used Thessaloniki and Alexandropulis in Greece, and Constanta in Romania,” he said. “Back in the Cold War, Antwerp and Rotterdam were important ports for us, and so I’m glad to see that US Army has touched that one again.”
But obstacles to NATO’s ability to move around Europe are still largely political, and it will require political action to resolve them, Hodges noted.
“The ultimate way that this improvement in military mobility will happen is through cooperation and coordination between NATO and the European Union,” he said.
The EU has the right infrastructure – roads, bridges, and railways – as well as the mechanisms to encourage members to act and to apportion resources for them to do so. Hodges pointed to the EU’s recent formation of Permanent Structured Cooperation, or PESCO, for defence and security issues.
Identifying what needs to be done and what is needed to do it will still take time, however.
“This is just like a highway project in the States,” Hodges added. “This is going to take a lot of time in Europe, but at least now it feels like all of the nations have grasped the significance of it, and when you’ve got at the top level of NATO and the European Union addressing that … that’s encouraging.”
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