The Army's Ironhorse Brigade is taking a new route to its station in Europe, and it's another sign the US is preparing to fight on the continent

US Army/Sgt. 1st Class Jacob A. McDonaldA US soldier guides an M1 Abrams tank from 1st Armoured Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, off ARC vessel Endurance at the Port of Antwerp, Belgium, May 20, 2018.
  • The US Army’s Ironhorse Brigade has arrived in Europe for the latest nine-month rotation.
  • The deployment is part of ongoing efforts to reassert the US and NATO’s presence on the continent.
  • The brigade’s arrival also underscores efforts to boost the alliance’s ability to operate on the ground in Europe.

Soldiers and equipment from the US Army’s 1st Armoured Brigade Combat Team, from the 1st Cavalry Division based at Fort Hood in Texas, are arriving in Europe this week for a nine-month rotation in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve.

Operation Atlantic Resolve started in April 2014, in response to Russian interference in Ukraine, and is meant to emphasise US commitment to European defence through “continuous, enhanced multinational training and security cooperation.”

The Ironhorse Brigade’s arrival is the third back-to-back rotation the Army has pursued in order to have an armoured brigade in Europe, where the US has been looking to bolster its armoured presence.

But the route the brigade is taking to its base points to another capability the US and its NATO partners are trying to boost: The ability to move around Europe on the ground.

US Army Abrams tank armour Antwerp Belgium EuropeUS Army/Sgt. 1st Class Jacob A. McDonaldUS Army armoured and support vehicles from the 1st Armoured Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division arrive in Antwerp, Belgium, May 20, 2018.

The unit will primarily be based in Germany and mostly operate in eastern Europe, but the first of three ships carrying its tanks, trucks, and mobile artillery arrived this week in Antwerp, a Belgian port that hasn’t seen a major US military movement of this kind in the past 10 or 20 years, according to an Army release.

Maj. Gen. Steven Shapiro, commander of 21st Theatre Sustainment Command, which supports US military operations in Europe and Africa, said the vehicles will move across Europe via convoy, line-haul, river barge, and train. The Army has issued notices about planned movements by road and rail in western and eastern Germany.

“Sometimes what is old is new again, and that is coming in here,” Shapiro said. “Antwerp and Rotterdam were major ports when we were operating during the Cold War … We are coming back to Antwerp in a big way.”

The brigade will send about 2,500 pieces of equipment through Antwerp, including 87 M1 Abrams tanks, 138 armoured personnel carriers, 18 Paladin self-propelled howitzers, and more than a thousand other vehicles.

US Army armour tanks Antwerp Belgium EuropeUS Army/Sgt. Christopher CaseUS Army combat vehicles assigned to the 1st Armoured Brigade Combat Team unloaded in Antwerp, Belgium, May 20, 2018.

“It’s a totally different type of deployment,” said brigade commander Col. Wilson Rutherford IV. “We could have gone into the port of Gdansk, [in Poland], which is much closer, but we wanted to exercise this port, exercise the barge movement, the line haul, and the convoys.”

“This is very different from the 2/1 [ABCT] and 3/4 [ABCT] deployments, but the goal is to learn as much as we can,” he added, referring to previous rotations by the 2nd Armoured Brigade Combat Team from the 1st Cavalry Division and the 3rd Armoured Brigade Combat Team from the 4th Infantry Division – the latter of which is known as the Iron Brigade.

Reversing post-Cold War atrophy

The US military’s presence in Europe has steadily declined since the end of the Cold War. The US Army once had 300,000 soldiers stationed there, but that force dwindled to roughly 30,000. In April 2013, the US’s last 22 Abrams tanks in Europe returned to the US, ending the Army’s 69-year history of stationing main battle tanks there.

That absence was short-lived. In January 2014, 29 Abrams tanks arrived in Germany, joining other armoured vehicles there for what were to be short stints in small formations. That approach changed in early 2017, when the Iron Brigade arrived with tanks and armoured vehicles for the first nine-month, back-to-back rotation.

But the new emphasis on operations in Europe has encountered logistical hurdles.

US Army German Abrams tank flagUS Army photo by Spc. Dustin D. BivenA German man with an US flag greets vehicles from the 2nd Armoured Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division in Germany, April 23, 2018.

A tangle of customs rules and local regulations have hamstrung movements across borders. Infrastructure issues – like bridges or roads not built to carry heavy armoured vehicles – have also hindered operations, as have shortages of transports.

These obstacles have created issues for training operations – a convoy of Paladins was halted by German police in January because the contractors transporting them violated several regulations – and would present issues for any peacetime mobilization effort.

These problems led NATO to conclude in an internal report late last year that its ability to rapidly deploy around Europe had “atrophied since the end of the Cold War.”

That report recommended setting up two new commands – one to oversee logistics operations in Europe, particularly in central and eastern Europe, and another to manage the shipment of personnel and supplies across the Atlantic.

In March, NATO said the new logistics command would be based in the city of Ulm in southern Germany. (The US has volunteered to host the new Atlantic command in Norfolk, Virginia.) That same month, the European Union said it was working to address the conflicting regulations and infrastructure issues hindering military operations.

“By facilitating military mobility within the EU, we can be more effective in preventing crises, more efficient in deploying our missions, and quicker in reacting when challenges arise,” EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini said at the time.

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