Until recently, the U.S. Army thought it had been unshackled from its Cold War past and paroled from its imprisonment in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now it was free to develop new operational concepts, tactics and capabilities with which to address the threats of the 21st Century. In less than a year, the Obama Administration’s national security strategy collapsed and with it the Army’s ability to focus on the future. The Afghan parliament has passed a status of forces agreement which, along with persistent weakness in that country’s security forces, virtually guarantees a significant presence by U.S. ground forces for years to come. Mission creep in the war on the Islamic State (IS) continues. But even without a combat role for U.S. ground forces, the demands of rebuilding the Iraqi military and creating a moderate Syrian military is a project of years that hews perilously close to nation-building.
But even as threats in North Africa and the Middle East proliferated, the Army could be confident that its erstwhile mission of opposing conventional aggression on the European Continent was one it would not have to revisit. In fact, the Pentagon had withdrawn all but two light infantry brigades from Europe.
Oops! Russia’s seizure of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine have completely rewritten the security playbook for Europe. Or more accurately, gone back to a Soviet-era playbook. Russia has massed tens of thousands of heavily-armed conventional forces just over the border with Ukraine. Moscow has supplied its proxy forces with heavy armor, artillery and advanced air-defense missiles. Russian-backed “insurgents” have violated the recent ceasefire and are currently engaged in high-intensity warfare around the city of Donetsk. There are intelligence assessments that suggest Moscow is seeking to gain control of Ukraine’s entire Black Sea coast.
In response, the U.S. along with its NATO allies are moving back to the Continent. Fighter units are conducting air policing operations over the Baltic countries. USAREUR recently announced that it would conduct back-to-back rotational deployments of ground units to NATO member countries in Eastern Europe. This is just a short distance from the permanent deployment of land forces along the NATO-Russian border.
U.S. heavy combat forces are being sent back to Europe. U.S. Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, the newly-appointed head of USAREUR recently reported that a Heavy Brigade Combat Team’s (HBCT) worth of Bradley Fighting Vehicles and M1 Abrams tanks are being pre-positioned in Europe ostensibly to be available for joint exercises with NATO partners. General Hodges indicated that this may be just the beginning of a much larger redeployment. “I’m [also] going to look at options that would include distributing this equipment in smaller sets, company-size or battalion-size, perhaps in the Baltics, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, places like that.” These units could also serve as the U.S. contribution to NATO’s new rapid reaction force.
In a back to the future moment, the old Fulda Gap appears about to be succeeded by the L’vov Gap. If so, this may spell the end of the Army’s plans to restructure itself into a svelte, expeditionary force. It also may mark the beginning of the end to plans to develop a set of extremely light armored vehicles to support its infantry brigades. The Army had proposed developing an air-droppable light tank called the Mobile Protected Firepower, an Ultra Lightweight Combat Vehicle and a Light Reconnaissance Vehicle. None of these make much sense in the context of deterring Russian aggression in Eastern Europe or even fighting IS in Syria. Now it’s looking like the Army’s decisions to replace the obsolete M-113s in its HBCTs with the Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle (AMPV), essentially a turretless Bradley, and to refurbish the aging Paladin self-propelled howitzer were prescient. Could a renewed Ground Combat Vehicle program be in the Army’s near future?
The Army has made a very compelling argument that war is about land, people and winning the clash of wills in war. The corollary of this line of reasoning is that to deter if possible, or fight and win, as necessary, the Army must deploy superior land power. With respect to Europe and, increasingly, the Middle East, this means reliance on conventional combat power capable of engaging in high-intensity combat. This translates into heavy armor backed up by lots of indirect fire support, robust air defenses, close air support and mobile logistics. Kind of like the Army we had at the end of the Cold War, right?
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