U.S. soldiers continue to work closely alongside partner nations in Europe and leaders say they are ready for 'any contingency.' (Markus Rauchenberger/Army)
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Pending any orders to ramp up its forces or engagements, U.S. Army Europe and the National Guard are focused on reassuring their allies and partners.
“We continue to train and be prepared for any contingency, any operation the national command authority might ask us to participate in,” said Lt. Gen. Donald Campbell, commanding general of USAREUR. “What [our allies] appreciate is we continue to dialogue with them and look for ways to stay connected. I think they’re reassured by our presence.”
The Guard, which is partnered with 22 countries in the European Command area of operations, including Ukraine, is in the same boat.
“We’ll let the combatant command decide whether they want to ramp up, but the Guard is ready,” said Air Force Maj. Gen. Donald McGregor, director of policy, strategy, plans and international affairs in the National Guard Bureau J5.
“If there is an increase in activity requested of the National Guard, leveraging the State Partnership Program, then that will be requested by EUCOM to us, and we’ll take a look and try to fulfill it,” he said.
The Army continues to draw down in Europe to a force of about 30,000, Campbell said. The drawdown, which included inactivating one corps headquarters, two brigade combat teams and a number of enabler units, is on track to be completed in fiscal 2015, he said.
“In my professional judgment, that will be a very good number for U.S. Army Europe,” he said. “We’ll be very well postured with the BCTs, the aviation brigade, and the enablers to do what we need to do to support our allies and partners here in Europe.” Campbell said. “That will give us the ability to work any contingency or operation the [Defense Department] would ask us to do.”
While NATO forces are talking about adding troops, Campbell declined to discuss whether USAREUR is looking to ramp up its readiness or increase the number of exercises or training events.
“We’re focused on the exercises and training we have, and I believe we’re in a good stance,” he said.
Former Soviet bloc BBQs
The Guard’s long-standing State Partnership Program was created to minimize instability and encourage democracy in the former Soviet bloc nations after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It has since grown into a global program with 68 partner nations, but the European partners were among the first, and each state’s National Guard works with its partner to build relationships and conduct military-to-military engagements and exercises.
Some of the relationships, including the partnership between Ukraine and California, date back to 1993, McGregor said.
“If we wound the clock back to 1992 and looked at the situation there, we would have found a very fragile Russia, a very anxious Russia, and we would have found numerous countries that would have, for the most part, broken out from Soviet governance and influence and trying to find their way forward,’ he said. “There were some very anxious moments in those years.”
Today, McGregor said, the times are different, but some elements remain the same.
“We have a very anxious Russia, a very concerned one, for reasons I couldn’t articulate,” he said. “But now we’re also looking at a way for us to try and assure our allies and partners over there, and what better way to do that than take 21 years of a relationship that we have with many of our partners, to assure them that we’re there backing them.”
In some cases, the relationships go back so many years that counterparts who met as majors are now general officers or commanders in their respective militaries, McGregor said.
“They’ve been barbecuing together, fishing together for 20 years,” he said. “You can’t find that anywhere else in the Department of Defense.”
Based on guidance from EUCOM, the Guard is working as “ambassadors” at this stage, McGregor said.
“They’ve asked us to take the relationships we have, at very senior levels, between the adjutants general and chiefs of defense, for example, and use them … to assure [our partners] we’re there to support them.”
In his recent travels, Campbell said America’s allies and partners are happy that the U.S. continues to work closely with them.
This includes a whole slate of exercises including: .
Saber Guardian, which just wrapped up in Bulgaria. More than 700 troops from 12 countries participated in the command post exercise.
Saber Strike, a long-standing exercise that focuses on the three Baltic States - Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. More than 2,000 troops from eight countries are expected to participate in this year’s event this summer.
Rapid Trident is an exercise this summer with Ukraine. Last year’s event drew more than 1,300 troops. This year, troops from at least a dozen countries are expected to participate.
Exercise Rochambeau, a major NATO land force exercise, will feature almost 2,800 troops from seven countries.
Combined Resolve II kicks off in May and is one of the larger exercises planned this summer.
It will include soldiers from 1st BCT, 1st Cavalry Division, the Army unit regionally aligned with Europe.
More than 4,200 soldiers from 13 countries will participate in Combined Resolve II, said Brig. Gen. Walter Piatt, commanding general of Joint Multinational Training Command.
These events will pave the way for countries in the region to better integrate their training events and increase opportunities to train together, Piatt said.
For example, Combined Resolve II will include a battalion from Georgia; ground troops from Lithuania; special operations troops from the Marine Corps, Bulgaria and Croatia; units from France, Albania, Austria and Hungary; and troops from Romania will partner with an American element to serve as the opposing force, he said.
When asked about what impact current events and tensions may have played in the wide participation of multi-national troops in Combined Resolve II, Piatt said the exercise has been in the works for a “very long time.”
“We have seen great interest before the events in Eastern Europe unfolded for doing more and more together,” he said.
Soldiers across USAREUR also are conducting smaller scale exercises and engagements with partners and allies, Campbell said.
“Training in logistics, communication, [command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance], a lot of teams out there are doing that type of training on a bilateral and bigger basis,” he said.
To date, all planned exercises are going on as scheduled, except for some engagements the U.S. would have conducted with Russia, Campbell said.
“We had a table top called Atlas Vision, and we had talked about some parachute training, but that’s off the table right now,” he said.
From the Guard’s perspective, all planned activities and engagements with partner nations are continuing as scheduled, except for those with Ukraine, McGregor said.
All activities there are on hold until EUCOM leaders decide otherwise, he said.
However, “there’s been quite a bit of assurance going on verbally,” he said. “We’ve had contact, and these are normal relationships we’ve had with Ukraine over the years, and that has not stopped.”
Another way for the Army to show its commitment is through its regionally aligned forces, Campbell said.
Soldiers from 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, of Fort Hood, Texas, are aligned to Europe and the NATO Response Force. This month, the brigade headquarters and a battalion task force will begin traveling to Germany for a two-month rotation, Campbell said.
The soldiers will participate in Combined Resolve II, which kicks off in May, before heading off to Exercise Rochambeau and Saber Strike, Campbell said.
There also are plans to integrate the soldiers into smaller training events, he said.
In the fall, elements of the brigade will return to Europe for another set of training events and exercises, Campbell said.
At the end of the year, 1st BCT, 1st Cavalry will hand off their Europe responsibilities to 1st BCT, 3rd Infantry Division. The 3rd Infantry Division headquarters also is aligned with Europe, and plans call for USAREUR to incorporate the division headquarters into future exercises and potentially even a full warfighter exercise.
“I think it’d be a great opportunity for a division headquarters to come over here and show and U.S.’ resolve and commitment to reassure our NATO commitment and to our allies,” Campbell said
Training together also prepares the countries in the region for any contingency that have occur, Piatt said.
“We don’t know where the next threat’s going to be,” he said. “We do know we’re not going to go it alone, so we ought to be training together. No nation can afford to go back to their borders now and try to downsize their military and defend their country that way. The hybrid threat is multinational, so you’ve got to engage forward.”
America’s European partners are “among out best and most important allies,” Campbell said.
“At this point it’s really about assurance and reassurance that the U.S. and U.S. Army are going to be there through whatever crises come up,” Campbell said. “Our commitment to the European nations … is going to stay consistent, and we’re going to stay focused on it. Folks have talked about the shift to the Pacific, but at the same time, I don’t believe the U.S. or U.S. Army has taken its eye off Europe at all.”