WASHINGTON — With an eye toward Russia's ability to mass troops quickly, the US plans to demonstrate its own ability to move manpower and heavy vehicles as soldiers begin a 1,100-mile convoy through six countries en route to their home station in Vilseck, Germany.
The US Army squadron wrapping several months of training with allies in Poland will take its Strykers through the Baltics March 21 through April 1, stopping in a new community each night. The vehicles are part of an armored brigade's worth of equipment the Army plans to station in Europe.
"It's helped us further develop our understanding of freedom of movement in Eastern Europe," said Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the Army's most senior commander in Europe, in an interview with Defense News and Army Times reporters and editors.
The "Dragoon Ride" will take 3rd Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment, troops from training locations in Estonia, Lithuania and Poland and convoy them through Latvia and the Czech Republic to Vilseck.
"[Russian President Vladimir] Putin exercises freedom of movement all the time" within Russia, Hodges said, and the US plans to demonstrate how it converges people and vehicles, a "tremendous opportunity" to practice and reassure allies in the face of Russian aggression. To pull it off, the Army is navigating diplomatic requirements and assessing infrastructure among Eastern European allies.
"This is what the US Army does, we can move a lot of capability a long distance," Hodges said. "I've been watching the Russian exercises ... what I cared about is they can get 30,000 people and 1,000 tanks in a place really fast. Damn, that was impressive."
The remarks coincide with the one-year anniversary of Russia's annexation of Crimea, condemned by Kiev and the West as an illegal land grab but heralded by many Russians as correcting a historic injustice.
Aside from the Russian military's ability to converge quickly, Hodges noted Russia's modernized jamming and signal direction-finding capabilities, stressing the importance of US troops using secure communications.
In Eastern Ukraine, Hodges said, Russian-backed forces are employing jammers to interfere with drones that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe intended to monitor in compliance with the Minsk cease-fire agreement. Ukraine's ground defense systems are being jammed, creating what is essentially a "no-fly zone," Hodges said.
"The quality and sophistication of their electronic warfare is eye watering," Hodges said of the Russian military.
Washington's European Reassurance Initiative, unveiled last month, includes stepped-up rotations and multilateral exercises, enhancing prepositioned stocks of equipment, and military aid to NATO and non-NATO allies. The aid includes the improvement of railheads among Eastern European allies, Hodges said.
In this vein, the Army is expanding its European Activity Set of gear, which contains about a battalion's worth of heavy equipment, including 29 Abrams tanks and 33 Bradleys, to a brigade's worth — about 220 Abrams tanks and Bradleys, and 18 Howitzers — by January 2016.
As yet, it is unclear where the equipment's permanent home will be.
Hodges proposed to NATO commander Gen. Philip Breedlove that the equipment either all be stationed in Germany or be split into "clusters" distributed around the region. One such cluster would be shared across the Baltics, another by Poland and Hungary, a third Romania and Bulgaria, and the last, Germany.
For now, the equipment will go to Coleman Barracks in Mannheim, Germany, which will delay the turnover of the facility to the German government. The US converted it into a depot after World War II.
"Wherever it winds up being, it will be a mix of different kinds of [funding to build the facilities]," Hodges said. "Some countries will be able to help pay it, but they all want it."
The ongoing US Army Europe-led land force assurance training mission, Operation Atlantic Resolve, is expanding from Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, to Romania and Bulgaria and Georgia at the end of April. US officials are interested in Hungary and the Czech Republic.
For the Georgian exercises, Hodges said, the US is going to feature Bradleys that will travel across the Black Sea into Georgia.
Troops from the 173rd Airborne Brigade are set to train three battalions of Ukrainian national guard troops who are responsible for rear air security, infrastructure security, route security and other tasks to support front line Ukrainian soldiers. The battalions will undergo training sequentially, over eight weeks, in or near the city of L'viv in Western Ukraine,
Among the equipment the US has shared with Ukraine is the lightweight counter-mortar radar, a tool to target sources of artillery in what had been an artillery duel between Ukraine and Russian-backed forces. The US could learn from Ukraine's experience, as US troops had not been shelled by Russian-made artillery since the Vietnam War.
Though it lacks the range to pinpoint the origin of long-range Russian artillery and rockets, Ukraine forces have learned to repair the radar in the field and use it effectively, according to Hodges. "They love it," he said.