Commander, US Army in Europe

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What drawdown? The US Army is busier in Europe than ever, answering Russian aggression with a series of multinational exercises across Eastern Europe and the promise to permanently station an armored brigade's worth of equipment.

The exercises, called Operation Atlantic Resolve, dovetail with the US European Reassurance Initiative, a $1 billion package of stepped-up rotations, prepositioned stocks of equipment, and military aid to NATO and non-NATO allies.

Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, commander of the US Army in Europe, was in Washington discussing plans for US soldiers to begin a convoy through six countries en route to their home station in Vilseck, Germany. The squadron, wrapping several months of training with allies in Poland, will take its Strykers through the Baltics March 21-April 1, demonstrating the Army's ability to move troops and equipment.

"It's helped us further develop our understanding of freedom of movement in Eastern Europe," Hodges said. "This is what the US Army does, we can move a lot of capability a long distance. 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."

Russia announced last week it had doubled the number of troops taking part in mass drills ordered by President Vladimir Putin to 80,000 in a show of strength amid tensions with the West over Ukraine.

Q. Talk about the units going to support Operation Atlantic Resolve.

A. The Army's Regionally Aligned Force is vital to what we are doing. The fourth division command post arrived just the other day. The deputy commander has touched every one of the embassies and the defense leadership of all the nations of Operation Atlantic Resolve, and he and the fourth Division Mission Command element are going to be running land operations for OAR all year. So getting that level of headquarters is really a huge help to us.

Number two, the armored brigade combat team, first of the third out of Fort Story, Georgia. The equipment is already arriving. The ship arrived in Riga last week to begin unloading equipment from second battalion, seventh cavalry that will be up in the Baltics. Having a brigade combat team rotating over here gives us the ability to have tanks, Bradleys and self-propelled howitzers as part of OAR, but also expands our capacity to maintain this continuous series of exercises, which are OAR. And of course, our allies, they see tanks, they see Bradleys, they see self-propelled howitzers. That significantly increases the sense of assurance, which is the primary reason for doing it.

Q. What are some of the skill sets you guys are working to sharpen?

A. The principal thing we want to improve is interoperability. Interoperability, in terms of common standards and procedures, which NATO has had for years. The other one, which is harder, is interoperability of communication systems, specifically secure, tactical FM communications. Interoperable friendly-force tracking system — our blue force tracker should work with Romanian or German or French systems, and then interoperable battle command systems. So since we're always going to be task-organized in multinational formations, you want the icons from all units showing up on your common operating picture. We are working very hard on that.

Q. As you train Ukrainian forces, what have you learned from them?

A. The fighting that has been going on in Ukraine is a very serious, kinetic, violent steel-on-steel fight. This is not some rebels sniping at each other. This is massive amounts of artillery, massive amounts of rockets, T-72 tanks, land mines, direct-fire weapons, thousands of troops involved. The proxies, the so-called separatists, clearly are being supported very actively by Russia. The border between eastern Ukraine and Russia is wide open, so every week there are convoys coming through that are unmonitored. Russians do not allow OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] to monitor what is in those convoys, but the volume of artillery and rocket ammunition that has been expended is eye-watering. The quality of the electronic warfare [EW] capability that Russians have employed in eastern Ukraine, this is not something that you can create in the basement of your home. So when President Putin says, well these are just coal miners and tractor drivers, it is an obvious lie.

Q. There were some soldiers on vacation there as well.

A. Yeah, I have not met with many first sergeants that would allow a soldier to take his tank with him, or his rocket launcher, when he goes on leave. So, part of this is countering the Russian narrative. We want peace and that sort of thing. The proxies are clearly an extension of Russian military capability, and the quality and sophistication of what the Russians are using there — air defense, EW, artillery rockets, surveillance — it is significant.

And there's obvious command and control involvement on the ground by Russians. Everybody I know, certainly people in uniform, wants this to have a diplomatic solution. We wanted to see the Minsk Agreement successfully implemented. One of the keys is monitoring. OSCE has been denied access to at least 30 percent of the area where they should be able to monitor. And 70 percent of the area where they are monitoring, they are constantly under pressure from rebels. They have even had rebels point weapons at them, telling them they are going to kill them. You have to schedule things a day ahead of time. So the verification protocol through the Russians and their rebels is not living up to what they said they would, which makes it difficult to trust.

Nonetheless, everybody wants to see this be a success. So, the aid that the US provides, that the West provides, very smart people are working hard to figure out — how do we help the Ukrainians but in a way that still provides space for the Minsk Agreement to eventually work? That is not easy.

Q. What are some things that you are going to be training the Ukrainians on?

A. We've got three battalions from the 173rd Airborne Brigade that will be matched up with three battalions of Ukrainians. It was to help them with their basic task — the national guard are responsible for radar security, route security, securing checkpoints, critical infrastructure, that sort of thing, behind the MoD troops that would actually be in the fighting.

So we're planning to help them with doing those tasks, basic security tasks, movement tasks, field craft, that sort of thing. But the casualties that they have suffered have been so high, we realized there's a need to help them with combat lifesaving.

The ultimate non-lethal aid is combat lifesaving first aid — helping them survive Russian rockets and artillery. One of the things they have gotten from us that has been very effective is the lightweight counter-mortar radar.

We have never been under Russian artillery like the volume that they are experiencing, so we've learned a lot from watching the Ukrainians take these lightweight counter-mortar radars. They've lost a couple, but they still have well over a dozen.

Q. Are you concerned about that capability falling to the other side?

A. No, because this is not secret technology. The Russians have similar counter-fire radar. But it's something the Ukrainians value. The problem is it is lightweight counter-mortar radar, so the range does not help a whole lot with the rockets and artillery. So it's been good for them to provide some early warning. So any notion that they would not be able to handle, if we give them the next generation or next level of radar, is completely untrue.

Q. How would you change training and the way we think about future conflict based on what we're seeing there?

A. The Russians have continued to move forward with their EW modernization. They have demonstrated the ability to completely shut down everything the Ukrainians are using in terms of communications. OSCE has reported that the drones they use for monitoring are being interfered with. Again, this is not something you can craft in your basement. There is imagery, public pictures of Russian systems in Crimea that are absolute state of the art.

This is why this interoperability and secure FM is so important, since we are always going to operate multinational. If you put a US company under an Estonian battalion, as we did last spring when the president deployed those great paratroopers from Vicenza to the Baltics for assurance, we had US companies with Harris radios under Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian and Polish battalions, who also had Harris radios. But they couldn't talk to each other because they had different crypto. If we're going to deploy that way, we need to have secure FM communications. Without that, soldiers will do what they have to do. They will go unsecure, which then means the Russian EW capability jams it or finds it, intercepts it, targets it. That's why this is a big deal.

We have to improve that interoperability that I described, but also we have got to start practicing that we are not going to have uncontested cyber domain like we did in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Q. You're seeing cyber operations too?

A. Absolutely. Well, the interesting thing about cyber is that it is often difficult to attribute where it comes from. It will not have a Russian flag attached to it.

So our first priority is protecting our systems, all of our allies, especially since we are all multinational in our formations. The old adage about the weakest link is definitely true when you are talking about any multinational interconnected battle command system. That's a legitimate concern that we have to worry about, and we have to train on it.

By Defense News staff in Washington.

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