WASHINGTON ― NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence battle groups instilled confidence on the eastern flank of Europe during Russia’s large annual exercise Zapad 2017, which took place over the month of September, the commander of U.S. Army Europe said.

“Our allies now have a lot more confidence in the enhanced forward presence battle groups that were deployed in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland,” Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges told Defense News in an interview at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference.

“In less than one year from the decision of the alliance at the NATO Summit in Warsaw last summer [2016], all of these battle groups were deployed and in place and these are real warfighting formations, each one capable of defeating a Russian brigade,” Hodges said. “And they were in place before Zapad, and so I think our allies really have a lot more confidence in what the alliance is doing as part of deterrence.”

Hodges said it’s believed the Russian exercise was much larger and began much earlier than Moscow claimed.

“Zapad wasn’t just in Belarus,” he said. “That was the Russian narrative.”

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The Russians claimed it had 12,700 soldiers in Belarus exercising during Zapad, just below the 13,000 threshold required for them to report and have observers present, according to Hodges.

“But there were tens of thousands of Russian soldiers, sailors and airmen involved in this exercise,” he said, adding there was a collection of distributed exercises happening from the Arctic Circle down through Belarus and connected exercises happening in the Southern military district over in the Caucuses.

The final piece of the exercise is underway now, which is a nuclear portion, Hodges said.

The intelligence sharing across NATO and multilateral arrangements across Europe as well as the United States and Canada, “is better than we have ever seen because we were all really focused on doing what we could to understand what the Russians were going to be doing,” Hodges said.

The Army and its allies and partners will be “looking at the forensics” of Zapad for several months, Hodges said, but based on what has been learned, the Russians demonstrated the ability, yet again, to move people “real far, real fast.”

The Russians also demonstrated they have really effective electronic warfare capability. They also demonstrated a lot of activities with drones, Hodges said.

Additionally, it was confirmed that the core of how they fight is still with long-range fires, rockets and artillery, Hodges said. “That was definitely on display.”

Hodges noted the Army has to start getting creative on solutions and that long-range precision fires development has to be a top priority given what Russia has displayed in terms of capability.

The Russians also tried some of the new command and control changes they have made, Hodges said, “and I think we will look at the forensics of that for a while to see how effective the new mission command structures are.”

Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.

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