WASHINGTON — Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the US Army Europe commander, is at the helm of the Army's accelerating pivot to Europe.
Things are looking brighter for the leader when it comes to getting funding and manpower he needs to deter Russia's military aggression in Eastern Europe and to bolster allies' defense capabilities.
Less than six months ago, Hodges was talking about how he was stretching the Army "paper thin," having to make 30,000 troops feel more like 300,000, which meant getting "creative."
President Obama's budget request more than quadrupled the amount of overseas contingency operations (OCO) money funneled into what is being called the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI). About $2.8 billion of the $3.4 billion in fiscal 2017 ERI funding will be allocated to the Army.
With that money the Army plans to keep a rotational armored brigade combat team in Europe and bolster its force with more prepositioned stocks. The service also plans to ramp up exercises with allies and partners.
Defense News spoke with Hodges on the phone while he was traveling via the German Autobahn, fresh from a weekend at the Munich Security Conference in February about the significance of the new ERI funding.
Walk me through what the new ERI funding in '17 means to your command.
I think that the announcement by the president of this ERI request is a great signal of a United States commitment to Europe. ... It is a demonstration of the importance of land power ... as a part of how the US contributes to assurance and deterrence.
The specifics that I would anticipate are an increase in rotational presence. What we have on the ground are two US Army brigades. That is the Stryker regiment ... then we have the airborne brigade. ... So, those are our two what you would call maneuver brigades. Then we have signals intelligence, logistics units, and those kinds of things. We have, I would call it, the remnants of a combat aviation brigade. As part of the Aviation Restructure Initiative, where the Army took down three brigades, one of the three ... was the brigade in Europe. So, what I have left is just a headquarters and two of the battalions in it.
Now, in the past year, the Army started rotating back over to Europe a heavy brigade. All of the equipment came back. … So, we have got all of the equipment for a heavy brigade or an armored brigade.
The troops for that brigade are coming right now from Fort Stewart, Georgia, 1st Brigade, 3rd Division. … They will come back again in April for six months.
We also are using ERI money to do a lot of stuff with the National Guard and the Army Reserve. … I mean the reserve component is like oxygen for what we are trying to do.
How long are the new ABCT rotations going to be?
The requirement this year was just for the six months. ... Then we were anticipating a similar kind of rotation beginning in '17, until this announcement was made, which now means that we are going to have full-time rotational presence. So, this is where the heel-to-toe part starts in January '17. The first unit to come will be 3rd Brigade, 4th Division. ... They will arrive in January. They will stay for nine months. Then they will be replaced in September, October '17 by another brigade.
Why are you are doing a rotational presence instead of a forward-stationed BCT like the National Commission on the Future of the Army recommends?
We would all rather have the brigades living over here … but I believe that the realities of it are that the Army's top line is coming down, which means that the size of the Army is coming down. In order to put a brigade, say 5,000 soldiers back over in [Europe] or all of the places we used to have them, that means they would have to come out of Fort Hood, or Fort Carson, or Fort somewhere in the US. We do not believe there is congressional support to take troops out of a US state and a US congressional district and put them back in Europe.
At least what the [defense] secretary has done is figured out all right, well, you still need capability. So, rotational presence gives us the tactical capabilities and the strategic effect.
Any plans for new training exercises?
Part of the readiness action plan that was announced at the NATO Summit in Wales on September 14 … specifically included increasing [training exercises], the sophistication, and the quality of exercises.
You will see that throughout 2016 and on into 2017, but there are some great ones coming up in May and June. In May, we are going to participate in a Turkish exercise that will have US and British troops in Turkey. ... Turkey does this exercise every other year. I saw it myself two years ago. I thought, 'Man, I wish we could be a part of it.' They invited us this year.
Also in May we will do an exercise in Georgia called Noble Partner which we participated in last year. It is Georgia's national defense exercise. We will have a tank company move across the Black Sea on a ferry, and an airborne company will jump in there. These guys will all be under command of the Georgia battalion commander.
June, you have got ... signature exercises happening. [They] are Swift Response, which is an exercise we did last year in Germany. This year it will be in Poland and Germany. Then probably the centerpiece exercise in June is called Anakonda, which is Poland's national exercise. It has a lot of opportunities to train with allies in 22 different countries on the full range of activities.
There are exercises in Romania, Bulgaria, out into the fall. I am planning to increase the capability of a logistics site [in Romania]. I think we are going to improve the quality of that place to give us a better logistical hub to the Black Sea Region.
I think that we will look to increase our contacts and exercises in Italy, and Albania, Montenegro. I have got engineers going into Serbia here in a few months, engineers going into Moldova. So, looking for ways to do more exercises in the southern flank of NATO.
I know you have talked a lot about using the National Guard and the Reserve more. Do you see a way to increase what they are doing using FY-17 funding?
[Through the State Partnership Program] Alabama [National Guard] is matched up with Romania, California with Ukraine, Pennsylvania with Lithuania, Illinois with Poland, and so on. Those states are in and out of there all of the time in small numbers. … That gives us capability in those states that I would not have otherwise.
Eighty percent of the Army's logistics and engineers are in the reserve deployment. I need their capabilities, engineering and logistics, to do everything else we are doing. Probably about a quarter of the soldiers that will be involved in Anakonda are coming from the Reserve component.
ERI money is definitely [good], but frankly, to get access to the Guard and Reserve … I need the department to make sure that that is funded.
What do you still think you need in the out years beyond this initial plus-up?
My number one need is for combat aviation. That is the biggest gap in our capabilities. … Everybody knows that the Army is designed to fight with our aviation. So, the Army is trying to figure out a way to do it whether it is rotational aviation, rotational troops, whatever the solution is, because it looks like they may have to add combat aviation back into Korea. … We are not the only show in town. That is what is going on. Combat aviation is critical.
The improved lethality of the Strykers needs to be addressed. I think we will start seeing that beyond '17.
All of us are more and more in charge of training in a cyber environment. It certainly has everybody's attention to make sure we are doing all of the right things to protect our networks.
How would you gauge our interoperability with allies now?
We just had our first successful effort here … where you had an American artillery unit under an Italian brigade headquarters. We were able to process what we call a digital fire mission in a multinational environment. ... That was a breakthrough.
We are making some progress on finding a way, a technical solution to having interoperable secure FM communication where you have American, German and French units talking on FM secure frequency hopping.
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 in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts from Kenyon College.