HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — The U.S. Army is using heel-to-toe rotational deployments of armored brigade combat teams and combat aviation brigades in Europe to practice rapidly massing equipment and troops in countries near the Russian border.

The 21st Theater Sustainment Command is laser-focused on decreasing the time it takes to move ABCTs and CABs into position from fort to port and then port to operational locations in Europe. And the command is also preparing to manage the process for units to disperse and then again rapidly join up for exercises throughout the rotation.

U.S. Army Europe commander Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges has said many times that the role for the Army in the region over the last two years was to assure U.S. allies as concern builds over Russian aggression in Ukraine and the possible spread of that aggression into other countries in the Baltics.

This year marks a shift into a new phase, where the purpose for the service is to deter Russia in addition to reassuring allies, the commander has said.

This includes bringing in the new heel-to-toe ABCT and CAB for nine-month rotations. The ABCT will disperse to areas of responsibility aligned with the Atlantic Resolve mission — the framework for the U.S. mission to assure allies in Europe and deter Russia through exercises and operations.

One battalion will head to the Baltic region — Atlantic Resolve North — while another battalion will deploy to Romania and Bulgaria — Atlantic Resolve South — Hodges told Defense News last October. The bulk of the combat team will remain in Poland, staying in Polish barracks at training areas where some of the best ranges and maintenance facilities are situated, such as Drawsko Pomorskie.

The Army faced one of its biggest challenge in January as it relearned to rapidly deploy large units and all of its resident equipment back to Europe through seaports and by road and rail.

Within 14 days after arriving at the seaport in Bremerhaven, Germany, the ABCT was in place in Poland and ready to fight, Maj. Gen. Duane Gamble, the commander of the 21st Theater Sustainment Command, said at the Association of the U.S. Army's Global Force Symposium this week.

More than 2,000 pieces from the 3rd Brigade of the 4th Division out of Fort Carson, Colorado, traveled across the Atlantic to Bremerhaven where the sustainment command and other NATO allies helped offload the ships and prepared the equipment for voyage by rail and road within 36 hours.

Overall, it was the largest shipment of equipment to reach Europe in two decades.

The move comes at a time when the U.S. Army is backing away from using "activity sets" — equipment set up in theater for units to fall in on during exercises — in order to practice full-on rapid deployments of units with equipment.

Gamble said he expects rotational deployments to continue for at least five years, keeping the sustainment command in Europe very busy.

The speed of deployment is critical should Russia make a move into one of the Baltic states, and the sustainment brigade must master the speed and what it takes to move freely across countries.

The sustainment command — while happy with the time it took to move equipment, experiencing no major hiccups — wants to beat its time by four days with the next rotational deployment — the 1st Armored Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team — set to arrive in Europe in September.

While the mission was accomplished, "the plan doesn’t survive first contact," as the saying goes, "because you have to adapt your way through the process," Gamble told reporters at the symposium.

There’s "no Army standard for this," Gamble said, and typically the process can take upward of 30 days.

In order to get the deployment process down to 14 days, the command decided to take the 10-day process of integrating and calibrating equipment with the unit down to four days. Then the command worked backward to the time it would take from ramp down at the port to the delivery of equipment to the unit, calculating it would take nine to 10 days.

The deployment was also sped up by flying most of the 3,400 ABCT personnel more directly to the area of operation and chose 50 personnel to help offload the ships and stage equipment.

The Army also decided to convoy only 50 vehicles to Poland while the rest of the equipment moved by rail, Gamble said.

"We did this for two reasons," he said. Last year at Poland’s major military exercise — Anakonda 16 — "quite frankly, we overwhelmed ourselves, our own ability to manage the convoys, given our stretched forces, and we wanted to retrain to standard."

Now the Army will expand the convoy to 400 vehicles through Germany into Poland on the next rotation, Gamble said.

This will allow the command to shorten the timeline from 14 days to 10.

The command also found a way to shrink the timeline by not only using a rail line from Bremerhaven but also a military rail located 168 kilometers from the port that was used by Nazis during World War II to transport people to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

It is a "very capable rail head," Gamble said.

For the next rotation in September, as Hodges suspected last fall, the ABCT will sail into several ports to test its ability to unload and come together in another designated point, Gamble confirmed.

The theater sustainment command is also working through how to mass the ABCT within 72 hours for exercises this summer, Gamble said.

The focus will be to develop a joint area of operations distribution system to support Saber Strike that will take place in June in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Then it will design a way to mass the ABCT for Saber Guardian in July taking place in Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary.

During Saber Guardian, the command will also exercise the combatant command's Army Prepositioned Stocks — equipment set at a high level of readiness for rapid deployment in an emergency.

Gamble said he was not sure if the Army has the resources "right now" to mass the ABCT in 72 hours for Saber Guardian, adding it would be doable if most of the unit was in Poland at the start. However, if the unit is spread out from the Black Sea to the Baltic Sea, "then it gets a little tougher."

Such an exercise for the sustainment command is not something that has been exercised in quite some time, he added.

Lastly, the command will also work on logistics-related exercises within the Enhanced Forward Presence construct. NATO — at the Wales Summit — decided to deploy four multinational battalion battle groups in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland as part of the assurance and deterrence effort.

The United Kingdom is paired up with Estonia; Canada is partnering with Latvia; Germany with Lithuania; and the U.S. with Poland.

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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