HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — The Army is shifting to larger-scale exercises that happen on short-notice in order to be less predictable to possible adversaries, according to Gen. Robert Abrams, the Army’s Forces Command commander.
“I think there is probably a very, very good chance that we, as part of this new paradigm outlined in the National Defense Strategy,” will see those exercises happening “not necessarily just to [U.S. European Command] but maybe to other combatant commands,” Abrams told Defense News in an interview at the Association of the U.S. Army’s Global Force Symposium.
The newly released National Defense Strategy — or NDS — calls for the military to be strategically predictable to allies and partners and operationally unpredictable to potential adversaries, particularly China and Russia.
The NDS conveys the idea of a “dynamic force presence,” Abrams said, which changes the thinking about how forces are employed globally.
“We want to reduce those rotational demands that don’t contribute to building and sustaining readiness so that we can have units trained and ready, sort of in a low crouch, ready to respond to these worldwide contingencies,” he said.
For the last 16 or 17 years, according to Abrams, the U.S. force posture has been “very predictable” with its rotational deployment model. The U.S. military has heel-to-toe rotations to the U.S. Central Command area of operations as well as a rotational Brigade Combat Team to South Korea and a rotational Combat Aviation Brigade and Armored BCT to Europe.
And while there’s a very good chance the Army will shift to larger scale exercises with an element of surprise, it’s also possible exercises won’t be confined to just one combatant command. “It may involve forces from on COCOM, that are assigned to one COCOM, participating in another COCOM’s exercise,” Abrams said.
While there isn’t a plan to send more troops to Europe in 2019, it’s possible the Army will see an increase in troops deployed to the theater in the years following. What that will look like remains to be seen.
But Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, then-U.S. Army Europe commander, told Defense News just prior to his retirement, that the service was considering larger deployments to Europe in the coming years to test its ability to handle more than a brigade’s worth of troops and equipment, which would be needed should a real crisis arise.
Abrams said he believed the Army is already exercising, to an extent, the ability for a Division headquarters sized-unit to deploy and exercise in Europe. The “Big Red One” -- the 1st Infantry Division from Fort Riley, Kansas, relieved the 4th Infantry Division from three years of operations along the Eastern flank of Europe in March.
The unit will be worked into upcoming major exercises in Europe, he said.
But Abrams added, “I think what Gen. Hodges was getting at is having not only more division headquarters, but to also have more brigades, multiple brigades, so I think that is all in the foreseeable future and I think it’s clearly aligned with [Defense] Secretary Jim Mattis’ desire to be strategically predictable with our allies and partners but operationally unpredictable.”
The Army has spent the last several years stressing the importance of being able to deploy equipment and troops from the continental United States into Europe rapidly and the service has already moved an entire armored brigade set of equipment and troops to the theater twice as part of a heel-to-toe rotation.
The ability to make major muscle movements like deploying an entire ABCT to Europe atrophied during the wars in the Middle East where the service has been primarily forward-based, which means troops fall in on equipment already in theater.
Army Materiel Command Commander Gen. Gus Perna told Defense News, in a separate interview at AUSA, that the Army has prioritized training to operational movements. In such a movement, a brigade gets alerted it will be going to a training event at the National Training Center, Europe or South Korea, for example, and it is responsible for moving its equipment to a rail-head, loading it all onto a rail, synchronizing movement of equipment to a port, loading it again onto a ship and then offloading at another port followed by moving equipment using road and rail to a final destination.
“Over the last three years, we have exponentially increased the amount of times we have done that,” Perna said, “35 times three years ago, as much as 55 times last year and numbers for this year are about 77, and so we will roll that into the following year and I already know the increases are going to be more.”
The ramp up in such movements will allow the Army “to train, to build muscle memory through soldiers, through leaders, through organizations to deploy our forces, but we all have to be synchronized and integrated,” Perna said. “It’s got to be almost like the human body operating, it can’t just be the hand, can’t just be the leg, can’t be the arm, it’s got to be a collective synergy all the way from the motorpool to the following fox hole.”
And the Army has learned quite a few lessons in how to adapt its processes and procedures for getting equipment into theater.
“We’ve learned quite a bit quite frankly, some of it as simple as how to strap a vehicle to a rail car, which was a lost art, to how we load ships, what type of ships we want to use, how we call forward ships, what capability we want on the far side and understanding that maybe those ports and airfields can be interdicted,” Perna said. “We’ve learned a great deal tactically all the way through strategically. How do you manage the fleet, who manages it, who is in command and control, and how do they do that?”
AMC is also in charge of ensuring there are Army Prepositioned Stocks positioned strategically around the world and has been growing and modernizing the APS in Europe particularly.
There are plans to keep the APS equipment active in Europe by practicing withdrawing it and using it during exercises in the coming years.
“We have made excellent progress in terms of equipping to the requirement,” Perna said. “We feel very good about that around the world. We have really done great work on ensuring the equipment is ready, turn they key, the engine turns on and the soldiers should have confidence that it works.”
And in addition to ensuring the equipment is ready, Perna’s command is also making sure the right equipment if positioned in the right theaters based on the threat environment and the missions in which troops are expected to engage.
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.