WASHINGTON — The US Army is planning to set up more equipment caches — known as activity sets — in Europe as nerves continue to fray over Russia's incursion into Ukraine, putting eastern countries, particularly with ethnic ties to Russia, on alert.
Gen. Dennis Via, the commander of Army Materiel Command, told Defense News in an exclusive interview at the Association of the US Army's annual conference last week, that more caches are needed in Europe.
"There will be more activity sets," Via said. "We are looking at other options, what else we need."
The four-star visited Europe last month and met with both NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove and the commander of US Army Europe Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges "to understand what they determine their future requirements will be for these other activity sets that they want to build."
Activity sets are separate sets of equipment outside of prepositioned stocks that are placed in various parts of the world to support regionally aligned forces and tailored to meet combatant commanders' needs in specific regions.
The initial guidance for the activity set in Europe was to build an armored battalion set of equipment, which the Army set up in about 18 months, Via said. The Army built it without knowing it would be used quickly after Russia annexed Crimea. The service then deployed the 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, Texas, to Europe. In four days, the unit drew the equipment and started training with France, Latvia and Germany, "so that began the initial rotation," he said.
Following that deployment, the Army was directed to build a brigade combat team with over 1,200 items. "That brigade will be built by this fall," Via said, "and it will be up to full mission capability." The brigade will begin deploying to Europe on nine-month rotations. Between rotations, Army Materiel Command will reset the equipment in theater.
For the additional activity sets, Via said, they could be any size from company- to battalion- or brigade-size sets. "What we are determining now and waiting for decisions to be made by [US Army Europe] and by NATO, and of course the Department of the Army, is what size and what number of sets and the locations that they will be placed."
Then AMC's role is to "put infrastructure in place, hire the personnel, ship the parts that need to be put there, set up the processes, so that we can help the units sustain that equipment in between the time that they are rotating for these missions," he said.
Via said that while AMC will be able to respond to whatever is determined for future activity sets, "we are challenged with this [continuing resolution] and uncertainty in the budget because that then creates uncertainty in what the Department of the Army can make decisions on, and the Department of Defense, as we determine what we need to put there."
Based on Via's recent conversations with commanders in Europe, he said he has already issued directives within his organization to prepare for anticipated needs.
One challenge, Via noted, in adding activity sets is the Army has capped the number of soldiers it is allowed to send to Europe at 30,000. "We will want to make most of those combat soldiers," he said. "So the enabling forces that will go means that we will have a limited number of soldiers that we can send that will perform maintenance and logistics and so forth," Via said.
Via's command will then send Army civilians who volunteer to go and will contract much of the work as well as hire local personnel, which is harder than it seems. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, who retired this summer, in 2013 directed the Army to reduce its force structure in Europe by 40 percent.
"We closed many of the facilities there, much of the workforce that we had in place, they've either retired or they've moved on and so the challenge is hiring those people back, determining where the facilities are that we are going to work out of and then being able to stand them up," Via said.
For now there's funding available to keep 30,000 troops in the European theater, Via said. So far, the Army is sending 200 M1 Abrams tanks — with the initial tranche of 90 already in the region — along with 120 Bradley Fighting Vehicles, Paladin artillery systems, engineering equipment and a multitude of other equipment. The Army will also send 81 upgraded Strykers to Europe with new 30mm cannons in response to an urgent request.
The equipment plus-up is funded through the European Reassurance Initiative, backed by up to $1 billion. The funding was put in place to ensure European allies, who feel threatened by Russian President Vladimir Putin's aggression, that the US supports their security by positioning forces and engaging with its partners in training and military exercises under Operation Atlantic Resolve.
While US Army leaders in Europe plan to send more equipment to the region, Army Europe chief Hodges said in mid-October at AUSA last week that capabilities are stretched "paper thin" and the Army has to make 30,000 troops feel more like 300,000, which means it has to be "creative."
Hodges said there is "mismatch" between the Army's strategic policy in Europe and how it's funded. Conducting the activities bolstered by equipment sets using overseas contingency operations funding instead of money in the base budget "reflects a shortage" in the budget more than it is a reflection of "people not paying attention or being clever," he said.
Hodges said if Atlantic Resolve was redesignated as a named operation, the National Guard and Army Reserve could be called in to help, "but we haven't been able to get there yet."
Without the Guard and Reserve and without rotational forces, it's not a tempo that we can sustain," he said.