CINCU, Romania — Some major improvements are underway at the Joint National Training Center in Romania that are designed to ultimately strengthen capability across NATO forces, and it's being made possible largely by U.S. funding through the European Reassurance Initiative.
Roughly $23 million in funding — provided through the account designed to bolster initiatives to reassure European allies and deter an aggressive and unpredictable Russia — is going toward the construction of a massive nonstandard live-fire range for tanks, a sniper range, a light demolition range and ammunition storage among a few other infrastructure efforts.
"The purpose of ERI was to improve training capabilities and capacity throughout Eastern Europe, which would help improve our readiness, but also for our allies, and so this is exactly what I think they had in mind. And the Congress, of course, has been generous sustaining ERI, and this is what you get," U.S. Army Europe Commander Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges told Defense News on Friday as he toured the range under construction.
The U.S. Army is working to ensure countries along the Eastern flank of Europe are ready for anything and are prepared to fight alongside NATO and the U.S., so helping to strengthen training facilities in Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Romania are underway, Hodges said.
For example, the U.S. Army is engaged in a very similar effort compared to what is being done at the JNTC at the Novo Selo Training Area in Bulgaria.
The nonstandard live-fire range has five lanes, with two battle positions per lane, for tanks to engage moving targets at the bottom. The range is built to accommodate the NATO standard of four lanes for such a range and the Romanian standard of requiring five lanes.
The 926th Engineer Brigade, comprised of U.S. Army National Guard and Reserve soldiers, have had the lead on the projects at the JNTC in Cincu since October 2016. The efforts fall under one exercise — Resolute Castle 2017 — designed to not only build improvements to the training facilities but also to help train the soldiers there working on the projects, according to Col. Paul Mattern, the brigade's commander.
Roughly 2,000 soldiers make up Resolute Castle from three nations — the U.S., Romania and the United Kingdom. Poland also hosts a portion of the exercise.
Because of U.S. reserves' rotational policy, a group of reserves rotates in and out every three weeks. The exercise has moved through five rotations since October and will see three more before the end.
As of Friday, the exercise was comprised of 342 U.S. soldiers, 78 soldiers from the Romanian Army and 148 soldiers from the United Kingdom.
While the end result will be state-of-the-art training ranges, the process of building them is an invaluable experience for the soldiers, and it's not something that can easily be replicated in training at home.
The sheer effort involved in moving heavy construction equipment overseas for the exercise was an undertaking itself and a learning experience, U.S. Army leaders stressed Friday as Hodges toured the construction sites.
While a few hurdles related to language barriers and being on the same page with the metric system surfaced, they were easily surmountable, Lt. Col. John Haas, the task force commander on the ground for Resolute Castle, told Defense News on Friday at the range site.
The engineers also worked in some of the worst weather possible over the spring and summer this year. With the terrain getting regular downpours over the course of many days at a time, the soldiers had to learn to work through unforgiving, deep mud.
"What happens is your wheels get coated in mud, and it just spins on slick soil. It’s like driving on ice," he said. "You don’t go anywhere."
With construction vehicles often sidelined, the project for the live-fire range is roughly a month behind schedule, Haas said, but the soldiers are working very fast when the weather doesn’t hinder activity.
Included in that work is cutting a huge chunk out of the hill — roughly 153 cubic yards of soil — in order to clear space for a proper sightline between tanks on the range and the moving targets, Haas said.
Some other challenges the brigade and its partners faced during the exercise included maintaining spare parts, particularly specialized parts, for construction equipment.
Some of the parts were purchased on an as-needed basis from stores within Romania, Resolute Castle leadership said. But Hodges said, as he was being briefed on the exercise, that he wanted to see more spare parts stored by the U.S. military at MK Air Base in Romania for such purposes going forward.
Another challenge was ensuring a reliable source for building materials in the country. Hodges noted the first Resolute Castle under his command didn’t have a reliable source for much of the materials used.
Brig. Gen. Gheorghe Soare, commander of the Romanian 10th Engineer Brigade, said that this time around, proper vendors were secured that supplied good quality materials.
He added there is a plan to build, in 2018, a storage facility specifically for maintenance parts, which should solve the issue for the next exercise, as well.
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.