CINCU, Romania and BEZMER AIR BASE, Bulgaria – The U.S. Army-led Saber Guardian showed the U.S. Army reserve forces playing integral roles throughout the exercise across Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary this month.
Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the U.S. Army Europe Command commander, said many of the major reemerging capabilities needed in Europe now come from the National Guard and the Reserve and he emphasized how reliant the command is on the reserves for amassing the right balance of military power to deter an aggressive Russia in Eastern Europe.
On the side of a runway with two C-130s in the process of delivering equipment and supplies for an airfield seizure exercise at Bezmer Air Base in Bulgaria, Hodges told Defense News in an interview, that the two aircraft were from the Montana and Illinois Air National Guard.
“The majority of the air lift comes from the National Guard,” he said. “Right there that tells you how essential they are to what we are trying to do,” in Europe to deter Russian aggression.
Hodges has said frequently during his time as commander, “We only have 30,000 soldiers in Europe, we used to have 300,000. Our mission when we had 300,000, when we were young lieutenants, was to deter the Soviet Union and assure our allies. Our mission now with the 30,000 is deter Russia and assure our allies. Our task is to make 30,000 look and feel like 300,000.”
And there’s no better way to do it than bring in the reserve forces during exercises and training opportunities in Europe, he has said.
During a river crossing exercise on the Danube in Romania and during another similar exercise in Hungary, the bridging unit, in both cases, was a National Guard or Army Reserve unit, Hodges said.
“Every bit of bridge that I have is only when the Guard brings it over or the Reserve. I have no assigned bridging unit, so, obviously, I’m desperate to get them over as much as possible,” he added.
During the river crossing exercise in Romania, Hodges stressed the importance of the capability to defend waterways and bridging capability is crucial to that defense.
Last year, Hodges also declared a major capability gap in short-range air defense systems (SHORAD) in the European theater. To attempt to fill the gap, the U.S. Army is deploying National Guard Avenger Air Defense units on a rotational basis to Europe.
South Carolina National Guardsmen from Company C, 2nd Battalion, 263rd Air Defense Artillery, were busy practicing with several Avenger systems during a few days of live-fire exercises on the shores of the Black Sea in Romania at Capu Midia Training Area during Saber Guardian.
At this time, the U.S. Army’s SHORAD capability is entirely resident in the reserve forces. And roughly 75 percent of the Army’s engineering and logistics capability are in the reserve component, Hodges said.
The 926th Engineer Brigade, comprised of National Guard and Reserve soldiers, led a number of projects at the Joint National Training Center in Cincu, Romania, as part of Resolute Castle 2017, an exercise designed to not only build improvements to the training facilities there but also to help train the soldiers working on projects.
Hodges said the efforts at Cincu are similar to several other projects elsewhere in Eastern Europe and are designed to ultimately strengthen capability across NATO forces.
Also at Cincu, the National Guard’s 5th Battalion, 113th Field Artillery unit out of North Carolina, rolled in to support Saber Guardian with its M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) along with an additional battery of M270 Multiple Launch Rocket Systems from the National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 147th Field Artillery Regiment from South Dakota.
Together, the Guard units totaled roughly 300 people and 18 weapon systems, and were brought to Romania to participate in a massive combined arms live-fire exercise at the JNTC.
While the reserve forces are helping to bolster major capability gaps and add man power to the deterrence efforts, the units deployed are also getting experiences that far surpass what weekend training can provide.
Lt. Col. Paul Hollenack, the commander of the North Carolina National Guard HIMARS unit, told Defense News at the training center while sitting in a tent in the pouring rain, that a senior enlisted soldier had told him, “This is probably the most Army of lot of these guys have had to do.”
Hollenack said the units had been living on the side of a hill at the training center since July 3 and have had to build showers, for example, and figure out how to live in austere, difficult environments.
The unit is also learning how to operate the weapon systems in difficult terrain, he said, mostly due to frequent torrential downpours creating extremely muddy conditions, which can’t be trained on a range in North Carolina. The exercise operations also run at a different pace, something to which the unit had to adapt.
And the HIMARS and MLRS units were positioned alongside a Romanian LARON battalion which operates a 152mm Multiple Launch Rocket System, so the units enhanced the experience by working on interoperability with the Romanians as well.
During the airfield seizure exercise at Bezmer Air Base, Hodges also pointed out that the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, which jumped into a landing zone there on July 18, had the 1st Battalion, 143rd Infantry Regiment Airborne Task Force Rapido from the Texas Army National Guard integrated into the unit during Saber Guardian.
“This is part of the pilot program where Guard units are matched up and integrated into regular Army units and the 173rd has done a terrific job, as have the Texas guardsman, of making this work,” Hodges said.
While the Guard unit already existed, in less than a year, “they are doing a battalion night joint force entry, multinational, into Romania as part of this exercise,” Hodges said. “That is impressive and it also gives us another expansion of our capability.”
The Army has spent the last year taking a hard look at multicomponent units as a part of the regular force structure where active and reserve forces are integrated into one operational unit at times where it makes sense where capabilities from both forces are tapped to enhance units as a whole.
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.