The US and its European allies have been boosting their presence in Eastern Europe in recent months, responding to a period of tense relations with Russia. Now, NATO forces are looking for ways to reestablish military capabilities that have eroded since the end of the Cold War.
US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and other NATO military leaders are set to review changes to the military bloc’s command structure next month, with an eye on enhancing their rapid-deployment abilities and reinforcing their supply lines.
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“Fast-evolving security challenges mean new demands on our command,” NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu told Stars and Stripes. “So work is underway to ensure that the NATO command structure remains robust, agile, and fit for purpose.”
A NATO internal report seen by German news outlet Der Spiegel concluded that the bloc’s ability to rapidly deploy throughout Europe has “atrophied since the end of the Cold War.”
According to the report, even the alliance’s designated response force was not up to standard. It found that NATO would be unable to move troops fast enough and lacks sufficient officers and supplies in Europe.
Neither military officials nor the NATO report see hostilities with Russia as imminent, but, after Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, NATO members regard an enhanced military presence as a way to deter aggression from Moscow, which has called NATO’s moves provocations.
“The alliance has to move as quick or quicker than Russian Federation forces for our deterrent to be effective,” Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the top US Army commander in Europe, said this month. Recent months have seen close encounters between Russian and NATO aircraft over Eastern Europe and between Russian and NATO ships in the waters around Europe.
The report, citing the need to reorganize supply procedures, recommends setting up two new command centers. One, based in the US and modeled on the Cold War-era Supreme Allied Command, would oversee the shipment of personnel and supplies to Europe. The other, which could end up in Germany or Poland, would oversee logistics operations on the continent, particularly between Central and Eastern Europe.
NATO members in Europe are also working on legislation to bolster infrastructure and to allow military equipment to move across national borders faster. The latter problem has hindered military exercises in Europe in recent months.
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While NATO has the ability to suspend civilian laws on transportation and travel in the case of war, preparations for combat would need to be done before hostilities break out. The bloc must also find ways to maintain an eastern flank that now extends beyond its Cold War boundaries, running right up to Russia’s borders in some places.
NATO forces have been gathering information about infrastructure in Eastern Europe, like bridge and rail networks. Many roadways and bridges have weight restrictions that limit which NATO vehicles that can use them, and some railways cannot move heavy equipment.
“We are also looking at making sure air, rail, and sea lift is readily available and in sufficient numbers,” a NATO official told Stars and Stripes. In 2016, US A-10 Thunderbolts practiced landing and taking off on an Estonia highway for the first time since 1984. And US troops in Europe have started making preparations like painting tanks and vehicles with green color schemes — reminiscent of Cold War camouflage.
An A-10 Thunderbolt II from the 127th Wing, Michigan Air National Guard, lands on a remote highway strip near Jägala, Estonia, June 20, 2016. Photo by Tech. Sgt. Amy Lovgren.
The US Marine Corps in particular is looking to boost its capabilities in Europe in response to potential conflict with Russia. The Corps now wants to restore combat functions to the Marine Expeditionary Force — the largest Marine combat unit, which can have up to 25,000 Marines.
“The MEF command element will have to be ready to support a warfighting effort in Europe,” Lt. Gen. Robert Hedelund, commander of II Marine Expeditionary Force, said this week.
The decision follows other increases in the Marine presence in Europe. US Marines have deployed a rotational force to Romania and have conducted back-to-back deployments in Norway, positioning gear and doing exercises near the Russian border. The rotational force’s arrival in Norway was the first time a foreign force had been posted there since World War II.
The US deployed dozens of helicopters and thousands of pieces of military equipment to Germany this spring, and another detachment of US helicopters are headed to Eastern Europe this week.
While these preparations come at the direction of senior military leadership, a shift to Eastern Europe is one that many US troops believe necessary.
A recent Military Times poll of US servicemembers found that, even though many troops don’t think a military fight is likely, 42% think the US military should increase its activities in Eastern Europe to counter Russia. The poll also found that troops rated Russia the fifth biggest threat to US national security — behind cyberterrorism, North Korea, and domestic and foreign terrorism tied to Islam.
Only one-quarter of respondents approved of Trump’s handling of relations with Moscow, but their feelings about Trump’s dealings with NATO were more mixed: 32% said US relations with NATO were good, 35% said poor, and 30% said average.