This spring, the Pentagon will undertake the largest deployment of American forces to Europe in the past quarter-century. Over the course of the major exercises that will comprise Defender-Europe 2020, 37,000 U.S. service members will fall in with other NATO forces, bringing with them some 20,000 vehicles and other pieces of equipment to augment the stock of 13,000 already pre-positioned in the arena.
In analyzing what the exercise portends for the future of America’s Army, many will want to make comparisons with REFORGER, the major deployment exercise to West Germany during the Cold War. That would be a mistake. The geopolitics have changed. The nature of potential regional conflict has changed. The size of America’s footprint has changed. Defender-Europe signals the need for a different kind of Army—not just a replay of Cold War thinking.
In 1967, after French President Charles de Gaulle said he wanted U.S. forces out of France, President Lyndon Johnson wound up pulling the equivalent of two divisions out of Europe. It was a sea change in the positioning of U.S. forces. Since the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, the first impulse had been to bolster the defense of Europe, the key theater in the global confrontation with the Soviet Union. Now the U.S. was drawing down.
Johnson recognized that hollowing out forces in Europe sent a bad signal to Moscow. Enter Return of Forces to Germany, aka REFORGER. Beginning in 1969, the military conducted annual exercises deploying at least a division-sized force for a major military exercise in Europe. The point was to demonstrate that the U.S. had both the capability and the determination to reinforce NATO.
REFORGER evolved from a show of force into an instrumental part of the NATO defense plan. In the face of potential conflict, the U.S. intended to deploy significant follow-on forces to stem and push back a Soviet incursion. While REFORGER sounded reassuring, it was cold comfort if the U.S. lacked substantial trained and ready forces available to deploy, as well as the means to deploy, receive and protect them before they got into the fight. In the 1970s, we lacked all that. Clearly, this was NATO’s Achilles’ heel.
To make up for these shortcomings, the U.S. began placing greater reliance on “extended deterrence,” through the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons. NATO strategy called for the use of nuclear weapons as soon as it became apparent that NATO territory could not be adequately defended by conventional means. The thinking was that the Soviets would be averse to tactical nuclear exchanges, fearing that conflict would quickly escalate into global nuclear war. In this manner, battlefield nuclear weapons “extended” the U.S. strategic umbrella over Western Europe.
The Soviets, however, continued to vastly expand their conventional forces and introduced intermediate-range nuclear weapons to demonstrate they could threaten not just the front lines of NATO, but every European capital as well.
In the 1980s, the U.S. countered by fielding its own intermediate-range nuclear weapons and beefing up its capability to blunt a Soviet invasion with forces already in theater. This innovation turned REFORGER into a truly strategic capability, holding out the prospect that NATO could not only deter at every level of nuclear confrontation but also conduct a protracted conventional defense of Europe. That was a threat that the Soviets found truly daunting.
Defender-Europe is not, cannot be, and shouldn’t try to be, a 21st century REFORGER. For starters, NATO isn’t facing the Soviet Union. Vladimir Putin’s Russia doesn’t have the capability or capacity to conduct a protracted conventional campaign to conquer Western Europe once and for all.
Nor is that Putin’s plan. The worst-case scenario is that Putin would look for a quick win, hoping his intermediate-range nuclear weapons and the threat to use them early in the conflict to cow the enemy (the strategy of “escalate to deescalate”) would paralyze NATO decision-making while he achieved a rapid success on the ground. Such an advance might not only deliver victory; a stunning rebuke of NATO might cause the alliance to collapse and put an end to collective defense in Europe. In this respect, Putin isn’t planning on fighting a long war. Putin’s last concern is U.S. troops who might arrive months after the war is over.
Defender-Europe will only add to NATO’s conventional deterrence if the allies can prove they can get trained and ready troops to the first fight before the first fight is over. This creates a number of interesting challenges.
First, the front has moved a couple of hundred miles to the west. The logistics for the rapid deployment and sustainment of follow-on forces is a very different challenge from REFORGER. NATO’s front lacks the robust and properly oriented infrastructure that the U.S. enjoyed in West Germany in the 1980s.
Next, there is the problem of holding open the sea and air lines of communication, as well as protecting the ports of arrival that would receive allied troops. Without question, the Russians currently have the capacity to contest the Baltic Sea and airspace over Central Europe.
Then there is the problem of extended deterrence. The U.S. recently withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty because the Russians were reintroducing a class of weapons that both sides had agreed to abandon at the end of the Cold War. It is also worth mentioning that the Russians today have an overwhelming advantage in tactical nuclear weapons.
Finally, there is this issue: Where will those trained and ready forces come from? The U.S. is a global power with global interests and responsibilities. We have to cover the same size world we did in the Cold War, but with a much smaller military. As documented in the annual Index of U.S. Military Strength, produced by the Heritage Foundation, the U.S. lacks the capacity to defend its vital interests worldwide should two regional conflicts break out.
None of these challenges suggests Defender-Europe is just a feel-good exercise. Of course, the exercise demonstrates America’s political resolve and continued commitment to NATO. But if the U.S. wants to build a stronger, more militarily relevant NATO, it needs to do more to make Defender-Europe part of a credible conventional deterrence.
Enlarge European Footprint
For starters, the U.S. needs a bigger continuous footprint in Europe. Instead of the current three brigades, four would make more sense. The U.S. also needs a forward-deployed higher headquarters—like a corps-level command.
NATO also needs to have more force at the front end. The 30-30-30-30 initiative—having 30 battalions, 30 ships and 30 air wings ready to go within 30 days—is exactly what is needed right now. The 30-30-30-30 initiative should be the focus of the NATO discussion on burden-sharing.
NATO also needs more infrastructure in Central Europe to serve a rapid deployment and sustainment of forces.
While air and sea supremacy may be a pipe dream, NATO must demonstrate it can exert air and sea control when it needs to, particularly in the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea.
The U.S. needs to reassert extended deterrence. There is no appetite and no need for fresh deployment of INF-range nuclear weapons. On the other hand, NATO needs to quickly deploy long-range precision strike and hypersonic systems to close the trans-Atlantic gap in extended deterrence.
As for Defender-Europe, the model for U.S. reinforcements should shift from armadas of tank battalions to the rapid deployment of enablers like air defense, engineers, combat aviation and long-range fires—the kinds of capabilities that will make our forward-deployed NATO allies more lethal and more likely to survive.
We will also need an Army that thinks differently. Invariably, every U.S. formation needs to plan to fight coalition warfare. Americans have to be comfortable fighting battles of maneuver and operating at echelons above brigade.
Look to Germany
Germany needs to be the key U.S. partner working on mastering this challenge. Here is why: The German ministry of defense estimates it will be 2035 before it reaches its 2% of gross domestic product spending commitment. The delay is not because Germany doesn’t have the money; it’s because the German military can’t efficiently absorb the massive increase in assets they would receive if Berlin met the original 2025 deadline. Over the interim decade, however, Germany should have the capacity to help build out the capabilities NATO needs to make Defender-Europe more credible.
Experience has also made Germany world-class in hosting multinational activities and meeting the responsibilities of serving as a host nation for U.S. forces. This is expertise and practice it should share with its Central European neighbors.
In short, the U.S. and Germany ought to partner in Defender-Europe as deeply as they did in REFORGER. That’s the kind of real leadership NATO needs right now.
Defender-Europe is a good start in the right direction—but there is much, much more to be done.