The Russian aggression in Ukraine in the summer of 2014 served as a wake-up call for NATO. The 2014 Wales Summit launched a full-scale reform of the alliance, including its military posture. For the first time in a generation, perennial calls for downsizing—the last reduction having been ordered as recently as 2012—have been reversed. NATO is upping its readiness in terms of organizational flexibility and responsive forces.
The U.S. has been at the forefront of the effort, with a significant reinforcement of forces in Europe, reversing the trend that started with the end of the First Gulf War in 1991. In concurrence with NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence, U.S. forces rotate and exercise through the Baltic States, Poland, Romania and Slovakia, and more generally conduct a persistent show-of-flag operation on the eastern side of the alliance.
America’s latest decision to reactivate V Corps and assign it to the defense of Europe is a momentous event. The reactivation has great political and strategic significance, but it also raises questions about the corps’ operational value and has implications for the rest of NATO.
What is significant, politically, is the comparison between President Donald Trump’s pronouncements regarding other members of the alliance and the hard facts on the ground. Trump’s declarations about NATO have raised concerns. Nonetheless, a persistent, continuous, coherent strategy of reinforcement and forward basing is being implemented. If any interested observer (e.g., Russia) assesses America’s actions on facts as opposed to words, then the message is clear: America is getting stronger in Europe every day.
The U.S. is not reversing its “pivot” to the Pacific, for obvious reasons. Yet Europe is no longer a backwater, or a reservoir destined for other theaters. It is a joint, holistic effort, involving all services. The U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, Germany, is becoming a front-line command again, eschewing its long-standing role of purveyor of forces and capabilities to other commands, or providing rear-theater functions.
Asserting its traditional role of leader of the West, America is applying pressure on its European allies to cough up more for their own defense. As a former French military member, I served a nation that never took it for granted that America would be pre-sumed to sacrifice its own children for countries that were not ready to line up their own on their own border. This new pressure is welcome for all of Europe, though in all fairness, results so far are uneven. But at least the trend is there. Would this trend have been achieved only through political pressure from Trump on topics such as the fabled 2% of gross domestic product threshold? That is doubtful. More visible, more capable, more active U.S. military forces have sent home the message, via public opinion.
Reactivating an Army corps, based in America, is not of itself a visible act regarding public opinion in Europe. Yet it does have significant strategic consequences.
Let’s assess its true military implications from a European military perspective.
Nominating a corps-level headquarters in view of a potential European contingency is an indicator of the degree and magnitude of the fight that America would be willing to join if necessary. That is a worthwhile message that is well understood by the potential adversary.
We must remember that NATO allies in Europe entertain nine High Readiness Forces (Land) headquarters such as the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps in Great Britain. Considering that the magnitude of American involvement of forces in Europe outshines the potential contribution of most countries, especially in the first days of a potential operation, it could easily be said there was a gap in U.S. Army architecture in Europe. Creating and forward-deploying an American equivalent to the European corps-level headquarters fills that gap by providing an alter ego to the High Readiness Forces (Land) headquarters.
The commander of Allied Land Command, NATO’s premier land headquarters, is an American three-star general. At a time when the U.S. Army presence in Europe was, to say it politely, residual, not having a large American corps-level command was unimportant. Now that every NATO exercise involves a high proportion of U.S. Army forces, there is logic in providing an in-theater U.S. national equivalent to other NATO corps-level commands.
V Corps will certainly be endowed with high-end capabilities that few European armies have retained, and none with the same degree of completeness, in domains such as intelligence, deep fires and air defense.
V Corps’ main headquarters and all corps-echelon fighting assets will likely remain stationed in the continental U.S., with its main headquarters at Fort Knox, Kentucky. What will be visible in Europe will be V Corps’ forward headquarters element, at a location yet to be determined. By fielding a specialized warfighting capability at the corps level, with a sizable element permanently based in Europe, the U.S. makes a strong statement of intent.
Incidentally, having a forward headquarters as opposed to a full headquarters in Europe, beyond saving costs to the American taxpayer, allows for political flexibility because it is upwardly scalable. If circumstances call for political gesturing, increasing the forward component of the corps sends a discreet yet ominous message. This built-in flexibility may very well be fortuitous at this point in time, but could come in handy.
Think These Through
Among others, there are two decisions that have yet to be made (or formulated): one, impacting the relationship with NATO, the other, human resources. These may appear technical in nature, yet both have major operational consequences. As a European member of the alliance, I call for these decisions to be well thought out.
The crucial decision relates to the relationship V Corps (Forward) will have with the rest of NATO in Europe. There are two fundamental options, mutually exclusive: non-integration, in which case V Corps as a whole remains a “true blue” American entity in Europe, co-located but marginal; or integration in the High Readiness Forces (Land) construct, possibly with variations on the main theme, but still recognizable as such.
Let us explore both approaches. In doing so, I hope to contribute to the internal American debate.
The first option is, conceptually, the most obvious and the easiest to implement and operate. V Corps reports solely to its national chain of command, period. Its forward element may participate in NATO exercises, assist in NATO planning and so on, but in essence, it remains a bystander of its peers, the multinational High Readiness Forces (Land) headquarters of the NATO Force Structure. The main justification for such an option would be that the national chain of command presumes that all land forces operating in Europe, to include in an Article 5 scenario, would be assigned to V Corps and fight as an American force, give or take some temporary task-organization vagaries.
Remaining a bystander has obvious national advantages, not least in simplicity and operational effectiveness, which is not an illogical criterion when thinking of high-end warfare. Yet politically, it sends a contradictory message and, in the larger picture of a full-blown NATO war, it would create difficulties higher up the NATO chain of command.
The second option would have V Corps join the congregation of High Readiness Forces (Land) headquarters, albeit within the top of the range in view of its unique capabilities. This has massive implications. For example, would V Corps line up for the rotational functions under the NATO Response Force construct? In which case it would be presumed to adhere to the three-year cycle of certification planning and exercising, which is an onerous standard. In particular, it would have to work hard on interoperability with its other NATO friends, which is not easy when some of the capabilities you bring are so unique that no one else knows how to operate with them.
Integrating—possibly with amendments—into the NATO Force Structure would imply significant and repetitive requirements, but it also would reinforce the message of the alliance. Also, by participating fully in a number of exercises, it would create the kind of relationship and practice that can only be developed in peacetime. not least with Allied Land Command, the champion of the land community within NATO.
Building the Network
The second decision, related to human resources issues, could well be a natural consequence of the first. The main advantage of having a headquarters forward-deployed is to build the network. In practical terms, that calls for three-year deployments being the norm. But if that were the case for V Corps (Forward), then the discrepancy with Army officers serving under Allied Land Command in Izmir, Turkey, who are deployed for one year, could become problematic. Seen from the other NATO land friends, V Corps (Forward), by virtue of being full of Americans with a three-year tour, would have more memory and network value than the other American officers serving in Allied Land Command. Ultimately, V Corps (Forward) could become, unwittingly, a competitor for Allied Land Command—at least its American “slice.” This may sound trivial, but it won’t be to many readers with experience concerning the NATO world.
Another human resources implication for V Corps if the integration route is followed would be its multinationalization. By nature, NATO Force Structure entities are multinational to a certain extent, their framework nation being the only main provider. In which case, V Corps would offer some positions to other allies, both at the forward headquarters but also, quite likely, at main headquarters. This is not unheard of within the U.S. Army, so there is no conceptual difficulty there.
It does imply reciprocity, and U.S. Army officers are serving within European-based High Readiness Forces (Land) headquarters. But the national chain of command would be well advised to think through the consequences of such a setup: reserving some meaningful slots for allied nations, possibly in the continental U.S. And hoping, by the way, that allied officers fill these slots.
The decision to reactivate V Corps and forward-deploy part of its headquarters is a momentous decision, with high political impact, much more than the figures would indicate.
But its position in the NATO Force Structure needs to be clarified: Will this corps be a bystander of the NATO force structure, living next door but otherwise only minimally involved? Or will it become a new component of the NATO Force Structure in its own right, albeit with adaptation? And secondarily, though by no means anecdotally, what relationship will it develop with NATO Allied Land Command, in view of the risk outlined above?
As a former French officer, having served under three Supreme Allied Commanders Europe during seven years with NATO, and as a true believer in NATO, I advocate for a true NATO role for V Corps, in the great tradition of its forebear. It would serve as a cultural bridge between the U.S. Army in the continental U.S. and its potential brothers in arms in case of conflagration in Europe. Its operational value would contribute massively to the restoration of conventional deterrence in Europe.