WASHINGTON: The new defense pact with Poland does more than add 1,000 US troops to the 4,500 already in the frontline NATO ally. It also lays the logistical groundwork for quickly deploying a heavy armored division, some 12,000 to 20,000 troops, for a crisis or a major exercise.
That would include the Defender 2020 wargames scheduled for next year, which the Army says will be “the largest in 25 years.” Army Undersecretary Ryan McCarthy said Defender would serve as a smaller version of the massive Cold War REFORGER exercises — Return of Forces to Germany — that rehearsed rapid deployment to Europe in event of a Soviet invasion.
While the Trump Administration and its Polish partners, the right-wing government of Andrzej Duda, have been signaling the troop increase for months, the detailed announcement this morning means the two countries will also create an entire logistical and administrative infrastructure. In a conflict, crisis, or major exercise, it’s much easier to pour in reinforcements if there’s this kind of support system in place to receive them.
There are seven major elements that the US promises to establish in Poland on an ongoing basis and that Poland promises to accommodate and support at its own expense:
- A “Division Headquarters (Forward).” This isn’t just the standard advance party a combat unit sends ahead of the main body before a deployment. This is a standing HQ that will establish permanent relationships with Polish counterparts, organize training, set up supply networks, and so on. It may even be a full-up operational command post capable of running large-scale combat operations. Even if it isn’t, the forward HQ will make it much easier for a full combat HQ to deploy and get set up quickly.
- An “area support group.” This is an Army term for a standing administrative organization, like those in Kuwait and Qatar, that handles personnel moves in and out, infrastructure, and what’s called Reception, Staging, Onward movement, & Integration (RSOI) of newly arriving forces.
- “An aerial port of debarkation to support the movement of forces for training or contingency.” This means not just any airbase but one specifically dedicated to receiving large numbers of troops in a hurry.
- A “special operations forces capability … to support air, ground, and maritime operations.” Special Operators became famous as counter-terrorist manhunters in Afghanistan and Iraq, but historically their primary mission is to advise local allies and conduct long-range reconnaissance ahead of conventional units.
- An Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone squadron, which will provide Intelligence, Surveillance, & Reconnaissance (ISR) data to share “as appropriate” with the Poles. The Reaper is an upgraded version of the venerable MQ-1 Predator, whose Grey Eagle variant is used by the Army as the standard aerial reconnaissance element of — guess what — a division.
- “Infrastructure to support the presence of an armored brigade combat team, a combat aviation brigade, and a combat sustainment support battalion.” A heavy division has at least two armored brigades: It’s not clear if this means Poland would support an additional armor brigade over the one that’s already there (on a rolling basis: as soon as one leaves, the next arrives). A division also typically has one combat aviation brigade, a unit of attack and transport helicopters. Finally, a sustainment battalion is a specialist unit to support larger forces, typically involving multiple brigades.
- A Combat Training Center to keep troops sharp while they’re in-country and to provide a destination for training deployments. Only three existing facilities bear the CTC label, and they’re all the top-flight training centers — at Fort Irwin, Calif.; Fort Polk, La.; and Grafenwoehr, Germany.
If you combine the units listed here with another heavy brigade using the tanks and other equipment in storage across Europe as part of the Army Prepositioned Stock (APS), the medium-weight brigade of recently upgunned Stryker 8×8 armored vehicles based in Germany, and the light airborne infantry brigade based in Italy, you have a robust combat division. It would have a headquarters, two or three heavy brigades as its iron fist, a medium brigade for flank security and reconnaissance; a light brigade to hold urban, forested, or mountainous terrain where foot troops have the advantage over vehicles; a helicopter brigade to rapidly provide firepower, reinforcements, or supplies across the battle zone; and plenty of logistical support.
Not all of this infrastructure will be in place next year, but even the beginnings of it will be helpful for the big wargames. “Defender 2020 is a Department of the Army-directed, USAREUR [US Army Europe]-led exercise designed to demonstrate the United States’ ability to rapidly deploy a division [emphasis ours] to the European theater,” an official Army website reads. “This exercise, the largest in 25 years, will test echelons-above-brigade units in operational-level warfighting” — that is, maneuvers by entire divisions and corps, instead of the brigade-sized and smaller operations standard in Iraq — “and its associated sustainment” — i.e. logistics.
Is Defender 2020 a modern incarnation of the Cold War REFORGER exercises, which at their peak moved multiple heavy divisions across the Atlantic? “It’s REFORGER-like,” McCarthy told reporters at a recent roundtable. “REFORGER would be larger in scale… but it’s similar in concept.”
Logistically, “it’s a muscle that we have not trained on, because of 18 years of conflict in the Middle East,” McCarthy continued. As the wars ground on in Afghanistan and Iraq, deployments could be planned so far ahead, so much equipment was in place in-country, and the infrastructure there was so well established, that the Army developed a meticulous scheduled and predictable cycle known as Army Force Generation, which rotated units in and out of the war zone.
“In an ARFORGEN model, you get on an airplane, you show up, and all your equipment’s there,” McCarthy said. Now, he explained, units need to pack up all their equipment and vehicles, “put them on a rail head, get it to the shipyard, move it to Gdansk, Poland and then unload it and ride through the Polish countryside to your position. We hadn’t done that in a very long time.”
The Poles haven’t been on the receiving end of large foreign forces for a long time either, not since the Soviet Union routinely deployed massive forces across its Warsaw Pact satellites. The roads, bridges, and bases built back then are aging. Even when they were at peak condition, they were designed to support Soviet logistics, which were austere compared to US standards of supply, especially Russian tanks, which are much lighter than the massive American M1.
“If you look at Eastern Europe in particular, a lot of the infrastructure was built by the Russians,” said McCarthy, who visited Poland early in his time in office. “We started buying different HETTS [tank transporters] to load tanks because they were too heavy for a lot of the road infrastructure.”
There’s a great deal of work to do, on both the American and the Polish sides, before Poland is as well-prepared for US reinforcements to rush in as West Germany was in the Cold War.