Does Russia really feel threatened by NATO? Probably not, said the deputy chief of staff for NATO’s Multi-National Corps Northeast.
Instead, said Brig. Gen. Frank W. Tate, he believes Russian leadership is more likely concerned about the loss of regime if something happened there similar to an “Arab Spring” or another Colour Revolution in former Soviet states.
Tate spoke April 28 at the 2017 Army Aviation Mission Solutions Summit, sponsored by the Army Aviation Association of America, in Nashville, Tennessee.
“Some people say Russia feels threatened; they feel surrounded,” Tate said.
But Tate doesn’t believe that’s true. Instead, he said, Russian leadership is more likely concerned that the Russian people will see success and prosperity elsewhere in Europe and want the same for themselves.
Tate said he believes Russian leadership will “do anything” to cause turmoil in the European Union, and among NATO partners, so that the appearance of success and prosperity in Europe is less apparent.
The illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia, Tate said, is one such example of that effort. After that happened, he said, NATO and the U.S. “got that wake-up call.”
“There was a decision to take some action, to return to a focus on the defense of Europe,” he said.
That began with the Wales Summit in September of 2014. There, NATO made the decision to increase the responsiveness and capability of NATO forces to respond to threats in the east.
One effort involved the creation of enhanced NATO response forces capable of deploying their first battalion within two days, Tate said. There are also now eight NATO force integration units. “It’s a 40-person team that integrates host-nation capabilities with NATO capabilities, and facilitates the rapid movement of forces into countries, predominantly along the eastern boundaries.”
Tate said NATO also dramatically increased the readiness of Multi-National Corps Northeast, “which for many years had been a NATO corps of low or no readiness,” Tate said.
Beyond NATO efforts, Tate said, the United States embarked on the Atlantic Resolve series of exercises
“Gen. Hodges and his team created this mantra of taking the only 30,000 U.S. troops that we have remaining in Europe and making them look like 300,000, which they have done through an unbelievable series and OPTEMPO of exercises integrated with NATO partners all throughout Europe,” Tate said.
Still, Tate said, the Russians didn’t change their stance. He said there are “continued fly-bys of ships and airspace violations [and] continued low-level cyberattacks. Low-level information warfare occurring all throughout the Baltics.”
At the Warsaw Summit in 2016, Tate said, NATO knew it had to do more.
“We recognized that we needed more than just the assurance measures that we had in place for two years, and we needed to switch to deterrence,” Tate said. At the Warsaw Summit, he said, “NATO took another very significant move for NATO, which was to create enhanced forward presence battlegroups.”
There are four of those battalion-sized battlegroups, which include enablers, he said. They are led by Great Brittan and Estonia; Canada and Latvia; Germany and Lithuania; and the United States and Poland.
Right now, he said, the U.S-led group is in place, as is the German-led group. The British-led group will be in place soon, and the Canadian-led group will be in place this summer.
“That’s real boots on the ground,” Tate said. “These forces are designed to be ‘fight tonight’ combat-ready forces. We have a given mission … to not just deter, which is our primary function, but to be prepared to defeat a limited incursion, potentially up to as large as a brigade-sized incursion. So this is a very serious ongoing operation and mission set that is occurring in Europe today.”
Bolstering that deterrent force, Tate said, is the deployment of an American armored brigade combat team — the 3-4th Infantry Division, as well as deployment of the 10th Combat Aviation Brigade.
Bringing the 10th CAB into the mix, Tate said, lets observers know the United States means business.
“Everybody that watches the way the U.S. Army fights realizes that if Army aviation isn’t there, then we aren’t serious,” he said. “But when you deploy a CAB, the Russians know we are coming prepared to fight, if we have to — a credible deterrent force.”
Army aviation may mean that the Army means business, but there are significant challenges in Europe for rotary-wing units, Tate said. For starters, the weather in Europe is different than what the Army got used to in the deserts of the Middle East — where the climate is unusually suited for year-round flying.
“For many years we have gotten used to flying and operating in desert environments, which have their own unique challenges, but also provide 340 or so flyable days every year,” he said.
Flying in the Middle East, he said, was also unimpeded by the dense air-defense capabilities that aircraft would likely encounter during any possible conflict in Europe. In Iraq and Afghanistan, that relative freedom to fly meant secure forward operating bases that aircraft could operate out of.
“We will not have big aviation FOBs that will be unthreatened anywhere in Europe if we get into a fight with Russia,” Tate said. “We are just going to have to go back to dispersion.”
Tate recalled operations he experienced as a new lieutenant in Korea.
“I remember … where every troop and sometimes even below troop level, would be in a different field, and we are doing maintenance out there in the field, truly, not in a hanger or a tent,” he said. “This is a lost art in many ways, something we have to train to and develop.”
He said the Army will prepare for that environment through about 54 exercises in Europe that will happen in 2017. Aviation will participate in those exercises as well. That will involve six different airfields in five countries, with 23 countries participating in some way.
Also a concern for Army aviation, Tate said, are overwater kits, fast-rope insertion and extraction systems, very small aperture terminals, and mission command equipment.
That type of gear doesn’t exist organically in a CAB, he said. If it were provided to the CAB in Europe now, would it stay in Europe, or rotate back to the United States?
“We are probably going to have to develop something for this rotational force that doesn’t keep coming back and forth,” he said.
Also, ADR-certified vehicles are an issue. That is, ensuring Army vehicles meet standards in Europe to travel on roads while carrying hazardous materials.
“Any truck moving fuel, ammunition, explosives, or any other HAZMAT, must be fully certified,” he said. “We spent $500,000 and several months getting the heavy expanded mobility tactical trucks and heavy equipment transport systems from the 10th CAB certified to do that. Is it going to make sense to then send those back and do the same for the follow-on CAB?”
For aviation specifically, Tate said UH-60s in Europe must get onboard with the RNAV, or “area navigation” standard in Europe to be compliant.
“I know the product manager is working a … solution that is going to work for us by August, I think,” he said. “But again, are we going to rotate and then are we going to start kitting up every set of UH-60Ms that deploy to Europe with this, or are we going to end up having a forward-deployed force? Something for the enterprise to consider.”
Tate also highlighted challenges to the movement of both personnel and aircraft throughout Europe. Rules in each country are different, and military vehicles and aircraft are not as free to move easily between nations as are individual civilians who can move freely within the European “Schengen Zone.”
“We made huge progress on the ground,” he said. “But we are not where we need to be. When I arrived in Poland two years ago, in order to move a military vehicle across the border from Germany into Poland, you needed to provide … 28 working days’ notice.”
That’s now down to about three working days.
“But that’s not yet the standard across all of Eastern Europe, or across all of Europe,” he said.
There’s some desire to close borders in Europe, he said. But for now Schengen Zone still exists for individuals, and that kind of ease of movement must exist for military operations in Europe as well.
“We need that same capability if we are going to be able to rapidly bring forces in the NATO alliance, including U.S. forces, through Europe to the place and the time where they are needed,” he said.
Right now Army aviation can’t move as quickly as needed to support Soldiers on the ground; nevertheless, Tate said, “progress is being made in all these fields.”