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On July 29, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper unveiled a new plan for European Command’s force posture, which will result in the reduction of 11,900 troops currently stationed in Germany. Of those troops, a little under half will be repositioned across Europe while the remainder will redeploy to the United States and subsequently conduct rotational deployments to Europe. This decision follows an extensive DoD-wide review optimizing US military force posture within the strategic environment of great power competition.
Discussion about great power competition currently dominates national security and defense strategy forums. There are open questions about what great power competition actually is (and what it is not), how it will manifest in particular regions, what it means for particular US armed services, and even whether it really constitutes a strategy. These discussions are undeniably important, but they also tend to take place from a strategic perspective. What does great power competition mean two levels of war removed from such a lofty vantage point? What will leaders at the tactical level need to do in order to succeed in this new era?
Competing with Russia at the Tactical Level
Company-level leaders will likely spend at least the next decade of their careers preparing to fight and win ground wars in contested environments—especially in Europe, where the Army is likely to have a more central role than in the Indo-Pacific, with its comparatively more significant maritime domain. So, what should tactical-level leaders preparing to deploy for a rotation to Europe expect to encounter in that theater?
Russia, of course, remains the Army’s most direct competitor in Europe. Forward-positioned Army aviation and armor forces constitute critical capabilities for countering Russian threats to European territorial integrity and US national interests. While the 12th Combat Aviation Brigade is permanently assigned to Ansbach, Germany, no armored brigade combat team has been permanently stationed in Europe since 2014. Russia’s invasion of Crimea that same year, however, reversed America’s decision to retrograde its armored forces. In an effort to reestablish deterrence following this invasion, the United States sent small numbers of tanks to Europe for short deployments throughout 2015.
The following year brought significant changes to the US force posture in Europe. A seminal 2016 report by the RAND Corporation war-gamed a hypothetical Russian invasion of the Baltic states and found that Russian forces would reach the outskirts of the Estonian or Latvian capitals within sixty hours—and perhaps in as few as thirty-six. The report further assessed existing NATO defenses would be completely overwhelmed and that the alliance would have to launch a bloody counteroffensive to eject Russian forces from the Baltics. RAND ultimately recommended that NATO position a force of approximately seven brigades, augmented by airpower and fire support, in the Baltics to prevent them from being rapidly overrun by a Russian attack.
NATO had arrived at similar conclusions and solidified the Enhanced Forward Presence initiative at the July 2016 Warsaw summit. This involved the assignment of four multinational battalions—separately led by German, British, Canadian, and US forces—to Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania; it was the largest addition to the NATO defense posture in a generation. In 2017, the Army contributed additional forces by executing its first nine-month heel-to-toe deployments of armored brigade combat teams and combat aviation brigades to Europe. The armor rotations will likely continue in the near term, even as discussions between DoD, Congress, and NATO allies continue regarding drawdown of US forces in Germany and the potential establishment of a permanent US base in Poland.
This is the operational environment tactical-level leaders will find when they get to Europe. It is also one that will see them occupy more traditional roles at the tactical level as part of conventional, combined arms teams than has been the case during the long years of America’s post-9/11 wars. Despite this, the qualities required of “strategic lieutenants” in Iraq and Afghanistan remain important. Junior leaders must still be educated in strategy, history, and current affairs to make informed decisions when they find themselves at the forefront of the US military’s place in great power competition.
Learning the Terrain and the Enemy
Preparation for a deployment to Europe should begin with every soldier understanding the tactical, operational, and strategic environment into which the unit will deploy. Leaders should leverage their unit intelligence sections to provide background briefings in addition to the doctrinal outputs from the intelligence preparation of the battlefield process. The intelligence section’s early provision of friendly and enemy equipment recognition guides will assist every soldier in distinguishing friend from foe. Understanding the capabilities and limitations of friendly force equipment will ease future planning for partnered training events in theater.
Additionally, leaders and the intelligence section should together analyze the terrain of their future area of operations and prepare maps and graphics for anticipated training areas. Germany’s Hohenfels Training Area, Bulgaria’s Novo Selo Training Area, and Poland’s Drawsko Pomorskie and Bemowo Piskie Training Areas and Miroslawiec Air Base are among the most commonly frequented by units deploying to Europe. The brigade’s geospatial-intelligence cell should distribute standardized tactical maps of central Europe and the Baltic states that clearly illustrate avenues of approach suitable for wheeled and tracked vehicles. Furthermore, units should study battles fought on the same terrain to accumulate historical context and lessons learned. World War II’s Eastern Front offensives coupled with Cold War planning to secure key terrain like the Fulda Gap are useful in informing the way we conceptualize today’s strategic environment and concerns with the Suwalki Gap. Additionally, the Soviet Army’s Vistula–Oder Offensive in January 1945 serves as a particularly useful case study to help armor leaders visualize a combined arms attack across Belarus, Poland, and Ukraine into Germany. The Army University Press even offers free virtual staff rides of the Battles of the Marne (1914) and Stalingrad (1942–1943) to facilitate historical analysis of European warfare. Table-top exercises to study these battles can be incorporated into existing company and battalion leader professional development programs to build readiness. Because terrain does not change much over time, junior leaders’ investment in terrain analysis is almost guaranteed to yield future dividends.
However, future Russian military operations in Europe will likely look much different than those executed in the past. Therefore, historical study must be accompanied by thorough examination of emerging Russian military technology and tactics. Russia’s campaigns in Syria, Libya, and Ukraine’s Donbas region provide insight into how the Russian military fights in the modern age, task-organizing electronic warfare at the lowest echelons, for instance, and incorporating private military companies as force multipliers. Within Europe, the Russian military has also leveraged well-coordinated intelligence collection and information operations against US and NATO forces to discredit them. As such, even company-level training can yield strategic consequences if thoroughly exploited by the Russians. The battalion staff and company leadership should therefore explore how to best allocate the unit’s intelligence collection and analysis capabilities across the formation and manage the unit’s digital footprint. Rotational units may conduct exercises on NATO’s eastern flanks not far from Russian training sites; such proximity inherently puts friendly units at risk of Russian intelligence collection and information operations.
The unit intelligence section owns the lion’s share of creating shared understanding of Russian military capabilities and vulnerabilities, but the unit should also liaise with other organizations in the intelligence community particularly the Defense Intelligence Agency and National Ground Intelligence Center, to obtain classified intelligence reports and briefings on the current enemy situation, Russian order of battle, and hybrid warfare. These agencies may even be willing to host site visits for unit leaders or, at a minimum, participate in classified video teleconferences to brief unit leaders on their future area of operations. Unit leaders could then maintain relationships with the agencies’ European threat analysts throughout the deployment and provide bottom-up refinement of their intelligence assessments. Such collaboration will only benefit both the Army and the intelligence community over time.
Leaders at the battalion or brigade level should also contact Army FAOs—foreign area officers—at the European embassies in countries where the unit will deploy. FAOs can bridge military and political considerations, providing strategic insight beyond the usual purview of a brigade combat team. FAOs can also coordinate briefings with an embassy’s Office of Defense Cooperation and Defense Attaché Office and might provide recommended readings that unit leaders can incorporate into leader professional development programs.
Basic Deployment Readiness for the European Mission
Although “readiness” has been the Army’s watchword nearly a decade, it includes theater-specific considerations for rotational deployments to Europe. Company leaders in Europe-aligned units, therefore, can begin pursuing the qualifications and licensing necessary to mobilize for deployment. The standard qualifications for a unit mobility officer, hazardous material, vehicle drivers’ licenses, and government credit cards should be supplemented by international drivers’ licenses, training for contracting officers, and disbursement of funds, along with arranging for diplomatic clearances. Additionally, identifying soldiers in the unit who speak European languages can inform manning for liaison officer positions and build the capability to read local open-source material in the unit’s future area of operations.
Lastly, studying successful previous rotational deployments and partnered training events can ease the workload of training management during the deployment. As institutional knowledge of these rotational deployments is still somewhat limited, unit leaders should look to previous units’ experiences to inform the preparation for their own.
This great power competition environment, with its reduction of traditional “combat deployments,” places rotational training events in higher regard. Tactical leaders face an incredible leadership challenge when determining how to prepare and deploy soldiers to these events. As defense budgets continue to contract, the Army must retain strategic and operational flexibility to provide its stabilizing influence on global affairs. Readiness to deploy composes a large portion of this flexibility. While it is impossible to be 100 percent ready at all times, tactical leaders must understand that while they are not actively deployed, they will likely be training or assisting their higher headquarters to train. They must understand further that while officers and senior noncommissioned officers rotate through units frequently, their lower ranking noncommissioned officers and lower enlisted soldiers do not. It is the tactical leaders’ burden to shoulder this understanding and responsibly steward soldiers’ time in the garrison environment, with the knowledge that near-constant rotational deployments and training cycles likely lay ahead. Communication of the long-range training calendar to soldiers and their families can help manage expectations and prepare the force for increased operational tempo. Any type of predictability that unit leaders can provide is critical.
Given the constraints that a typical brigade combat team’s training cycle levies upon its members with respect to field time and time away from family, considerations must be made to fully understand the impacts of training decisions made. An unfortunate truth of being assigned to an armored brigade combat team is the necessity of longer-duration training events given their cost. Thus, tactical-level leaders should maintain a pulse on their formations in multiple ways. Command climate surveys, family days and activities, and simple off-duty interactions between members of the unit can enable leaders to understand these impacts. Successful management of time at the small-unit level leads to more productive soldiers.
The role of tactical-level leaders in an era of great power competition is important—and challenging. They face a complex and uncertain operational environment and a highly demanding operational tempo during rotational deployments. It is likely that they will be left with fewer and fewer resources to complete their tasks as hard decisions are made about future budget allocations. Yet despite these challenges, it is important to realize that they are surmountable. These rotations are at the very center of great power competition, and their strategic implications are vast. Leaders at the tactical level have a contribution to make, and the US military’s effectiveness in this new era will hinge, in part, on their ability to adapt to and succeed in this dynamic operational environment—on the front lines of great power competition.
Maj. Brigid Calhoun graduated from the US Military at West Point in 2011 and served in the 173rd Brigade Combat Team (Airborne) as the brigade assistant S-2, the 1-503 Infantry Battalion (Airborne) S-2, and military intelligence company commander. She is currently pursuing a master of policy management from Georgetown University as part of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Internship Program.
Capt. Alexander Boroff is a fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is an armor officer currently serving in the Joint Staff Public Affairs Office as part of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Internship Program. His previous publications include topics such as general organizational leadership in public and private sectors, as well as Army reconnaissance training. He tweets at @UnsolicitedArmy.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.