Bring the Tanks Back: It Is Time to Put a U.S. Armored Brigade in Germany
In 1989, there were 5,000 U.S. Army tanks in Germany. Over the next 25 years, there was a gradual drawdown of American forces in Europe. By 2013, the last American armored brigade based in Germany had deactivated, leaving zero U.S. Army tanks in Europe. In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and a new iteration of an old rivalry set in. The United States responded with the European Deterrence Initiative which continuously rotates a U.S. Army armored brigade through Central and Eastern Europe under Operation Atlantic Resolve. Simultaneously, NATO responded with the Enhanced Forward Presence battlegroup rotations in the Baltics and Poland.
Despite ongoing rotations, Poland’s Defense Ministry recently requested an American armored division be permanently stationed on Polish soil. This controversial request has sparked intense debate in defense circles. Michael Hunzeker and Alexander Lanoszka’s commentary captures the opinion of those who favor an expanded American presence in Poland. Alternatively, Michael Kofman cautioned against the Polish request and recently rebutted Hunzeker and Lanozszka. While the ongoing debate has focused on the issue of basing in Poland, it has neglected to discuss the option of basing in Germany. Based on valid concerns over a large American base in Poland, a middle-ground approach of an armored brigade based in Germany would maintain deterrence against Russia, improve NATO interoperability, and strengthen the Army’s armored fleet readiness.
An Armored Division in Poland or an Armored Brigade in Germany?
There are several valid points against basing in Poland including the need for NATO consensus, the ongoing erosion of democratic values in Poland, and non-combatant evacuation considerations. In his June Politico article, Lt. Gen. (ret.) Ben Hodges discussed how this base could be interpreted as a violation of the 1997 NATO-Russian Founding Act. Hodges also stressed that multilateral NATO consensus should be required before proceeding with the proposed bilateral arrangement. While Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has been tight-lipped on the issue of consensus, NATO unity of effort is crucial when confronting a Russia that actively seeks to exploit gaps in the alliance. Michael Fitzsimmons’ Defense One article highlights how Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party has pursued illiberal policies that have led to the “erosion of liberal democracy” in Poland. A permanent U.S. base could signal support for Europe’s swelling nationalist parties that are increasing internal discord in the European Union. Finally, the complexities that come with placing military families near a potential conflict zone need to be considered. Though not likely, if a conflict did occur, European Command would need to evacuate thousands of non-combatant families and civilians out of Poland. Recent discussion of the possible evacuation of American military families in South Korea, reminds us that the significant forces and time required to support such an evacuation should be fully considered in the cost-benefit analysis.
While the Polish request specifies an American armored division, the Army’s current task organization and rotational commitments in Eastern Europe, Kuwait, and Korea preclude the possibility of moving an armored division to Europe. Rather, an armored brigade would be the most plausible option the Defense Department could consider. In light of these valid concerns and limitations, an armored brigade permanently stationed in Germany should be considered as a more desirable course of action.
There are already 35,000 Americans permanently stationed in Germany. An additional brigade there would be far less controversial. The pre-existing infrastructure and land requirements are already present at American bases in Grafenwoehr and Baumholder. A German-based brigade would negate the risks associated with constructing a Polish base in range of Russian rocket artillery. It would also do little to provoke a Russian counter-reaction or alter Russia’s perceived security. The new brigade’s location would provide European Command with operational maneuver space to consolidate NATO forces and flow additional American units into theater in the event of war. As Kofman points out, an enduring presence in Poland somewhat limits NATO’s ability to exercise deterrence by punishment. A German-based brigade would still allow the United States to signal “increasing immediate deterrence” to Moscow by shifting forces into Eastern Europe if tensions escalated. This permanent brigade would also save money, enhance interoperability, and improve Army-wide readiness.
An Efficient Deterrent
As Kofman and Hodges highlight, the current Atlantic Resolve rotations represent a successful “credible deterrence strategy.” Despite the rotations’ success in deterring Russian aggression in the Baltics, there are inherent inefficiencies that can be resolved with permanent basing. John Deni’s 2016 report demonstrated an armored brigade based in Grafenwoehr, Germany could save $135 million annually compared to ongoing rotational costs. Atlantic Resolve’s recurring transportation costs are staggering. Deni’s report shows that the Defense Department spends $100 million every nine months to transport an armored brigade’s equipment and personnel from the United States to Europe and back. While Poland’s offer included $2 billion to assist with construction costs, the existing network of American bases in Germany already include state of the art ranges, training areas, and facilities that rival many Army bases in the continental United States. The construction costs to expand Grafenwoehr would be minor compared to a brand-new base in Poland. President Donald Trump’s recent guidance for federal agencies to cut budgets by 5 percent makes these cost savings more important in a fiscally constrained environment.
Supporters of the rotational approach highlight how these deployments exercise mobility infrastructure that has not been used since the 1980s. Despite that benefit, the lengthy transportation process negatively impacts the rotational unit’s maintenance and readiness. In my previous assignment, I served as a mechanized infantry and headquarters company commander in the 3rd Armored Brigade, 4th Infantry Division in the first enduring Atlantic Resolve rotation. My soldiers spent two months loading equipment at rail yards, container yards, and ports just getting to Europe. The lack of preventative maintenance on vehicles for two months resulted in numerous breakdowns upon arrival in Europe. Similar time commitment and maintenance issues occurred with redeployment to the United States. In one year, we lost four months to deployment mobility operations that could have been spent on lethality training and maintenance. When aggregated across the U.S. Army’s strained armor fleet, this represents a significant amount of time not devoted to enhancing readiness. Occasionally exercising these mobility systems is necessary, but doing so every nine months is wasteful. While rotational proponents claim rotations improve readiness, they fail to account for these real readiness degradations.
Beyond cost savings and improved readiness, a German-based brigade would be better positioned to support rotations in the Baltics and NATO training exercises throughout Europe. This armored brigade would quickly master the complexities of European mobility operations and retain invaluable contacts with the vast transportation network needed to move armored units throughout Europe. Rather than deploying to the Middle East or rotations to Korea and Kuwait, a German-based armored brigade would conduct NATO exercises and join the ongoing Enhanced Forward Presence rotations. These NATO battlegroups would continue to provide the “trip-wire” deterrence designed to raise the stakes of a Russian incursion into the Baltics. The new brigade could assist ongoing rotations supported by the Italy-based 173rd Airborne Brigade or the Germany-based 2nd Cavalry Regiment. This would reduce the high operational tempo shouldered by these last two American combat brigades based in Europe. If additional forces were needed to signal credible deterrence, infantry units could provide this immediate signaling. The Fort Carson-based 2-12 Infantry Battalion demonstrated this last year with its no-notice, emergency deployment to Grafenwoehr.
During nine months in Europe with the 1st Battalion, 66th Armored Regiment, my company travelled over 2,700 miles between Poland, Germany, and Romania, participating in several NATO training exercises. Throughout the rotation, our battalion developed techniques to overcome various interoperability challenges like incompatible communication technologies, unique logistical requirements, different medical treatment standards, and language barriers. These complications are guaranteed when operating within a 29-country alliance. While we knew there would be interoperability challenges during our training progression at Fort Carson, we were not able to fully refine our standard operating procedures until we were on the ground in Europe, working with our partners’ unique capabilities and limitations.
I contrasted our interoperability struggles with my peers in the Italy-based 173rd Airborne Brigade or the Germany-based 2nd Cavalry Regiment who benefited from institutional knowledge those units had accumulated through routine training with NATO partners. While individual soldiers from those units rotate back to the continental United States, the units’ institutional knowledge remains. When a rotational brigade returns to the United States, their hard-won interoperability experience from the previous nine months goes home with them. The incoming brigade comes into Europe relatively disadvantaged and needs to refine their interoperability tactics, techniques, and procedures throughout their rotation.
A permanent brigade’s consistency in relationship with NATO partners would also improve access to allied training resources and multinational training operations. During our battalion’s Atlantic Resolve rotation, we averaged one to two months in each location. While the land and training resources for major NATO exercises were reserved, we encountered difficulties securing land and resources for short term training objectives (Bradley and tank gunnery, squad and platoon live fire exercises, etc.). In some cases, our partners’ resources were reserved a quarter or year in advance making reservations within our one-two month window impossible. A German-based brigade would overcome those shortcomings by enjoying greater access to allied training resource meetings and land conferences. Routine battalion rotations could enable habitual relationships with various NATO units. Further, permanent presence would enable expanded opportunities for smaller partnered training events (weapons familiarization ranges, team/squad live fires, medical evacuation and treatment, etc.) that are rarely included by planners in large NATO exercises. Being based in Germany would enable brigade and battalion planners to directly coordinate their unit’s training objectives with allied forces.
Improved Armored Fleet Readiness
In addition to the regional considerations outlined above, a permanent brigade would enhance the Army’s strategic flexibility to respond to global crises with armored forces. For the last four years, the U.S. Army’s armored community has struggled to regain decisive action proficiency and maintain readiness while supporting three rotational commitments in Korea, Kuwait, and Eastern Europe. With nine active armored brigades, three are preparing to deploy, three are deployed, and three are conducting redeployment reset. Every active armored brigade is needed to support these commitments with almost no flexibility to reposition armored units in support of worldwide contingencies.
If an armored unit was needed for a contingency operation, the second and third order effects would be significant. Ongoing armored brigade rotations could be extended, vital maintenance would be deferred, and training plans curtailed, all impacting readiness. The Army’s current inability to deploy a sustained armored presence to a regional hotspot without impacting other rotational commitments is troubling. It is easy to think of several scenarios where the Army would need to quickly deploy armored forces to deter escalating tensions with a near-peer adversary. While there are five National Guard armored brigades, it takes months to activate, certify and deploy these units, making them incompatible with emergency deployment requirements.
To enhance the Army’s ability to respond to global crises, permanently stationing an armored brigade in Germany would further enhance the Army’s “ready bench.” The ongoing conversion of the 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division and the upcoming conversion of the 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division will provide the Army with 11 active duty armored brigades in the next two years. Beyond reducing the armored community’s high operational tempo, if one of these brigades was stationed in Europe, the remaining ten U.S.-based armored units would only have two rotations to support. Considering two deployed, two undergoing reset, and two preparing to deploy, this would free four armored brigades from rotational commitments. While two brigades would focus on training and maintenance, the other two would retain a heightened readiness status, prepared to support future contingency operations. Mr. Kofman expressed the need for NATO “to credibly reinforce on short notice with forces that cannot be destroyed at the outset.” These “Ready Brigades,” combined with the recent expansion of Army prepositioned stock in Europe, provide the Defense Department with a credible reinforcement capability.
Though I focused on the benefits of an armored brigade, I concur with other assessments that highlight the need for additional forces in Europe to complement ongoing deterrence efforts. Additional European based helicopter units would also be helpful. However, similar to the deficit of armored forces, additional helicopter units need to be activated to make this a reality. A Europe-based division headquarters is similarly needed to replace the rotational Mission Command Element. The new headquarters would provide command and control for U.S. Army Europe’s expanding operations and relieve current strain on Army division-level headquarters, which currently deploy every 14 to 16 months. The Army announced last month that it will station an artillery brigade headquarters, two multiple-launch rocket battalions, and an air defense battalion in Germany. These measures are steps in the right direction.
Ten years ago, few people could foresee Russia invading Georgia and Ukraine, weaponizing the migrant crisis to destabilize the European Union, or interfering in American elections. Based on Russia’s routine aggression over the last decade, it is likely President Vladimir Putin will continue challenging American and NATO interests in the years to come. The need for the United States to efficiently maintain its conventional deterrent capabilities is clear. In light of recent comments that have led Eastern European NATO members to question America’s Article 5 commitment, it is apparent why Poland is clamoring for a permanent American base. Selecting Germany as the home for an American armored brigade should not be interpreted as accepting Poland and the Baltics as an operational buffer zone with Russia. The ongoing Enhanced Forward Presence rotations and the permanent U.S. Aegis ashore anti-missile site in Redzikowo, Poland clearly demonstrate NATO’s and America’s commitment. Rather, the American decision to return permanent armored forces to Germany will relieve Atlantic Resolve’s rotational burden, improve interoperability, and enhance the U.S. Army’s ability to credibly respond to future threats. Despite the tempting Polish proposal to pay for “Fort Trump,” a German-based armored brigade takes advantage of Germany’s existing infrastructure, avoids escalating tensions, and simultaneously addresses the reality of persistent tensions with Russia.
Ryan Van Wie graduated from West Point in 2010 and commissioned as an Infantry Officer. He served as a platoon leader and executive officer in the 101st Airborne Division and as a plans officer and company commander in the 4th Infantry Division. He is currently pursuing a graduate degree at University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
Image: Kevin S. Abel