By David Vergun Army News Service
WASHINGTON, December 9, 2015 — Because Russians can operate on their interior lines and quickly shift forces around, all exercises conducted by the United States and its European allies place heavy emphasis on speed, the commanding general of U.S. Army Europe said today.
Army Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges spoke at a Pentagon news conference.
By “speed,” Hodges explained, he means speed to recognize a potential crisis, speed to act politically and speed of assembly and movement of troops to the point of crisis by road and rail. Once in place, he said, speed and proper execution of operation also would depend on interoperability among all of the U.S. allies, so that's the focus of training and exercise.
The general then provided an overview of Russian actions and the responses by the U.S. and its European allies.
Hodges noted that as recently as a few years ago, the United States thought Russia could be a partner. Russian-led incursions into eastern Ukraine and occupation of Crimea changed all that, he said.
The Russians have not allowed independent monitoring to determine Russian compliance with the Minsk Agreement, the general said. Since September, he added, there have been several hundred cease-fire violations, and Ukrainians have been killed.
Although a lot of Russia’s heavy equipment has been pulled back from the border area with Ukraine, Hodges told reporters, the infrastructure remains in place and the Russians could quickly ramp up if they wanted to.
In Crimea, Russia has 25,000 soldiers, a credible air defense and its Black Sea fleet, which is capable of blocking U.S. and ally access to the Black Sea, where Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey and Georgia are located, he said.
Moving westward, Hodges said, the Russians have a significant naval and ground force in Kaliningrad, a wedge of Russian territory between Lithuania and Poland. That force, he said, could effectively cut off access to the Baltic area.
Furthermore, Russian officials have talked about Denmark, Sweden and Romania in terms of being nuclear targets, an irresponsible use of words, the general said. "So you can see why our European allies are nervous,” he added.
NATO allies are working on speed of response, Hodges said, noting that the alliance’s Wales summit was all about preventing crisis, improving deterrence and being more responsive.
An outcome of that was the development of the alliance's Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, to which the United States is contributing a rotational brigade out of Fort Stewart, Georgia.
Because Eastern Europe is not a small distance from Fort Stewart, Hodges said, the United States has set up what it calls European Activity Sets in Romania, Bulgaria and Lithuania. That includes about 1,300 vehicles, including tanks and howitzers, he said.
By September, he said, the United States expects to have additional EAS sites in Poland, Estonia and Latvia, and by 2017, in Hungary. National Guard units are welcome to add their equipment to any of those sites, he added.
All of this is being funded by the European Reassurance Initiative, and Hodges said he's optimistic funding will extend into 2017.
Some 400 soldiers are now helping allies train and equip Ukrainian troops in the western part of the country, Hodges said. It's part of the Joint Multinational Training Group Ukraine, which includes British, Lithuanian and Canadian trainers.
A Two-Way Street
Hodges noted that training has been a two-way street, as Ukrainians have been helpful in describing what happens during a Russian attack. For instance, they've tuned their ear to differentiate among different types of unmanned aerial vehicles and when they hear certain ones, they know missiles will soon follow, the general said.
The United States hasn't had to fear attack from the sky in decades, Hodges noted. As the U.S. learns more and more about Russian capabilities, he added, it has employed opposition force teams in German training areas to test their capabilities against things such as air power, jamming and intercept capabilities.
Lastly, Hodges said that while the United States has done and will continue to do a lot, each European country is responsible for its own defense as well, in terms of training and equipment.
"We don't want Russians to miscalculate that we're not capable or willing to respond," the general said.