Readiness and Interoperability in Operation Atlantic Resolve
Lt. Col. Chad Foster, U.S. Army
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Our fundamental task is like no other—it is to win in the unforgiving crucible of ground combat. We must ensure the Army remains ready as the world’s premier combat force. Readiness for ground combat is—and will remain—the U.S. Army’s number one priority.
—Gen. Mark A. Milley, Chief of Staff of the Army
The newly established “heel to toe” rotation of armored brigade combat teams (ABCTs) to Europe in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve (OAR) provides an opportunity to demonstrate how the Army can reconcile deployment mission requirements with the demands of the Sustainable Readiness Model (SRM). The Army can optimize OAR deployments to this end by establishing enduring unit-to-unit partnerships between battalions in the rotational ABCTs and specific allies, and by directly linking unit readiness to the strategically important task of building interoperability. Rather than presiding over the atrophy of unit readiness as many past deployments have done, OAR is poised to return brigades and battalions to home station at a consistently higher level of combat proficiency and overall readiness than when they first arrived in theater. If approached correctly, doing so will support the chief of staff of the Army’s top priority of maintaining readiness while simultaneously contributing in a meaningful way to NATO’s larger deterrence mission in Europe.
The Sustainable Readiness Model: A Contract
During the height of the Global War on Terrorism, the Army relied upon a model of tiered readiness called Army Force Generation (ARFORGEN). According to Army Regulation 525-29, Army Force Generation, ARFORGEN sought to provide a “sustained flow of trained and ready forces” to support the regular cycle of twelve-to-fifteen-month deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq.1 Under this model, units would return from deployment and enter an extended period of reset, during which the formation conducted maintenance on its equipment while a large portion of its personnel departed for new duty assignments. The mass exodus of soldiers and leaders would temporarily leave the unit understrength and untrained until sufficient replacements arrived and the formation entered its next cycle, training.
While in reset, units were designated as unavailable for rotational deployments or contingencies, allowing them time to build readiness progressively over a twelve-month period. With as many as one third of U.S. brigade combat teams (the basic building block of American ground combat power) in reset and another third already committed to deployments primarily in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army found itself extremely limited in its strategic flexibility.
However, the economic recession that began in 2008 along with changes to the global security environment necessitated a new model for readiness. In a new atmosphere of diminishing funding and increased budgetary scrutiny, the SRM was born. The SRM seeks to increase the number of ground forces available for use by requiring commanders to maintain their combat readiness over time instead of allowing it to lapse during periods of rest. This is supposed to be done through a proactive approach to managing personnel, training, and maintenance. The stated objective of the SRM is to “sustain over 66 percent of our aggregate regular Army units in a combat ready status at any moment in time.”2 Doing so is intended to provide the U.S. government with greater strategic flexibility to respond to contingencies and thus better justify budget expenditures on ground combat forces. In this way, the SRM signifies a new “contract” between the Army and the American taxpayer, pledging a bigger “bang” for every dollar spent.
Unfortunately, the pace of deployments has not lessened in recent years, and the fact remains that deployments often degrade readiness rather than build it. The combat proficiency of deployed ground forces tends to decrease with each passing month, as live-fire qualifications grow out of date, and opportunities to properly practice and evaluate key collective tasks are not always available. For example, battalions sometimes engage in advisory or capacity-building deployments that take the focus away from the units’ readiness regarding their core combat missions. Additionally, many locations to which units find themselves deployed lack the training resources and facilities to support collective live-fire qualifications and large-scale maneuver training. These conditions risk imposing crippling readiness constraints upon Army formations as their skills atrophy before returning to home station.
Operation Atlantic Resolve 2017: The Return of Armor to Europe
In January 2017, the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team of the 4th Infantry Division arrived at the German port of Bremerhaven and moved thousands of soldiers and pieces of equipment to various locations spread across eight countries. The presence of this force “mark[ed] a significant moment in European defense and deterrence,” according to Gen. Curtis M. Scapparotti, then commander of U.S. European Command (EUCOM) and NATO’s supreme allied commander.3 This deployment’s significance lay mostly in the type of units that were arriving in Europe. Rather than sending additional airborne or wheeled vehicle-based units to theater, the U.S. chose to deploy the heavy firepower of an ABCT. Deploying American M1A2 Abrams main battle tanks and M2A3 Bradley fighting vehicles along with supporting artillery and engineers was an unmistakable demonstration of Washington’s commitment to NATO.
The January 2017 return of American armored formations to the European continent also marked a reversal, albeit a small one, in the dramatic drawdown of U.S. ground combat power in Europe that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Slowed down only by the 1991 Gulf War and commencement of a yearly cycle of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan in the early days of the Global War on Terrorism, U.S. ground forces actually stationed in Europe had steadily declined since the end of the Cold War. By 2017, the only permanently stationed ground maneuver units in Europe were an airborne brigade headquartered in Italy and a Germany-based infantry brigade equipped with six-wheeled Stryker vehicles. Although highly mobile and possessing unique capabilities, neither of these formations is well suited to counter a heavy armored threat such as the one that NATO currently seeks to deter in Europe. While a single rotational U.S. ABCT does not offset NATO’s initial numerical disadvantage in a likely outbreak of conflict in central Europe, it does signal a deeper U.S. commitment to the Alliance and provide a somewhat more credible deterrent on the ground.4
Challenges for Readiness and Interoperability
Currently, the U.S. Army has nine active-duty ABCTs with another being formed beginning in the summer of 2017 through the conversion of an infantry brigade at Fort Stewart, Georgia.5 These units are employed in a cycle of three standing, nine-month operational deployments through which these ABCTs currently rotate in Kuwait, South Korea, and Europe. However, this operational tempo, although predictable, quickly consumes the availability of these formations for other contingencies. At any one time, three of these ABCTs are deployed to these strategically important locations while another three are completing final preparations to replace those currently overseas. The remaining three have recently returned from these deployments and are in the initial stages of preparing to deploy once again. Even with the eventual addition of a tenth formation, the reality of limited forces available leaves little room for flexibility should a contingency arise elsewhere in the world. It also means that there is little margin for error when it comes to maintaining the combat readiness of these formations.
Two of these rotational deployments are already well postured to support both the readiness of participating ABCTs and interoperability with host-nation forces. The range facilities and vast training areas available in the desert of northern Kuwait are ideal for live-fire qualifications and maneuver exercises. The biggest challenge facing deployed ABCTs in Kuwait is the intense Middle Eastern heat (depending on the time of year). Because this deployment cycle has been established for a long time, deconfliction of range time with Kuwaiti land forces is a relatively easy task. Similarly, in South Korea, there are also suitable ranges and training areas available, in part as a legacy of the past presence of a full U.S. mechanized division in that country. For both of these deployments, there is only a single country with which U.S. ground forces must integrate, making interoperability requirements less problematic.
In Europe, however, U.S. forces face significantly more complex challenges in both optimizing the theater’s ability to support the sustainable readiness of deployed ABCTs and in achieving the level of interoperability necessary for NATO’s larger strategic mission of deterrence. In terms of readiness, the most obvious challenge is the uneven level of training resources and facilities resident across the different NATO countries. In places such as Germany, there are robust ranges and training areas that can meet all the requirements of an ABCT. However, in other locations that lack such established resources, U.S. forces are unable to maintain training and live-fire qualifications at all necessary echelons. Though efforts are ongoing to improve ranges and facilities throughout theater, this reality still endangers the SRM contract between the Army’s ABCTs deployed to Europe and the American taxpayer.
Less obvious to the outside observer are the challenges caused by a lack of sufficient time on the ground with specific partners to build true interoperability. Moving units around Europe, sometimes down to the company level or below, to participate in exercises of varying scale that reassure allies in a specific area of U.S. commitment, or to exercise the theater’s ability to transport units from one location to another, are all laudable goals. However, there are significant drawbacks. In order to deter Russian aggression with limited forces, the commander of U.S. Army Europe declared that his task is “making 30,000 troops look like 300,000.”6 Presumably, the repositioning of units across theater is part of these efforts.
In practice, this “anywhere and everywhere” approach to deterrence undermines interoperability efforts as deployed U.S. battalions seldom remain in one location long enough to make any real progress. Partnerships suffer as our allies quickly begin to see us as only short-term transients, as every new U.S. unit that arrives must start over from scratch with interoperability rather than building on a previously established foundation. Just as the soldiers and leaders on both sides begin to figure out how to operate together, the Americans load trains for movement to a different country.
Some might argue that this practice enables a force that can deploy anywhere in Europe and rapidly integrate with any ally. Such arguments fail to consider the realities confronting units on the ground that would have to do the hard work of fighting alongside allies. Interoperability is difficult and messy work, even among nations that have highly capable, professional military forces who are motivated to work together for a common cause. At the lowest levels, junior officers and noncommissioned officers (NCOs) have to experiment on the ground with counterparts to identify and bridge capability gaps. This effort includes the development of common tactics, techniques, and procedures that can then be codified, practiced, and validated under realistic conditions down to the company, platoon, and squad levels.
To complicate matters further, unlike the situations in Kuwait and South Korea, U.S. forces deployed to Europe must deal with an alliance consisting of twenty-nine member countries, each of which speaks a different language and possesses sometimes vastly different equipment and capabilities. In order to provide a framework in overcoming these obstacles, NATO has divided interoperability into three components: technical, procedural, and human.
The technical component focuses on the compatibility of equipment. The procedural component, as the name suggests, entails a commonality of doctrine and standard operating procedures (SOPs) as embodied in standardization agreements among NATO members.7 Lastly, but certainly not least, the human component encompasses on the ground training that enables individual soldiers, leaders, and units to work together effectively during operations.
In an article published in May 2017, Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the commander of U.S. Army Europe, rightly called on NATO members to acquire new and more advanced equipment to allow secure communications and to facilitate digital processing of indirect fires.8 Unfortunately, there is little reason to believe that technical solutions will come close to bridging all of these gaps across the Alliance in the foreseeable future. When one considers that in 2016 only six of the twenty-nine NATO countries actually committed at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product to national defense (and only five managed to do so in 2017), it seems unlikely that significant purchases of new military equipment will soon occur.9 And, even if such purchases did transpire, more and better equipment is not the panacea for interoperability. Only deliberately planned combined training carried out over a sufficient period will ensure full allied integration. One cannot wish away these difficulties, nor should one understate the impact of interoperability (or a lack thereof) on a strategy of deterrence.
What Can Be Done
It is possible to optimize OAR to support simultaneously the readiness of rotational ABCTs and allied interoperability. Sustaining readiness allows the Army to fulfill its contract with the American taxpayer while achieving true interoperability keeps faith with our European allies by contributing meaningfully to NATO’s strategic mission of deterrence. The necessary steps begin with the establishment of enduring partnerships between U.S. battalions and specific NATO allies. Next, interoperability must become an official component of unit readiness, creating the right mindset among soldiers, leaders, and commanders that will allow full exploitation of opportunities as the distribution of training resources becomes more even across the continent. Both of these efforts necessitate a deliberate, long-term approach to interoperability that prioritizes quality over quantity when it comes to combined training and exercises.
To begin, battalion-level units should be partnered with specific European allies on an enduring basis. As of now, the nature and proximity of the potential threat makes it seem most sensible for such partnerships to focus on countries in the eastern part of the continent. Emphasis could be placed on Poland, the Baltic States, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, with others included depending on the strategic assessment. Battalions from the rotational ABCT would focus on bilateral combined training, but they could also easily augment the mission of NATO’s enhanced forward-presence battlegroups through participation in multilateral training exercises held in their respective partner countries.10
For bilateral combined training, enduring partnerships would make possible detailed planning and resourcing well ahead of U.S. units’ arrival to theater. European armies plan their training calendars years in advance. If a U.S. battalion has an established and enduring relationship with a specific ally, collaborative planning and coordination can occur within a timeline that is least disruptive to the host country and that ensures sufficient resources to support the deploying unit’s readiness requirements. For example, an allied nation might possess only one live-fire range complex that can support Table VI crew qualification for M1 tanks. Collaborative planning conducted well in advance would mitigate scheduling conflicts and ensure access to resources that are essential in maintaining readiness qualifications.
Just as important, the establishment of enduring partnerships between U.S. units and specific allied nations would send a powerful strategic message regarding our commitment to the Alliance. In January 2014, Polish Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz described the arrival of the armored brigade from the U.S. 4th Infantry Division to his country as the fulfillment of a long-held dream. “We waited for decades, sometimes feeling we had been left alone,” Macierewicz said at the welcome ceremony in Zagan, Poland.11 Such sentiment is also evident in many places in Europe, especially along the eastern frontiers with Russia, where history combines with recent events to add a sense of urgency to NATO’s mission of deterrence. Having enduring partnerships between allied militaries and specific U.S. battalions, ones that over time help forge true interoperability, is a profound and tangible gesture that communicates the commitment of the U.S. to NATO members who feel particularly vulnerable.
When viewed through the lens of regionally aligned forces (RAF), the value of enduring country-specific partnerships becomes even clearer. The basic premise underlying RAF is that regional context significantly affects military operations. Factors such as history, culture, geography, demographics, and economics drive decisions about how to plan and integrate military operations with our allies. The Army intended RAF to provide responsive forces that were tailored to the specific needs of combatant commanders through a baseline of decisive action proficiency as well as specific cultural and language training.12 OAR deployments offer a ready testing ground to validate the investment in specialized skills training and educational efforts. Formal language training for selected soldiers followed by informal training for the rest would naturally follow along with the possibility of officer and NCO exchanges to further enhance partnerships. The implications for interoperability and NATO’s deterrence mission would be significant. Battalions would quickly become the subject-matter experts in combined operations with their enduring partners, providing their brigade headquarters with increased tactical flexibility in the event of a contingency.
Finally, if interoperability is to receive the emphasis that it requires from unit commanders and leaders among partnered national entities, it must be linked directly and tangibly to unit readiness. This cannot be done in a generic way because what it takes to operate effectively, for example, with a Hungarian motorized infantry unit equipped predominately with BTR-80 wheeled armored personnel carriers is drastically different from what it takes to fight alongside a Polish mechanized infantry formation equipped with tracked BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicles.
Variations in equipment such as night vision devices, communications systems, and indirect-fire assets are only the beginning. Personalities, language, culture, and a multitude of other idiosyncrasies also come into play. U.S. units must be able to conduct the same tasks in conjunction with allied forces that they are expected to do unilaterally. This takes time, practice, and an external evaluation to validate proficiency. All of this directly supports unit readiness, and all can be done in OAR.
Essential to Success: Historical Case Studies in the Art of Command at Echelons Above Brigade
The Army University Press
Kelvin Crow and Joe R. Bailey
Essential to Success: Historical Case Studies in the Art of Command at Echelons Above Brigade is the latest book from Army University Press. Commissioned as a companion to the Army’s 2017 version of Field Manual 3-0, Operations, it contains twenty engaging and thought-provoking chapters by scholars and former large-unit commanders who analyze key decisions, enabling factors, and limiting factors in large-unit combat operations from the Second World War to current conflicts.
The U.S. Army’s recent history of small-unit operations combined with increased potential for large-scale combat against peer or near-peer rivals and advances in technology and social media call for a reassessment of command at senior levels. Essential to Success highlights situations faced by commanders of the past, and it explains and contextualizes the problems they faced, the decisions they made, and the outcomes of those decisions. The book invites readers, commanders, and their staffs to think critically and apply historical experience to large-scale ground combat of the future in an attempt to preserve American lives and valuable national resources.
To view this publication, along with video commentaries from contributing authors, please click here.
When it comes to interoperability, the questions we ask must be, Interoperable with whom? Interoperable for what? Interoperability efforts must align U.S. battalions with specific allies based on functionality and a reasonable expectation that they would operate together in the event of a contingency. For example, a cavalry squadron deployed to OAR could be paired with an allied armored brigade with whom they would train for a period of months before undergoing a combined external evaluation either at the Joint Multinational Training Center in Hohenfels, Germany, or at a different location where sufficient resources are available. The combined train-up and subsequent external evaluation would emphasize reconnaissance hand off, passage of lines, processing of fires (U.S. observers to allied guns and vice versa), and any other tasks deemed most vital for likely contingency scenarios involving these two types of units.
The combined SOPs could then be codified and integrated into future training in the United States even after the American unit returns home. A permanent exchange of officers and NCOs, if undertaken, would help keep the unit-to-unit connection strong by facilitating continued training of combined SOPs and helping planners on both sides to better integrate.
Despite having enduring partners, U.S. forces would be far from stagnant. On the contrary, exercising mobility and “speed of assembly” would be greatly enhanced. Imagine a U.S. battalion in western Poland receiving orders to consolidate at a nearby rail facility along with elements from their partnered Polish brigade. As part of the same emergency deployment readiness exercise, equipment and personnel from both countries’ armies could be deployed to a different location within Poland or across borders to practice contingency response drills together. Elements of the ABCT’s headquarters and their Polish counterparts could also take part, making the exercise far more realistic. A combined deployment such as this would be a far more powerful demonstration of interoperability than any unilateral rail movement by U.S. forces.
Make Readiness Equal Interoperability in Operation Atlantic Resolve
The rotation of U.S. Army ABCTs to Europe in support of OAR offers an immense opportunity to demonstrate our ability to carry out a deployed mission while simultaneously meeting the obligations of the sustainable readiness contract with the American taxpayer. Enduring partnerships between U.S. units and specific allied countries optimize the ability to do so in the European theater. Although challenges remain in some key areas, making unit readiness synonymous with interoperability in OAR is a worthy and feasible goal. It supports tactical integration among allies, operational flexibility across NATO, and a strategy of deterrence in the region. In today’s global security environment, when combined action among allies is likely to be the key to success in any contingency, an assessment of the readiness of U.S. forces must include an evaluation of their ability to integrate with those allies.
Today, we talk about deterrence of aggression in Europe in terms of making thirty thousand American troops look like three hundred thousand. Perhaps a better way to frame the problem is to think of deterrence as making that relatively small number of U.S. personnel the catalyst for developing a larger, fully integrated, much more formidable allied force that really is three hundred thousand. However, this requires U.S. ground units that are truly interoperable with our NATO allies. Enduring partnerships is a simple yet powerful way to achieve this end. Implementing these partnerships and synchronizing plans accordingly for combined exercises within OAR will take a significant amount of coordination and staff analysis at the highest levels across Europe. However, the payoff from these efforts will be immense for both the U.S. Army’s readiness objectives and for NATO’s deterrence mission. In short, the hard work is well worth the reward.
- Army Regulation 525-29, Army Force Generation (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Publishing Office, 14 March 2011), 1.
- Mark A. Milley, Memorandum for All Army Leaders, “Army Readiness Guidance, Calendar Year 2016-17,” 20 January 2016, 4, accessed 8 November 2017, https://www.army.mil/e2/downloads/rv7/standto/docs/army_readiness_guidance.pdf.
- Defense Media Activity, “EUCOM Commander: US Armored Brigade’s Deployment to Poland ‘Significant,’” Department of Defense News, 12 January 2017, accessed 8 November 2017, https://www.defense.gov/News/Article/Article/1048463/eucom-commander-us-armored-brigades-deployment-to-poland-significant.
- Richard Sokolsky, “The New NATO-Russia Military Balance: Implications for European Security” (white paper, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, DC, 13 March 2017), accessed 8 November 2017, http://carnegieendowment.org/2017/03/13/new-nato-russia-military-balance-implications-for-european-security-pub-68222.
- Matthew Cox, “Army Loses One Infantry Brigade to Create New Armored Brigade,” Military.com, 2 December 2016, accessed 8 November 2017, http://www.military.com/daily-news/2016/12/02/army-loses-one-infantry-brigade-to-create-new-armored-brigade.html.
- “Army Europe: Making 30,000 Troops Look like 300,000,” Association of the United States Army (website), 14 July 2015, accessed 8 November 2017, https://www.ausa.org/news/army-europe-making-30000-troops-look-300000.
- “Standardization,” North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) (website), last updated 23 January 2017, accessed 8 November 2017, http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/topics_69269.htm.
- Ben Hodges, “Redefining Readiness in Europe,” Army.mil, 1 May 2017, accessed 8 November 2017, https://www.army.mil/article/185954/redefining_readiness_in_europe.
- “Military Spending by NATO Members: Does America Contribute More than Its Fair Share?,” The Economist (website), 16 February 2017, accessed 8 November 2017, http://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2017/02/daily-chart-11.
- “Boosting NATO’s Presence in the East and Southeast,” NATO (website), last updated 11 August 2017, accessed 8 November 2017, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_136388.htm.
- “Polish Gov’t Welcomes US Troops; Defense Chief Says ‘We Waited for Decades,’” CBS News (website), 14 January 2017, accessed 8 November 2017, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/polish-govt-welcomes-u-s-troops-says-we-waited-for-decades/.
- “Regional Alignment of Forces,” (slide presentation, U.S. Army G3/5/7, Washington, DC, 10 June 2014), accessed 8 November 2017, http://www.dami.army.pentagon.mil/g2Docs/DAMI-FL/Regionally_AlignedForces.pdf.
Lt. Col. Chad Foster, U.S. Army, is a student at the U.S. National War College. In May 2017, he relinquished command of a cavalry squadron in the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, after being deployed for five months in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve. He holds an MA from the U.S. Naval College of Command and Staff.