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As Afghanistan war ends, NATO shifts focus to preparation for future ops

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen shakes hands with an Afghan commando at Camp Morehead, Afghanistan, April 12, 2012.

STUTTGART, Germany — As NATO shifts away from a war-fighting footing with the end of combat operations in Afghanistan approaching, the alliance must find new, more affordable ways to maintain combat readiness, according to NATO’s commander of land forces.

“In order to prevent that [post-war] drift into our own little corners, you’re going to see a reinvigorated exercise program,” Lt. Gen. Frederick “Ben” Hodges, who oversees NATO’s land forces, said in a telephone interview on Thursday.

On Monday, NATO Allied Land Command held a ceremony at its headquarters in Izmir, Turkey, to mark the one-year anniversary of merging the responsibilities of separate Force Commands in Heidelberg, Germany, and Madrid, Spain. In the year ahead the Izmir headquarters is expected to become fully operational in its mission to ensure the readiness of NATO forces.

Now, Hodges is looking for ways to ensure NATO’s land forces retain all the lessons learned during more than a decade of fighting in Afghanistan.Going forward, the key will be finding affordable ways to sustain the alliance “interoperability,”Hodges said.

“What we want to do in Europe is connect our existing NATO training centers and connect them” with the U.S. training grounds in Grafenwöhr, Germany, Hodges said.

With facilities in places such as Norway, Poland, Turkey and Germany all connected into the same NATO network, opportunities for more collaboration among armies should increase, Hodges said. That would also cut down on costs by reducing the amount of travel necessary, he said.

“We need to make the case that doing this is cheaper and more efficient in the long run,” Hodges said “If we’re going to fight together, we need everybody on the same net.”

Hodges said it will take a couple of years to get such technology to all the training centers, but work is underway.

For NATO, achieving total “interoperability” has long been elusive. Commanders complained that training standards differed, available ammunition didn’t always correspond to the types of tanks and guns being used, aerial tankers from one country could not refuel warplanes from another, and field radios could not communicate with each other, causing a range of organizational and logistical problems and degrading combat readiness.

Now, with NATO’s long campaign in Afghanistan nearing conclusion next year, the alliance has made strides in how it fights together, Hodges said. As NATO shifts to a contingency footing, it also will put increased focus on the NATO Response Force, a multi-national force capable of conducting rapid crisis response operations.

“That means the NATO Response Force is going to be much more important in the scheme of things,” Hodges said. “I anticipate a lot more visibility on it.”

Approved by NATO in 2003, the NRF has struggled with manning, and U.S. interest has been negligible.

That appears to have changed as the U.S., for the first time, has dedicated forces — Army elements based out of Fort Food, Texas — to the Response Force.

Still, the overall U.S. military presence is on the decline in Europe, which has prompted questions about U.S. commitment to the region. Hodges contended the Army’s new commitment of sending U.S.-based troops on rotational training missions to Europe, coupled with its commitment to the NATO Response Force, should counter concerns that the U.S. is moving away from Europe.

“It’s reasonable to expect some skeptics as well as some worry, but there are still 30,000 U.S. Army personnel in Europe,” Hodges said. “That’s bigger than the militaries of many alliance members.”

vandiver.john@stripes.com

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