STUTTGART, Germany — Just four years after the Defense Department decided to inactivate two of Europe’s four brigades, a review panel has recommended that the Army return an armored brigade to Europe along with a war-fighting aviation headquarters to counter a more aggressive Russia.
The conclusion from a yearlong review of Army readiness by a congressionally mandated panel illustrates how dramatically the security situation in Europe has changed in the past two years, with perceptions of Russia changing from potential ally to potential adversary.
The National Commission on the Future of the Army released its findings Thursday in a nearly 200-page report that offered a series of recommendations on the size and shape of the Army in the years ahead.
In the case of Europe, the commission argued that more permanent forces are needed on the Continent, where Army presence now stands at roughly 28,000 troops.
“The changing security environment in Europe, its value as a stationing location for potential contingencies in the Middle East, and the relatively lengthy timelines associated with deploying an (armored brigade) suggest the need to return to permanent stationing of this asset in the region,” the commission concluded. “Based on its review, the commission believes this adjustment would require minimal additional staffing.”
In addition, the Army should convert U.S. Army Europe’s administrative aviation headquarters to a “war-fighting mission command element” similar to a combat aviation brigade headquarters.
While a heavier reliance on rotational aviation combat units in Europe makes sense, the current administrative aviation headquarters is “not sufficiently robust to accomplish this task at acceptable risk,” said the commission, headed by retired Army Gen. Carter Ham.
The commission’s findings are a sign of how much the military mission in Europe has changed in the wake of Russia’s 2014 intervention in Ukraine and Moscow’s more assertive military posture along NATO’s eastern and southern flanks.
In 2013, the Army’s last battle tanks were removed from Europe, and the second of two heavy brigades was inactivated as part of a steady drawdown of the force that has left the Army with only two light brigades — the 173rd Airborne out of Vicenza, Italy, and the 2nd Cavalry Regiment in Vilseck, Germany.
As the U.S. has bolstered its presence in eastern Europe, with new missions across the Baltics as part of an effort to reassure allies and deter Russia, the Army has relied heavily on rotational forces from the U.S. to replenish a depleted Europe-based force. The Army has also brought back 250 tanks and other heavy vehicles, which are pre-positioned in warehouses around Europe.
But a U.S. European Command strategy issued Tuesday cautions against an overreliance on rotational forces.
“The temporary presence of rotational forces complements, but does not substitute for an enduring forward deployed presence that is tangible and real,” the EUCOM strategy said. “Virtual presence means actual absence.”
For months, top American military commanders have been sounding the alarm about Russia’s military buildup in recent years. A chief concern is Russia’s capability to deny access into numerous strategic locations, such as the Baltics, a region where Russia maintains a sizable military presence. In addition, the Russian navy has become more active in the Mediterranean.
Other areas of concern in Europe are the downsizing of headquarters staff at USAREUR, which has left the Army without an operational command post and the military potentially exposed in a crisis. The deployment of a rotational command element from the 4th Infantry Division provides “a temporary, albeit nonsustainable, solution,” the commission report said.
The commission also lamented the lack of short-range air defense battalions within the regular Army, a capability that could be useful in “high-threat areas in northeast Asia, southwest Asia, eastern Europe or the Baltics.”
In the case of the Army, a permanently stationed armored bridge would send a signal to allies and adversaries, the Army commission said.
“The possibility of forceful response options in Europe must be considered,” the report said. “The value of armored forces for conducting major combat operations adds to their value for deterring aggression. Such forces take significant time to prepare and resources to sustain. However, underestimating the armored force requirements increases risk to mission.”