US to trainer-hungry Europe: ‘Our No. 1 customer is your soldier’
ZAGREB, Croatia — Before it flourished in America, the concept of the noncommissioned officer was born in Europe’s great armies.
Today, the NCO is returning to its roots. Decades of reform and years of combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan have helped modernize Europe’s enlisted forces, bringing lessons in small-unit tactics and junior leadership to a continent where conscript armies and top-heavy leadership were the Cold War rule.
From former Warsaw Pact and Soviet nations like Romania and Georgia to Western nations such as Sweden and Norway, many countries are developing, returning to or modifying their corps.
Yet as allied combat in Afghanistan nears an end, shrinking defense budgets across Europe may test recent progress.
“As with all, we have budget limits, and the budgets are becoming a bigger driver of limitations,” Dominik Ban, sergeant major of the Croatian army, recently told a gathering of his peers from across Europe.
Even U.S. Army Europe, which has recast itself as a training arm for European militaries, is under pressure to prove itself as Congress questions the purpose of continuing to station troops on the continent.
At last month’s Conference of European Armies for the Noncommissioned Officer, where senior enlisted leaders from the U.S. and more than three dozen European countries gathered to discuss NCO training and education, the challenges of a new era — and the role of U.S. Army Europe within it — were underlying themes.
The discussion follows what participants described as a decade of development for their militaries and enlisted soldiers. Driven by NATO membership aspirations and repeated deployment, more nations are modernizing their armies from the conscript forces of the past to units focused on joint operations and NATO interoperability.
More nations are embracing the role of a professional NCO corps, said Navy Fleet Master Chief Petty Officer Roy M. Maddocks Jr., the senior enlisted officer for U.S. European Command.
“Over the past 10 years, they’ve recognized the need, based on … advances in technology,” Maddocks said. “The increased complexity of joint and combined operations requires a professional force, a holistic professional force.”
Sweden offers an example. After scrapping its corps three decades ago, the country is re-creating the system, said Maj. Joachim Blomgren, head of NCO training for the Swedish armed forces.
“Our experience [was] a lack of well-educated officers and lack of knowledge in branch profession,” Blomgren told the conference.
Participants at the conference said maintaining such a force requires training and education, and budgets are increasingly tight. High budget deficits led to sharply curtailed defense spending in many central and Eastern European countries beginning in 2009, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Austerity measures have left countries like Romania, Greece and Lithuania to operate on budgets less than three-quarters of what they were in 2008, according to the institute. Two of the continent’s biggest spenders, the United Kingdom and Germany, are planning cuts in the coming years.
Most participants at the conference spoke of increasing budget pressure. László Tóth, command sergeant major for the Hungarian military’s joint forces, said he has canceled international training exercises due to costs. Sgt. Maj. George Papakirykos of Greece said his country sees a gulf between developing NCO theory and putting it into action.
“The problem is training,” Papakirykos said. “Training is what needs money.”
While training exercises and resource sharing — such as NCO schools — was a central focus of last month’s conference, there are still basic obstacles such as language to overcome. Tóth, for example, can’t send his Hungarian soldiers to NCO courses in neighboring Croatia, he said, because his men don’t speak the language.
Of the nations represented at the conference, the U.S. appeared to offer the broadest set of training options in Europe — in English, which tends to be the common language among NATO members.
U.S. Army Europe has eagerly embraced the role. In 2006, its training command in Grafenwöhr, Germany — the largest outside the U.S. — renamed itself the Joint Multinational Training Command, a recognition of the growing number of multinational soldiers it has trained at Grafenwöhr and Hohenfels over the past decade.
Soldiers from allied nations now arrive every month to learn from U.S. trainers on simulations, to prepare for deployment to Afghanistan or to ready for the peacekeeping mission in Kosovo. The JMTC simulation center served 16,000 soldiers from 39 nations in the last fiscal year, according to the command. The NCO Academy in Grafenwöhr graduates 3,600 soldiers a year, an increasing number of them from European nations.
Many of the command’s services are mobile, meaning instructors, simulations and advanced laser-sensors used in live training can be exported to a given country, a service that impressed participants.
“That means for any country, they won’t have to send 100 people, feed 100 people and send them abroad,” Papakirykos said. “But the training setup can come to our country and do it.”
U.S. officials were not able immediately to explain the cost savings of such an arrangement.
With two Army combat brigades slated to leave Europe by 2013, USAREUR appears to be focusing on its multinational efforts.
“Really, right now, our No. 1 customer is your soldier,” Command Sgt. Maj. Dennis Zavodsky of JMTC told conference participants.
Yet, like its European counterparts, USAREUR faces pressure from home. Congress has shown skepticism about the Army’s European mission, with some calling for more base closures.
Lt. Gen. Mark P. Hertling, USAREUR commander, said the command must sell itself better back home, where he believes its mission is misunderstood.
“Anyone, anywhere, who says that Europe is a vestige of the Cold War is No. 1, uninformed and No. 2, is really out to lunch,” he said in an interview outside the conference. “Because they haven’t seen what’s been going on over here for the last 20 years, and what’s picked up in terms of momentum over the last 10 during the war-fighting.”
Hertling, set to leave the position later this year, said USAREUR needs to move beyond the basics of multinational training — marksmanship, first aid and calls for fire — and into advanced topics including cyberwarfare, air defense and logistics.
“We’ve been doing ‘Combat 101’ the last 10 years,” Hertling said. “Now, we’ve got to get into masters and Ph.D.-level stuff.”
Whether Europe’s militaries will be able to take advantage of such training may depend on their future budgets and what Congress is willing to support.