Moose, tanks and the Army's tough terrain in Europe
By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 4, 2015
RIGA, Latvia — Where there are moose there are swamps, and for tanks deployed by U.S. Army Europe, that’s no good.
Strategists responsible for shaping fighting formations were taken aback when Army experts explained how difficult the terrain is for operating in the Baltics. Old assumptions on how to defend this tense part of NATO territory needed revisiting.
With a sizable Russian force just across the border, “we were thinking heavy [equipment], quite honestly, but heavy has some limitations in this terrain,” said USAREUR’s Col. Jeffrey French during a strategy huddle of top Army leaders on a recent stop in Latvia’s capital of Riga. “We need to start rethinking the types of formations we want to use.”
More light-weight attack vehicles such as Strykers could be in order, he said.
During a three-day trek through key logistical hubs across Germany, Latvia and Poland, Army leaders looked for ways to accelerate the movement of weaponry and supplies in a region that has only recently become a strategic priority.
Since Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, which raised Cold War-style tensions on the Continent, military planners are now focused on becoming more nimble in eastern Europe, where the U.S. Army has enhanced its presence. That means confronting a bevy of obstacles such as outdated international treaty regulations that slow troop movements, bottlenecks along transit routes and fundamental capability gaps.
The Army must find ways to solve or work around such problems if it is to deter a more assertive Moscow and reassure allies on Russia’s periphery, top leaders said.
“When it comes to deterrence, speed matters,” USAREUR chief Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges told his team in a Latvian cargo terminal that the Army wants to make more use of in the future. “That’s what this is all about. If the alliance can demonstrate it has the capability, it can deter and prevent Russia from grabbing a piece of Lithuania, grabbing a piece of Latvia.”
During a hectic, three-day Terrain Walk this week, USAREUR soldiers, accompanied by a contingent of representatives from various U.S. commands and allied states, visited everything from ammunition depots to major German and Latvian ports that are key nodes in the supply chain. What troops found was a tangle of challenges.
In Estonia, drive off road, and tanks are liable to sink into the swamps favored by the country’s large moose population, Army engineers explained. Bog land, limited highway networks throughout the Baltics and a shortage of rail cars strong enough to carry U.S. tanks also pose obstacles. The one place to go for a large surplus of heavy rail cars: Russia.
“I’m not sure of their propensity for lending us rail cars in a time of need,” said Lt. Col. Steven Dowgielewicz, commander of the 39th Transportation Battalion.
While rail is a primary mode for moving heavy equipment around Europe, difficulties emerge as cargo moves into the Baltics, where the rail system still functions on Russian-style gauges. That means offloading onto different cargo trains, which require special transport cars.
Another issue is Russia’s continued presence along Latvia and Lithuania’s rail system, which Moscow uses to resupply its forces in Kaliningrad, a strategic enclave nestled between Lithuania and Poland on the Baltic Sea.
During a briefing on the terrain challenges in the Baltics, a Russia analyst for the U.S. Army said Moscow is not allowed to have more than eight Russian servicemembers transit though the Baltics at any one time.
“What about ‘little green men’”? asked one Army officer, referring to the unidentified troops Russia deployed to Ukraine when it seized control of the Crimea Peninsula in March of last year.
“Putin says he doesn’t have any,” the analyst quipped, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Meanwhile, the Army also lacks the kind of mobile bridging capability in Europe that would enable a unit to maneuver heavy vehicles across Europe’s many rivers. Some allies possess such capabilities, but for now USARUER does not.
“We certainly need one in theater,” said USAREUR engineer Col. Laura Loftus.
The Army’s 21st Theater Sustainment Command, which is in charge of all Army logistics in Europe, is working to spread its logistical “web” to ensure troops have freedom of movement. That means more ports, river barges and air cargo hubs need to be brought into supply routes, Army leaders said.
“We have to be looking at all 51 countries in Europe,” Dowgielewicz said. “It’s bigger than one nation, one area. It’s the whole theater.”
For Hodges, the focus on ensuring his force’s freedom of movement is linked to the need to project power rapidly across the region. The ability to move troops and gear fast gives U.S. political leaders options in a crisis, he said. Some measures will soon be in place to help shorten the logistical supply chain. By next year, about 250 tanks, Bradleys and other fighting vehicles will be positioned in the Baltics, Poland and other parts of eastern Europe to support continuing training missions. Those vehicles could also be called upon in a crisis.
Finding additional ways to pre-position more equipment, ammunition and vehicles will be crucial, commanders said.
Other challenges include reducing wait times for diplomatic clearances to move ammunition across borders, something NATO political leaders are now looking at.
During a stop at a small German port in Nordenham, the passing point for all U.S. ammunition into Europe, military legal advisers said efforts also are underway to streamline other regulations that can slow troop movements in a crisis. For example, the U.S. is required to give the German government four weeks’ notice before moving military equipment through areas that were once part of East Germany. Hodges said he learned of that arcane rule only recently.
“You have to go through eastern Germany to get to Poland,” said Hodges.