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Hodges: Rotational forces best way to counter assertive Russia

U.S. Army Europe commander Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges speaks during a stop in Ukraine on Sept. 19, 2014.

MICHAEL ABRAMS/STARS AND STRIPES

By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 3, 2017

STUTTGART, Germany — A rotational brigade in Eastern Europe deters Russian aggression better than a permanently based armored unit in Germany, the Army’s top commander in Europe said following a study that questioned the cost of sending U.S.-based units on deployments to the Continent.

A deployed brigade maneuvering through potential flashpoints in the Baltics and Poland operates at a higher state of combat readiness, U.S. Army Europe’s Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges said in an interview Sunday.

“What it (a rotational brigade) does for us is so much more than if it was an armored brigade that was sitting in Germany,” Hodges said.

For more than a decade, the military has debated how best to shape the Army in Europe, where the ranks have shrunk to about 30,000 permanently based soldiers. In 2012, the U.S. sent its tankers back home in favor of a rotational model that was then considered a cheaper way of doing business.

Congress has taken renewed interest in this long-running debate over cost and benefits. Rep. Mac Thornberry, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has commissioned a study comparing the expense of forward-stationing forces versus rotating them.

“I don’t know what the cost data will show. I’m not convinced that it is tremendously cheaper to rotate a bunch of units through rather than have that permanent presence,” said Thornberry, who expressed concerns in late May about the “human toll on families.”

Meanwhile, a new study by Army War College professor John R. Deni argues that sending a rotational armored brigade to Europe costs about $135 million more annually to maintain a continuous presence than a full-time unit based in Germany.

Hodges says that he is unconvinced by this analysis and that more investigation is needed before it can be determined definitively which model is cheaper. The Army now has the issue under review, he said.

From an operational standpoint, Hodges argues there is no comparison in determining which force is more effective in the field.

“The main shortfall with a forward-stationed armored brigade is I still need to get it out to all those places — the Baltics, Poland especially,” he said. “I can do that with a rotational force.”

A brigade stationed in Germany, on accompanied tours in Europe, would spend less time in the field than its rotational counterpart and more time back in garrison, he said.

The Army in January began “heel-to-toe” brigade rotations, which involve back-to-back nine-month tours to ensure a continuous presence of heavy units along NATO’s eastern flank.

The mission is now being conducted by the 4th Infantry Division’s 3rd Armored Brigade, whose operations include live fires and maneuvers designed to bolster allies’ ability to fight together.

The brigade is in the field full time, and by the end of its rotation, the unit will be Army’s most combat-ready because of the intensity of operations, Hodges said.

In the recent past, some commanders in Europe have advocated for an additional forward-based brigade, but that position was advanced when Army rotational places were expected to be smaller and more sporadic than the current year-round effort.

In 2016, the National Commission on the Future of the Army recommended that an armored brigade be returned to Europe. U.S. European Command chief Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti has also said a permanently stationed brigade would be ideal, though expressed that view before the Army closed operational gaps in January with its continuous rotational force.

Hodges cautions that there are more immediate needs that require attention rather than the issue of whether an armored brigade should be in Europe.

“There are so many things I need before getting an armored brigade over here,” he said. “That’s why I keep wanting to remind everybody that if we’re going to talk about deterrence, it is about what gives us the best deterrent effect.”

More engineers, long-range fires, missiles defense and an operational headquarters should be prioritized, he said.

“Then let’s talk about getting an armored brigade stationed over here,” Hodges said.

For now, the top priority is guaranteeing a continued rotational or permanently stationed combat aviation brigade in Europe to ensure freedom and speed of movement for soldiers, he said.

“Aviation is always going to be my number one need,” Hodges said. “The Russians will absolutely not take us serous if we do not have aviation. It is such an essential part of how the Army fights.”

The effect of rotations on morale is debatable, Hodges said. The reports he gets from commanders and soldiers are that they are excited about their Europe mission. There have been few cases of soldier misconduct on rotations, which is an indicator that morale is steady, he said.

The War College report counters that rotational units, in three out of four cases measured, have lower re-enlistment rates. The report conceded that more evidence is needed to draw a direct correlation.

Hodges says he, too, wants more data on the rates. Over time, however, the Army will need to expand to sustain the rotational model, he said.

vandiver.john@stripes.com

Twitter: @john_vandiver

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