US Army Europe's only sustainment brigade on constant move in reassurance mission
By JENNIFER H. SVAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 12, 2017
BAUMHOLDER, Germany — The 16th Sustainment Brigade is based in Germany, but soldiers with the only large logistics unit in Europe aren’t home very often.
The brigade is the logistical springboard for Operation Atlantic Resolve, U.S. Army Europe’s efforts to expand east to counter Russian assertiveness without more permanent basing of U.S. troops.
In the past two years, the brigade has doubled the amount of time it’s spent in eastern European, training with NATO partners, validating convoy routes and distributing fuel and supplies to forward-deployed troops. Last year, the unit’s 2,500 soldiers spent a collective 84,000 nights away from home station and doubled the number of miles they’ve driven across Europe.
“An analogy I always like to give is, if Baumholder is St. Louis, Mo., it’s not uncommon for us to send soldiers by truck from here up to Tallinn, Estonia, which would be like driving … to Augusta, Maine,” said the brigade’s commander, Col. Michelle M.T. Letcher. “At the same time, we’d have another convoy of trucks going down to Romania, which might be (equivalent in distance to) Miami, Fla.”
The brigade’s soldiers have also ventured farther east, to Georgia, and southwest to Spain, roughly equivalent to sending a formation to the Bahamas and Denver, Colo., respectively, Letcher said.
“Our soldiers are constantly moving,” she said. “It’s not uncommon for every truck in this brigade to be on the road.”
Much of the brigade’s work in eastern Europe involves testing convoy and rail routes to determine the best — and fastest — way to get troops and equipment to far-flung training areas, a dry run of what it would take to assemble quickly if tensions on the Continent ratcheted up.
“What we’re trying to do is figure out where we can move tanks across Europe in case we ever had to project power,” Letcher said.
Tanks, which aren’t known for speed, have to hitch a ride on the backs of heavy-equipment transporters to convoy east. Paperwork and country agreements further impede the process: Diplomatic clearances to cross international borders are required, as is permission to travel on specific routes.
Freedom of movement, Letcher says, was easier in support of combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, which lack border crossings and the frequently changing languages and currencies found on the Continent.
Some European countries require 45 days’ advance notice for passage approval. Some want detailed information on the driver, such as the soldier’s mother’s maiden name, making last-minute driver changes impossible.
Soldiers with the 16th have been among the first U.S. military convoys on certain routes, ensuring roads in former Soviet bloc countries are wide enough and bridges stable enough to pass.
“We didn’t know if we could move tanks from Germany all the up to Estonia,” for example, Letcher said. “Because of the road network, the overpasses, the bridges. They haven’t been tested in a long time.”
The unit validated the route, a trip that from Baumholder to Tallinn took about 70 hours one way, spread over 19 to 20 days round trip.
More recently, brigade soldiers tested a route through the Suwalki Gap, a narrow corridor between Belarus and Russia’s Kalingrad enclave that connects NATO member states Poland and Lithuania.
The brigade also has responsibilities for some countries in Africa.
Before Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine changed the security situation Europe, the brigade regularly rotated soldiers into the Middle East; one deployment to Afghanistan, starting in late 2012, was to help the Afghan military build a functional logistics system.
As the number of exercises in Europe have more than tripled since 2014, the brigade has leaned heavily on junior soldiers.
“That’s something we do very well, is empower our junior leaders,” said brigade Command Sgt. Maj. Frank Graham Jr. “We entrust them with millions of dollars of equipment, going from here in Germany to all over the Baltics and to Poland.”
Capt. Steven Fedewa, a battalion maintenance officer with the brigade’s 16th Special Troops Battalion, said he thought he was busy during his last assignment at Fort Bragg, N.C., where quarterly training involved traveling no more than 5 kilometers. “Out here, the vehicles don’t get rest. They’re going and going and going every month on some type of mission.”
Troops deployed to Rukla Training Area, Lithuania, an old Soviet army installation, transport parts and fuel to support tanks in training maneuvers in the woods, said 1st Lt. Nick Thompson, Atlantic Resolve-North Operations officer. His soldiers in the brigade’s 18th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion also handle diplomatic clearances to transport cargo and fuel across international borders for Atlantic Resolve.
“A lot of soldiers … have been out here before on previous rotations,” he said. “They know the roads, they know the points of contacts, they know where all the training bases are,” he said.
At Powidz Air Base, Poland, Maj. Charles Markley, sustainment support executive officer and his soldiers are helping to build a base for a Guard sustainment battalion due to arrive at the end of April to relieve them.
“Until now, we’ve been operating at a very high ops tempo,” he said. “Soldiers are already (overseas) in Germany, and they’re away from their homes for three months as a time. It adds up after a while.”
The brigade is getting some relief. Its three battalions will be supplemented this spring by two more rotational sustainment battalions from the States.
“The mission has really grown that we need some additional force structure,” Letcher said, a move that will enable the brigade’s soldiers to have more-regular training cycles back at their home stations in Germany and Vicenza, Italy.
The brigade has been stretched for some time now. A June 2016 report on USAREUR force posture by the Center for Strategic and International Studies said that the 16th Sustainment Brigade is among units in Europe that have reached a “saturation point.”
“Additional resources for sustainment and logistics will be needed as requirements increase, especially given the lack of depth among most allies in the area,” the report found.
Thompson, in Lithuania, credited his soldiers for getting the job done with limited assets. “They show up ready to work,” he said. “They’ll drive eight hours one way, take a break, drive the eight hours back, no problem. We’re just making it happen.”