US Army Europe sets its posture as big Russian wargame looms
By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 20, 2017
STUTTGART, Germany — The U.S. plans to deploy a Patriot missile battery, helicopters and a National Guard tank company to neutral Sweden in September to join one of the largest drills in that country in decades, but the move isn’t a direct response to Russia’s concurrent Zapad war game, U.S. Army Europe’s Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges said.
Sweden’s Aurora 2017 exercise, which will involve about 20,000 troops, is the largest of the land exercises U.S. forces will be joining in September.
“They (Sweden) haven’t done something like this in 25, 30 years,” Hodges said in a recent interview.
The Swedish military, in a statement about the exercise, said Aurora is designed “to deter potential attackers, and force them to carefully consider the risks of attacking our country. For a deterrent to be effective, it needs to be credible and visible.”
Sweden has emerged as one of Europe’s most vocal critics of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and in the Baltics. Although the nation is not a NATO member, it has sought to forge closer ties with the the alliance because of Moscow’s more assertive posture.
In September, USAREUR also will send about 600 paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade to the Baltics, a deployment that coincides with the Zapad 2017 exercise near NATO’s eastern flank, Hodges said.
“We will not be provocative. This is business as usual. Professional armies are always ready, always training. They are always prepared,” he said. “We are not going to have guys lined up at the parapet waiting for something to happen.”
USAREUR troops will be taking part in three multinational land exercises around the time of Zapad, which means “West” in Russian. While the deployment of the 173rd is something added in light of concerns about Zapad, the other events have been long-planned and are part of a general effort to work with allies and deter aggressors, Hodges said.
“So in terms of force posturing for the Army, that is the only thing we’ve been required to do in addition,” Hodges said of the 173rd’s coming rotation into the Baltics.
Russia held similar exercises in the region in 2009 and 2013. But the latest maneuvers have set off alarms inside NATO, especially among members in the Baltics, which fear the war game could be an opportunity for making mischief.
Moscow has said Zapad will involve about 13,000 troops, which will carry out a range of drills with partner Belarus. Some allies say they expect the maneuvers to be much larger, with up to 100,000 troops taking part.
“Russians train exactly as they intend to fight, thus Zapad will give up ample information on their military and political thinking as it is right now,” Kristjan Prikk, an Estonian undersecretary for defense, said during an Atlantic Council event.
While unlikely to be a direct threat to NATO, Prikk said, “We have to keep in mind that the Russians have the nasty habit of hiding their actual military endeavors behind exercises.”
Hodges, who is now overseeing USAREUR’s Saber Guardian — the year’s largest exercise, being conducted in the Black Sea region called on Moscow to allow international observers to be on hand for Zapad.
“I do think the Russians could allay a lot of fears that some countries have if they would be more transparent,” he said. “So we are going to try and counter that with being super transparent about everything.”
For example, during Saber Guardian, Russian observers were on hand to monitor some of the training. In the case of the 173rd, a company of paratroopers will spend about six weeks conducting training in each Baltic state — Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. The soldiers will be working independently, conducting regular readiness training, rather than joining other exercises, Hodges said.
NATO also has in place four new multinational battalions that are intended to serve as a bulwark against possible aggression in Baltics and Poland, where troops from the U.S.’s 2nd Cavalry Regiment are among the forces serving.
“I think everybody at every level will have their ears open paying attention to what is going on. I think that is the right posture,” Hodges said.