01 October 2019

How difficult would it be for the allies to provide support in case of an armed conflict in Eastern Europe?

Mircea Mocanu

The main defence principle in the North Atlantic Alliance is the idea that an attack on a member state is an attack on all NATO members. Hence, when a state, such as Romania, is attacked, all NATO countries will come and help Romania. But not immediately. The first ones to face the enemy will, indeed, be the Romanian soldiers and Bucharest’s efforts will definitely go towards ensuring firstly the necessary defensive forces to this initial aggression resistance period. But what are the issues of those about to provide support?

Image source: Mediafax

The issue of a major unwanted war

After the paradigm change caused by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the armed forces in the North-Atlantic Alliance is about to come back to the concepts and efforts of a “classic”, Clausewitz-type war, with the significant changes brought to the classic theory of 21st century war.

In this current phase, the EU leadership structures are thinking of creating a European army, and the US is also analyzing the hypothesis of a great confrontation with a big power, China or Russia. For now, the European army is only a hypothesis, and the European policy makers will follow their NATO members’ obligations. However the basis is, indeed, the American intervention. Therefore, as everyone expects military support firstly from the US, the vision and the difficulties foreseen by the US Defence Department in terms of supporting a war at NATO’s eastern borders are extremely important.

Given the military threats’ globalization, the Pentagon planners are not thinking only on an oversea intervention, but also on defending their own territory, a perspective which became essential after the 9/11 event. This concern applies also for the threats with more and more performant armed forces, like Russia or China, or, even worse, both powers at a single time. A US war on its territory raises some difficulties in terms of the traditional mobilization capacity’s shortage. The American analysts are comparing the US mobilization situation with China’s, where the mobilization architecture is including the preparations for activities during peace times with nation’s preparations for war, and human’s preparedness is mainly targeting the recuperation of the difference between them and active soldiers’ level and the western armies’ reservists.

Anyhow, the American reservists are frequently participating to military operations, and some of the essential capacities are provided exclusively with Reserve’s units. On the other hand, the Pentagon has made some recruitment efforts to cover the shortages and get to 500.000 soldiers by 2028, such as the case of the army forces.

 The demands for a US war on another continent

As for the US military intervention to support the allies, a US armed conflict with China can start from incidents involving Taiwan, and a war against Russia can start from the moment Moscow will exceed any aggression limit permanently manifested in Eastern Europe.  For both cases, the enemy would fight close to its own center of power and resources and will do anything to stop the Pentagon to transfer forces and methods to intercontinental distances. After a gradual withdrawal from Europe, considering NATO’s huge defensive operations in Eastern Europe, there comes again the idea of force exercises in East of the Old Continent, such as REFORGER (Return of Forces to Germany). Far from being only show of forces, the annual REFORGER exercises, from the Cold War period, were checking US’s capacity to place forces in Europe such as a division or even bigger than that. But it seems that these logistic tasks have become old fashioned and must be refreshed. For the Pentagon, this situation applies also for the Far East (below you will find references to the specific of the Pacific Theatre of Operations, but these lines will only focus on the issues emerged when it comes to deploying conventional forces in East Europe).

The global war against terrorism has determined the transition from big units’ division-type to mobile and insightful brigades, the so-called Brigade Combat Team (BCT). Currently, in order to face the conventional state armed powers, the new US National Defence Strategy is foreseeing the deployment of big units such as divisions or even bigger. This documents shows that the “Fully mobilized Joint Force” will be capable of “defeating aggression by a major power and disrupting imminent terrorist and WMD threats.” On the other hand, general Mark Milley, the new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS), starting 30th September 2019, is stating that his mandate priority is troops’ promptitude to support a conflict with a great power.

Actions in the maritime and air fields for military power projection

In case of a war on another Theatre of Operations, the coordination of American troops’ transfer comes to the US Transports Department’s responsibility, both for the maritime ways and the air ones.

As for the maritime capacities, one of the officials of this ministry says (8th May 2019) that the available maritime fleet is currently old-fashioned and needs serious investments, and the size of this flees is too small to ensure an intercontinental troops transfer (the reference war targeting the Pacific Ocean) “to the maximum personnel number that the US army is designed for”. In case of a conflict in Eastern Europe, the maritime transfer can hardly be made elsewhere than a port in West of the continent, to be then continued by an unsuitable transport with terrestrial methods. As for the Black Sea, the American troops transfer with maritime ships, in case of an opened conflict, is really unlikely to happen. A more suitable option would be the air transport, but, for that, the capacity is way more limited. Indeed, the “air bridge” missions can be deployed also on civilian airports. The Pentagon is acting, however, so that to ease the air transfer, within the European Deterrence Initiative program (EDI), previously called European Reassurance Initiative. This program has started some months after Crimea was taken by the Russian Federation and foresees funds for the acquisition of lands and the construction of airports installations outside US, but also information exchanges, equipment pre-positioning and training programs. Although the installations are dedicated firstly to fight aircraft missions, to the deterrence of Russia’s aggressions, it is obvious that they will also be used for troops transport towards Eastern Europe in case of crisis or conflict. The investment plan for 2017 was foreseeing the total amount of 214, 2 million dollars for investments in the nine air bases.

The investments in such bases are logistic-based and are not including supplementary personnel to be permanently placed, but only support for air patrol (including with hunting aircrafts with stealth technology F-22 Raptor and F-35 Strike Fighter) and reconnaissance missions (for example, with P-8 Poseidon aircrafts, over the submarine movements in north of the continent). They also want to increase airdromes number in Eastern Europe, to allow the fifth generation aircrafts, but also the access of big dimension aircrafts, like the KC-135 refueling aircraft. One obstacle could be caused by Donald Trump’s recent reallocation provisions of some of these amounts to fund the fence along the US border with Mexico, to stop the immigrant wave from the Latin America.

US Army Forces mission in case of a massive transfer to Eastern Europe

The new Chief of US Army Forces, General James McConville, is determined to ensure the training of subordinate troops for mass deployment anywhere in the world, if the case. If not properly prepared and provided with the necessary resources, the massive troops transfer to another continent for military activities is a nightmare even for exercises or rotations in peacetime. This is how it was established the deployment of a contingent of 1500 soldiers from Fort Bliss, Texas, to Poland, in March 2019, for the US Army - the largest quick transfer since World War II.

In the US segment, the mission falls under the "Fort-to-port" concept. Then, according to General (r) Ben Hodges, former U.S. Army Europe commander, after landing in Western Europe, U.S. Army would become the largest user of (rail) infrastructure in Europe in case of urgent situations. Deploying a large contingent involves not only troops’ "journey", but also providing quick boarding / disembarking capabilities for armored vehicles, artillery and other military vehicles, fuel supply, ammunition transport, logistics and intelligence activities. In case of a conflict, the journey ends with a part "on wheels", on road infrastructure, either to a concentration district or to a direct front (if there is a classic "front line").

Because I was reminding of the war mobilization issue, it is worth mentioning that, in September 2019, the US Army Forces Reserve activated seven units in Europe, including a brigade-level command, to support the Pentagon deterrent mission in Poland.  Concretely, it was activated the 510 Regional Support Group from Sembach, Germany, which will coordinate the work of 6,000 US soldiers, involved in Atlantic Resolve Operation. In June 2019, the Pentagon announced the addition of 1,000 troops to the contingent deployed in Poland (by rotation), and is expected to increase the command level from brigade to division.

The massive force projection to another continent

Broadly, this is the whole picture of the US troops transfer to Eastern Europe. But I have not yet talked about the issues that this forces projection may face. Some of these are briefly mentioned below.  

The first would be the submarines threat, on convoys’ shipping route, a modernized and much more destructive option than the U-boot operations of Nazi Germany, during the Second World War. There are also the missiles threat, especially the new generation ones, claimed by Kremlin, and for targets on Atlantic’s surface, the enemy can use them brazenly. Of course, for the protection of maritime convoys, they will need AA and Aegis missile defense ships. Plenty of them.

With US troops in Western Europe, as General Ben Hodges has mentioned, "the movement of infantry, armored vehicles, artillery and even aviation units is the easy part!" The hard part is providing the necessary infrastructure for logistics, installing communications and intelligence networks, as well as deploying anti-aircraft defense capabilities ... so that combat forces can move quickly”. An insightful detail: an Abrams or Leopard tank embarked on a platform plus the truck can weigh up to 100 tons. Comparing northern Poland with Minnesota, Hodges points out that it may also be necessary to arrange waterways and cross lakes, because the existing infrastructure could be destroyed by enemy blows.

Indeed, in a large-scale conflict, the infrastructure will be a priority target for the aggressor, trying to block or delay the arrival of allied forces ("follow-on forces"), especially through air strikes. Indeed. Targets will also become troops’ convoys and military equipment, which also explains the serious concern for anti-aircraft capabilities. General McConville also recalls a psychological element for the Pentagon, namely that the case of the last US soldier killed by enemy airborne was April 15, 1953. Currently, US military technique developers are paying particular attention to drones (unmanned air systems - UAS), which will be intensively used in future armed conflicts. To that end, also pressured by the recent attacks on Saudi Arabia's oil infrastructure, the Pentagon has announced progress on creating methods of countering drones with systems using direct energy (lasers) (this topic will be covered in a separate article).

Another considered difficulty are cyber-attacks against the moving troops and means operations to Eastern Europe. Cyber-attacks can take place even during crises or increasing political tensions, because they are not clearly subjected to international treaties’ limits. All the more so in the event of a conflict, "cyber protection of Europe's seaports and airports as well as rail infrastructure is just as important as the use of tanks or planes, because everything will depend on the infrastructure" (General Ben Hodges). It is reminded the case of the attack on the shipping company Maersk, in June 2017, attributed to Russia. Measured financially, the damages were worth $ 300 million, and the attack was not even designed against the Danish company, but it seems to have been a ricochet of an attack (with a Petya virus) designed against Ukraine.


If a major conflict at NATO's eastern borders will start, we cannot but hope for Allies’ decisive intervention, especially the United States Army. And we want this life-saving intervention to be quick, safe and decisive. But, from an objective perspective, this intervention is not intended to be a pleasant trip, with cheap tickets booked in advance. To make everything we want happen, even close to what we have expected, we will have to do more than just prepare a card with our name and wait impatiently near the Otopeni Arrivals bar. As for all mentioned above, we can tell that the most important thing is to make sure that its infrastructure and protection are absolute national priorities. Especially when many can be done with European or American funding. We have all the reasons and conditions to make these improvements happen quickly, even if we do not know how much time we have left...

Translated by Andreea Soare