By John O’Hara and US Defense Watch
In the first of a series of articles by US Defense Watch, called “An Army in Crisis,” we report on a number of factors threatening the operational and logistical capabilities, morale and training of the US Army.
It appears that recent budget cuts have hurt the Army so badly that commanders are now forced to borrow helicopters from the British and other hardware from NATO allies.
What happened to the arsenal of democracy?
The US Army of 2015 is starting to resemble the hollow forces of the 1930’s and 70’s.
Budget cuts have forced U.S. military forces in Europe to borrow British helicopters and use equipment from other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members during training exercises.
The cutbacks have adversely impacted U.S. forces in Europe even as Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine and now in Syria have demanded U.S. attention there. Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the Army’s commander in Europe, said that the British helicopters have been “essential,” according to the New York Times.
“I don’t have bridges, I don’t have the trucks that can carry tanks, we don’t have enough helicopters to do what we need to do,” Hodges stated. “Practicing with British helicopters here is an essential part of it. Using British and German bridges, using Hungarian air defense is part of it.”
The Army has endured significant budget cuts over the past several years, resulting in less resources and declining troop levels. The number of U.S. soldiers permanently stationed in Europe has been reduced from 40,000 in 2012 to 26,000 today.
According to Hodges, the military does not have the “intelligence capacity to do what we need to do” and Russian action in Ukraine and Syria therefore “surprised” him, the Telegraph reported.
“We don’t have that many Russian speakers anymore,” Hodges said. “I personally have been surprised by every single snap exercise and when they went into Syria. We just do not have the capability to see and track what they’re doing the way they used to.”
The current number of troops permanently stationed in Europe is about 12 percent of the 213,000 operating there at the end of the Cold War in 1990.
“The mission’s still the same,” Hodges said. “So we have to figure out how you make 30,000 feel like
HOHENFELS, Germany — Less than three years after the United States Army sent home the last of its tanks that were permanently based in Europe, American commanders have been forced to rely on weapons shipped back temporarily or hardware borrowed from allies in the expanding effort to deter the latest threats from Russia with a fraction of the forces it had once deployed across the Continent.
That is part of an evolving mission as American commanders here are preparing, if called, to face off against a new set of threats — not only from an aggressive Moscow, but also from rising militancy and chaos in the Middle East. But with across-the-board spending cuts squeezing the Pentagon’s budget, and a war-weary nation showing little eagerness to sustain a global, war-ready crouch, one of the main targets in recent years has been the Army presence in Europe, a heavy land force in an increasingly digital combat zone.
Mustering the necessary troops and equipment for the mission here can be a challenge, said Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the Army’s commanding general in Europe. The number of permanently stationed soldiers on the Continent has dropped by 35 percent since 2012, and the Army has reduced some of its vehicles, weapons and support equipment or relocated it to other bases.
The Black Hawk helicopters used in a NATO exercise at the training center here in August, for instance, were rotated in for nine months from Fort Stewart, Ga., General Hodges said. Bringing over more helicopters requires either the multiple weeks to bring them by ship or the extra money to bring them by cargo plane.
So he has to go borrowing.
“I don’t have bridges, I don’t have the trucks that can carry tanks, we don’t have enough helicopters to do what we need to do,” General Hodges said. “Practicing with British helicopters here is an essential part of it. Using British and German bridges, using Hungarian air defense is part of it.”
The late-summer exercise was the largest multinational airborne drill in Europe since the end of the Cold War, a time when the Army had about 300,000 people stationed on the Continent at the peak of tensions with the Soviet Union.
More than 4,800 service members from 11 NATO countries participated in the recent monthlong exercise that military leaders said was a demonstration that allied forces remained able to be deployed despite the strain of budget cuts, the toll of wars in the Middle East, and public exhaustion with overseas missions.
As dozens of soldiers parachuted behind them, American, German, British and other senior allied officials lined up shoulder to shoulder in the Bavarian countryside with a message for the country whose observers watched the exercise nearby: Russia, do not misjudge us.
Even so, the Defense Department faces the challenge of managing a growing mission with a shrinking force, as the Army in Europe must train allies and deter any enemies with a tenth of the soldiers it once had.
“The mission’s still the same,” said General Hodges, watching as his troops joined German and Italian soldiers rushing out of two V-22 Osprey aircraft. “So we have to figure out how you make 30,000 feel like 300,000.”
The transformation started more than 20 years ago. The number of soldiers permanently stationed in Europe in 1990, as the Cold War was nearing its end, was about 213,000, plummeting to more than 63,000 troops a decade later in a reflection of the reduced need.
Some question why soldiers are still needed in Europe at all, and why Washington should pay so much of the bill. Some members of Congress have gone so far as to object to closing any military facilities in their districts to save money while bases remain open in Europe.
“At a time when we must seriously consider cuts to our budget and balancing our budget, we should not continue to subsidize the defense of wealthy European nations against a Soviet threat that ceased to exist two decades ago,” Representative Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat, said on the House floor in 2012. Kristin Lynch, his spokeswoman, said Saturday that Mr. Polis’s position remained unchanged.
In response, current and retired officers with command time in Europe say the Army is needed to increase the ability of allies to defend their own territory — and that these same allies in turn provide access and support to the American military for operations on the Continent and beyond.
Lt. Gen. Mark P. Hertling — whose final task before retiring as commander of United States Army Europe in 2012 was to shutter its storied headquarters in Heidelberg — said some lawmakers did not understand the critical support that the Army provided in intelligence and special operations worldwide in addition to its other roles in Europe.
“We always had a disadvantage in Europe as we were never part of a constituency,” he said.
As the Obama administration reduced the number of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, the cuts in Europe deepened, with the number of permanently stationed soldiers dropping to about 26,000 from about 40,000 in 2012 this year; more cuts are anticipated under plans to shrink the Army to its smallest size since before World War II.
Officials cautioned that continued budget cuts could put the Army in a risky position should the armed forces be called upon again to conduct two large operations at once.
It is with that warning that officials have found themselves uneasily monitoring two threats: the Islamic State and Russia. These tensions have intensified the need for temporary, rotational forces, which generally travel light, using vehicles and other equipment already positioned in Europe. Hoping to reassure its allies, the Obama administration pledged up to $1 billion to bolster efforts to deter Russian aggression, rolling out efforts to send tanks, weapons and more to Eastern Europe.
Lt. Gen. John Nicholson, commander of NATO’s Allied Land Command, said being able to quickly move soldiers and equipment helps deter aggressive actions in the first place.
“If we get there late, then we may have to fight,” he said.
With fewer troops, vehicles and other resources on hand, commanders in Europe have relied more heavily on equipment and troops deployed on a temporary basis.
In 2013 the Army rolled out what it calls regionally aligned forces, which study the language and culture of a particular region before being deployed. Gen. Ray Odierno, the recently retired Army chief of staff who introduced the concept, said the soldiers would train and advise local forces, taking some of the pressure off the United States when it comes to missions like fighting terrorism — and reducing the need for permanently stationed troops across the globe.
The increased reliance on allies and partners to battle crises like Ebola and Syria reflects what officials say is a determination never to “go it alone.” And with other European countries also reducing their forces, military partnerships are mutually beneficial, said Brig. Gen. Markus T. Laubenthal of the German Army, who recently became the first non-American appointed to serve as chief of staff of United States Army Europe.
“It is a burden for us, but we are still able to build this kind of interoperability and set up exercises and capabilities like this,” he said of their own military cuts at the demonstration in August. “I think this is really the proof of concept that enables the alliance.”
The US Army in Europe is now an army without enough helicopters, trucks, bridges and certainly a myriad of other equipment not mentioned.
One must ask the simple question – how is the US Army going to fight and win wars when they don’t have the necessary equipment to do so?