This week we learned that the Pentagon is considering plans that would allow for pre-positioned heavy weapons stockpiles at strategic points in Eastern Europe. Using a bit of U.S. slang, “Say What?” would be the appropriate first reaction, this sounds like a return to elements of America’s Cold War and Global War on Terror (GWOT) deployment strategy. But is it really?
Just a few words on what is meant by pre-positioning. For the US military it is not a new concept – the country’s fortuitous location far from main battle theaters has meant that logisticians have been dealing with the problem for over a century.
Before technology made long range air and sea operations possible, the old solution was simple forward basing, naval coaling stations, etc. And yes, that often left forward-based American forces somewhat exposed — you can ask General McArthur how forward basing in the Philippines worked for the American forces there at the start of WWII. In the Cold War the US used a mixture of forward basing in Europe and the Pacific combined with an extensive chain of logistics facilities and of course it made sure the allied military forces were large and well-equipped. The post-Cold War drawdown in Europe saw the vast bulk of overseas US forces withdrawn to US bases, with a few key exceptions, and a renewed focus on rapid-deployment mechanisms and units. An important tool in all of this was the pre-positioning of heavy equipment stockpiles in safe zones close to crisis areas, with flexible arrangements for protecting these facilities until troops could be airlifted in from continental US bases to operate the equipment.
The Ukraine crisis has of course put a renewed focus on the tough logistical and strategic issues the Pentagon faces, for example, how to keep the US military deployed where needed most but ready for use if required to protect NATO members’ interests across Eastern Europe. With Russia next door, Ukraine’s security, like Poland’s, has always been next to impossible to guarantee militarily, a fact Moscow has understood from Day One.
Aware of these geopolitical limitations but committed to supporting Ukraine’s independence under assault from Moscow, Washington has been looking for options.
The Pentagon has, for months, been rotating U.S. aircraft through Europe for exercises with allies under Operation Atlantic Resolve, which it calls “America’s commitment to European security.” Participating in those exercises and rotations have been B-2 and B-52 bombers, F-15Cs and A-10 attack planes as well as Army and Navy assets.
Thanks to military.com and The New York Times, we have seen reports in the last days that the Pentagon has been developing plans to pre-position M1A1 Abrams tanks and other equipment for about 5,000 troops in Eastern Europe possibly including NATO allies Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
According to a Pentagon spokesman, Col. Steve Warren, the pre-positioning plan was still evolving and should not be considered a threat to Moscow. Warren noted equipment for a battalion-sized element had been sent to Europe two years ago and in March 2015 approval was given to send equipment for a second battalion. Planning is underway to equip a brigade-sized element but nothing has been decided, Warren said, adding that, “This is purely positioning equipment to better facilitate our ability to conduct training.”
More than a Message?
If consummated, this move would be the first time that U.S. conventional heavy weapons and troops have participated in anything beyond short term exercises in the Eastern European NATO countries. Surely it will be seen as more than a simple message of U.S. and allied resolve in the face of Putin’s annexation of the Crimea and support for Ukrainian separatists. Russia has been extremely wary of NATO’s eastern expansion all along, but these kinds of deployments near its borders are precisely what Moscow sought to prevent through a generation of Post-WWII occupation of Eastern Europe.
As a range of approvals both in Washington and Brussels are needed before these plans take more concrete shape, there will be plenty of time to discuss whether this decision marks a new large scale Obama Administration strategic commitment or whether it serves as a simple defensive tripwire mechanism.
For the moment, the Russian reaction was anything but subdued. Take under advisement the following remarks from Yuri Yakubov, a senior Defense Ministry official, to Russia’s Interfax news agency:
“Russia will have no other choice but to boost its military potential along its western borders” to counter the U.S. move that is still in the planning stages.”
“If America’s heavy arms, be it tanks, artillery systems or other heavy military hardware, are deployed to Eastern Europe and the Baltic States, it will be the Pentagon’s and NATO’s most aggressive step since the end of the Cold War a quarter of a century ago.”
“Firstly, the forces stationed along the perimeter of Russia’s western border will be strengthened to include forming new tank and artillery capabilities.”
“The missile brigade in the Kaliningrad region is also going to be rearmed faster to begin using the new tactical missile systems – Iskander.”
President Obama and the NATO allies had better not be bluffing.