WASHINGTON -- Next year will be called "the year of integration," where the U.S. will work even harder to improve interoperability with all NATO allies as well as with other partners such as Sweden and Finland, said Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges.
The commander of U.S. Army Europe said 2017 has been a "year of implementation," meaning initiating rotational armored brigade combat teams and combat aviation brigades, emplacing Army preposition stocks, and standing up an enhanced forward-presence battle group in Poland.
That implementation was a direct result of decisions reached by NATO at the 2016 Warsaw Summit, which was in essence a transition from assuring allies to deterring would-be aggressors, he said.
Hodges and three European allies spoke at a press briefing at the Association of the U.S. Army's Annual Meeting and Exposition, Oct. 11.
Besides working on interoperability, Hodges said "we will continue to learn from the massive Zapad exercises" just completed by the Russians in Belarus. "Some things will take us a few months as we continue to study the forensics."
Other lessons already gleaned are that improved intelligence sharing with NATO and other partners helped the alliance to better understand the Zapad exercises.
"It's the best I've seen in years in terms of intelligence sharing," he said. "We were all focused on trying to understand the Zapad exercises. People had their eyes wide open."
Hodges said there are three things that need to be more interoperable among allies in Europe.
First is secure, tactical FM radios at the company and battalion level. At that level, he said, there's a lot of interdependence. Also, he said, radios at that level must be able to operate effectively inside a "real nasty" cyber or electronic warfare environment that allies "might face in the Baltics or Poland, for example."
Second, the common operating picture, or COP, must be truly "common." No matter who manufactures a device, there must be seamless information sharing among allies, he said. Blue-force tracking is one example of what a COP can share, he said.
Third is digital fires, he said, providing an example of getting into a counter-fire situation, where the radar from one country should still be able to relay the mission digitally to the fire direction center and then onto the guns to do the counter-fire.
"If you can't do that in a very short amount of time, then you're never going to be able to strike back at who's shooting at you," Hodges said.
Dynamic Front is an exercise that will be begin in February at U.S. Army Garrison Grafenwoehr, Germany, he said, where several nations using 100 different firing systems will focus on making them interoperable.
The Army is also honing its interoperability with allies during current exercise Swift Response 17-2, taking place Oct. 2-20 in Hohenfels, Germany, and including more than 7,000 participants from Bosnia-Herzegovina, France, Germany, Italy, Lithuania, Netherlands, Poland, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States.
SHARING THE LOAD
Hodges said that there are many times that the U.S. must rely on European partners for capabilities that it lacks. He provided some examples.
The Army depends on Romania, the United Kingdom and Germany to provide bridging capability, and their bridges have been used a number of times for river crossings, he said.
Also, the Army doesn't have much in the way of short-range air defense. Romania is one of the countries providing that, he noted.
The Army is also leasing British heavy equipment transports to move tanks on European highways, he said.
Lt. Gen. Leo Beulen, commander, Royal Netherlands Army said that unfortunately, his nation's defense budget was slashed in 2011 and the army was forced to sell off all of their Leopard main battle tanks to Finland and Canada, "not that we didn't need them anymore, but because we had to find the money."
With changes in the world since then, the Netherlands needs them badly, he said.
"Now we find cooperation with Germany, where we have a German battalion of Leopard 2 tanks, [embedded in] a Dutch company that is operating within a Netherlands brigade," he said. "So together with Germany, we could restore the main battle tank capacity."
Another example of where the Netherlands contributes to the collective security, he said, is providing protection with its Patriot air defense system. The Netherlands is one of the few countries in Europe that has them.
Maj. Gen. Karl Engelbrektson, Swedish Army chief of staff, said there are niche capabilities partners can bring. For instance, Sweden provides other nations with artillery-locating radar, ground-based air defense radar and smart munitions, among others.
He framed cooperation in terms of economics as well as security, particularly after the Russian invasion of Crimea.
Although Sweden is not a member of NATO, "it is not a neutral country," he said. "We are military non-aligned. But, we adhere to NATO's principles of military business because we believe that we need to do things together. ... So for us it's logic that we have to deploy troops far from home to be part of securing the world order and the values we live for."
Last month, Sweden hosted an exercise with 20,000 troops from NATO and European partners, he said. During exercises such as this, "we learned that we can learn from each other. For example, there are some tactical things we developed living close to Russia in similar terrain and climate."
Maj. Gen. Jaroslaw Mika, general commander of the Polish Armed Forces, said his nation has increased its military budget to contribute more to the collective defense of Europe.
Hodges was asked if he'd prefer Army aviation to be permanently stationed in Europe.
"I would prefer to have Army aviation permanently stationed in Europe, as opposed to rotational units," he said. "Rotational aviation is expensive, and I worry that at some point the Army [will say] 'I can't keep this up.' If [European Reassurance Initiative] money dries up or we get less of it, it becomes more difficult for the Army to fund."
On the other hand, Hodges said, "I like rotational forces because I can do more with them and they're here for nine months, like the armored brigade. Their opstempo is three times what it is back at home station, so you get a lot of strategic effect."
Regarding ground forces, Hodges said he's pleased with U.S. Stryker capability in Europe, in that they can be fitted with the 30mm cannon, Javelin missiles, and counter-unmanned aerial vehicle systems. Additionally, he said, they can also navigate the highways. Tanks, while essential, have to be transported by rail or heavy equipment transporters, so they're less visible to the populace, restricted to the training areas.