Backbone of Deterrence: An Interview with Retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges

By Arpi Dilanian and Matthew HowardJanuary 31, 2020

1 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, former commanding general, U.S. Army Europe, speaks to members of the Balkan Medical Task Force during a mass casualty medical training event as part of Exercise Saber Guardian 17, held at Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base, Romania, J... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
2 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Then Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges speaks with a Ukrainian soldier assigned to 1st Battalion, 80th Airmobile Brigade, during a visit to the International Peacekeeping and Security Center, Lviv, Ukraine. During his visit, Hodges witnessed the opening of a new g... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

Few know the importance of allies and partners better than retired Lt. Gen. Frederick "Ben" Hodges.Across his 37-year career, the former commander of both United States Army Europe (USAREUR) and the NATO Allied Land Command completed three combat tours in the Middle East and six assignments overseas. Now the Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), Hodges continues to strengthen partnerships abroad. Here are his insights on the role sustainers play in deterring our adversaries.

You started and ended your career in Europe. What changed in between?

As a lieutenant in Germany in 1981, the mission was to deter the Soviet Union, assure our allies, and protect America's strategic interest. When I came back as the USAREUR commander in 2014, the mission was to deter Russia, assure our allies, and protect America's strategic interest. The difference? In 1981, we had almost 300,000 troops; in 2014, we had 30,000 and no tanks--the last armor had been sent home and we all thought Russia was going to be our partner.

When I took command, I realized we had to be an economy of force and make 30,000 look and feel like 300,000. In a way, I actually enjoyed the challenge of that, professionally, because it forced us to be smart about what we were doing, and that's how we came up with the five pillars.

First: put more responsibility on young people. We had captains who were the senior Army officers in a country. We even had a convoy from Germany to Romania led by a cadet on her summer Cadet Troop Leader Training Exercise. The brigade commander didn't even ask; they knew I would approve it because the expectation was young people and noncommissioned officers gain responsibility.

Second: get more out of our allies. We depended on allies for everything from bridging to transportation, so we constantly had to find ways to work more closely with host nations.

Third: get more out of the National Guard and Reserve. By design, nearly three-quarters of the Army's logistics are in the reserve component. Units were calling us every day asking to come participate in exercises, and we needed those capabilities.

Fourth: take advantage of rotational forces. When the Army recognized the need to bring armor back to Europe, it was done through rotational brigade combat teams. How were we going to get the most out of them? The same was true for rotational combat aviation brigades, but both significantly increased our

Fifth: dynamic presence, which, as the staff joked, meant saying "yes" to everything. We said "yes" to every exercise no matter what, whether it was Estonia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia, Ukraine, North Macedonia, Greece, or even Serbia. By being as visible as possible, it looked like we had a lot more than 30,000 troops.

How are we getting back to the basics of blocking and tackling?

We've had to relearn a lot about fighting a peer adversary, such as the Russians. We've learned so much from the Ukrainians. When we started supporting them at the training center in Yavoriv, we had to evolve as we figured out this mission set. I've never been under Russian artillery or rocket fire, nor--to my knowledge--been jammed on radio by Russian electronic warfare (EW); all the Ukrainians have.

So we watched how they developed capabilities and used our equipment. Take the Q36 Firefinder Radar: because they were getting hammered by the Russians all the time, they learned how to better operate in a very competitive EW environment. That system is much better than we even knew. So we began giving the opposing force (OP4) those capabilities during our training at Grafenwoehr and Hohenfels, and eventually back at the National and Joint Readiness Training Centers. I've always believed if you want to change the Army, you do it at the training centers.

From a logistics standpoint, ammunition consumption is a major factor, particularly artillery and preferred munitions. Between simulations at U.S. European Command (EUCOM) level and actual exercises in the dirt, ammunition expenditures are off the charts. We obviously need more, so that helps put a demand signal back on the Department. But keep in mind, we're not the only customer.

Transportation has always been my favorite logistical function; without it, none of the other stuff really matters. Think about how big the theatre in Europe is now. Going from Grafenwoehr to Tallinn, Estonia, is the same distance as going from St. Louis to Bangor, Maine; Baumholder to Mihail Kogalniceanu (MK) Air Base in Romania is like driving from St. Louis to Miami. It's not the same Cold War, West Germany Theater where everything was within three or four hours.

Relearning rail movement efficiency is critical. There isn't enough capacity to move everything we need, so the rotational brigades have had to become very good at rail movements. While their center of gravity is in western Poland, on any given day, one of their battalions is down in Romania or Bulgaria, and another is in Grafenwoehr doing gunnery exercises; they're all over and moving by rail all of the time.

Our rotational forces also give us practice deploying and redeploying at a variety of forts and ports. We're getting reps in loading and unloading everything from Abrams tanks or Blackhawks to Bradleys or Paladins. It may seem silly now, but when a ship arrives and every tank's batteries are dead because it's your first deployment in a very long time, it can be pretty painful.

The DEFENDER-Europe 20 training exercise taking place this year is recognition that we have to practice all of this, just as we did with the Dragoon Rides a few years ago. For young captain troop commanders to lead Stryker movements all the way from Estonia back to their home base in Vilseck, it was a great test of our transportation capabilities, especially our maintenance.

We also did a shock exercise to deploy a Patriot battery from Baumholder up to Poland. The battery had about three days' notification before making the 1,000-kilometer journey. One support vehicle had a minor problem; that was it. It was incredible. Everyone had confidence in their vehicles, confidence in their support system, and confidence in their young leaders. After that, I had lieutenants from other batteries asking when I was going to shock them; they wanted it. That's the mentality we must continue to foster.

Having said this, the interoperability piece cannot be overlooked. We are task-organized in a multinational way at a much lower level than when I was a lieutenant. In those days, you usually didn't go below brigade level; you might have an allied battalion mixed in, but generally you'd have an American brigade, a Dutch brigade, and so on. As a result, logistics interoperability was not a big deal.

Compare that to today's Enhanced Forward Battle Group in Poland. There's an American tank battalion from the Tennessee Army National Guard on rotation now. They have a British company, a Croatian company, and a Romanian Air Defense Battery under them, and that whole battalion is under a Polish brigade. Interoperability is a significant challenge. For instance, every vehicle has a different fuel receptacle. That's a problem for us because everybody depends on American logistics. You can be sure every army in Europe knows who the 21st Theater Sustainment Command is; they know who the 16th Sustainment Brigade is.

I had a young fuel specialist who discovered a NATO kit that's essentially a Swiss army knife with six different adaptors depending on who is putting fuel into what vehicle. I was astounded we had to do that, but more importantly, I was proud of this young officer who figured it out. At the end of the day, interoperability of logistics is just as important as interoperability of mission command.

Can you discuss the challenge of speed of assembly throughout the theater?

We've worked hard on mobility in recent years, but it's an area I don't think I was as effective as I thought I might be. Deterrence is all about having capability and the demonstrated will to use it such that the adversary says, "We will either fail, or it will be so painful if we attack that we don't want to."

Russia's objective to undermine the alliance and cause nations to lose faith to the point they attack into Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, or Romania is bolstered by talks of using nuclear weapons in all their exercises. While the U.S. probably would respond, the Russian bet assumes others would avoid entering into a nuclear conflict over what would likely be seen as a limited attack. I see the risk of them making that terrible miscalculation increasing only if they believe we cannot move as quickly as they can.

That's why speed of assembly is so important. It starts with speed of recognition of what's happening, and the speed of a decision to begin doing things like pulling ammunition out of the depot at Miesau, getting priority on rail, and getting priority on contract Heavy Equipment Transporter Systems (HETS). When do you decide to put the reactive armor tiles on tanks? Because once you do, you can't use them on trains anymore; this all takes time.

Then there's the actual speed of assembly: how fast can we get a force somewhere? It's key to note this will all happen under peacetime conditions. Under European Union (EU) law, most countries have to declare a crisis in order to waive peacetime regulations, an act that could be seen as escalatory or provocative. Assuming most countries would be unlikely to make such a declaration, it starts getting a lot more difficult to move.

There are three components for movement.

First: the diplomatic piece, which addresses the legal aspects of crossing borders. Ideally, we'd want something like a military Schengen Zone where we could move across borders freely the way folks can for private travel and commerce--but any changes require EU-level action.

Second: capacity. Is there enough rail? Right now, there is only enough to simultaneously move one-and-a-half armored brigades. That's not just Germany; that's it.

Third: capability. Can we actually cross certain areas, especially where the infrastructure is so limited? I love having tanks and Soldiers love hiding behind them, but they're too heavy at 80 tons, and then you start slapping on reactive armor--it's too much. The infrastructure in central and Eastern Europe just does not support heavy vehicles. Many railheads are also too small or are side loading. It is harrowing for an Abrams tank to turn sideways and then drive, and it's not what you want to be doing in a dark, snowy environment. We have to get more HETs in theater, and we have to find ways to reduce weights while still protecting crews and maintaining lethality.

What other logistics challenges did you face?

Host nation support is essential, especially now with a smaller force in Europe. Germany provides tremendous support when it comes to access and infrastructure to enhance forward presence. Without the ability to use critical airports like Bremerhaven and Hamburg to fly into Munich, Nuremburg, or Frankfurt, it would be impossible for the alliance to have any rapid reinforcement capability.

I'm very worried about cyber protection of critical transportation infrastructure because it's not under one hat. While a German cyber command exists, it's only for protecting the military. I'm more concerned about the overarching responsibility for protecting the airports, seaports, and rail network.

An article by Andy Greenberg in Wired Magazine highlighted the Russian "NotPetya" cyberattack a few years ago.

While intended for Ukraine, the attack ricocheted digitally to all parts of the world. Danish company Maersk's shipping line--responsible for over 75 ports, 800 vessels, and nearly a fifth of the global shipping capacity--was shut down for several weeks, causing hundreds of millions of Euros in damage.

We would be so vulnerable if Bremerhaven was shut down, and you wouldn't have to shoot a single missile.

In my mind, cyber protection of critical transportation infrastructure is so important, it's on the same level as buying Patriot missiles to protect the ports. We have to continue working with our allies on this and find ways to incentivize greater investment.

Establishing a logistics hub in Powidz, Poland, was another important step. Former USAREUR commander Gen. B. B. Bell recognized the need to have a footprint in the Black Sea region and established MK Air Base in Romania. It's become such an effective logistical hub that we used the same model at Powidz. We're building up the railhead and ammunition storage points, and the base is home to Army Pre-Positioned Stocks paid for by NATO. Now, there are about 1,000 troops--mostly logisticians from the National Guard and Reserve--responsible for support in the Baltics and Poland.

Bringing in infantry, artillery, and armor--that's the easy part. The challenge is having the logistics footprint set and people knowing how to get to you where you need for rapid reinforcement. If we don't have the logistics infrastructure in place, I don't think our deterrence efforts are taken seriously. Whenever I would get reports of Russian troop movements, I would ask, "Do you see any large field hospitals?" If there weren't any, we knew they weren't serious because they weren't preparing for sustained combat operations. The logistics are the indicator.

How has seeing the region through a new lens complimented your military perspective on the way ahead for the Army?

I'm extremely proud of the work CEPA does, and it's nice no longer having the stress and responsibility that Gen. Tod Wolters at EUCOM, or Lt. Gen. Chris Cavoli at USAREUR, have. Where I have matured in my thinking is the maritime domain--the role of the navies of the alliance is so much more significant than I had appreciated. Unfortunately for our great Navy, we don't have enough to do what needs to be done.

Understandably, the Navy is focused on the Atlantic and the Pacific, but that means it can't get into the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea as much as we'd like. I think the greater Black Sea region is the real place of competition and poses the greatest potential for conflict. The Russians have annexed Crimea. They have no intention of respecting sovereignty in the Donbas. Ukrainian soldiers are still getting killed every week, three years after the agreement to a ceasefire. 10,000 Russian troops still occupy 20 percent of Georgia, 11 years after saying they would leave. You have almost 2,000 so-called Russian peacekeepers in Transnistria. And it's the launching pad for all the mischief they've caused in Syria.

What would you tell a young Soldier about the importance of logistics?

We have to compete in the region and work to achieve coherence of NATO's eastern flank from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. That means ensuring there's freedom of navigation, protecting our allies: Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey; and working with partners like Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova.

Don't wait until you're 60 years old to realize that! I put huge demands on our logisticians from battalion command on, but I don't apologize for doing so. The fact is: it's hard. Make sure you think through consumptions, transport, and ways to enable and make sure logisticians are included from the beginning. Don't present the plan and expect them to solve it for you.

When we invaded Iraq in 2003, the current G-4 of the Army, Lt. Gen. Duane Gamble, commanded our Forward Support Battalion for 1st Brigade in the 101st Airborne; he was exceptional. We left Kuwait in early 2003 and moved all the way up near Mosul. We occupied Qayyarah Airfield West, the destroyed Iraqi air base that became our home for the next 10 months. There were no forward operating bases, no contractors, none of that. We were at the far end of the line of supply and communication, which made replacing anything from tires to t-shirts a challenge. Gamble figured out how to do it--fuel, water, everything. It took creativity and trusting and empowering young leaders to do a lot.

To young leaders today: assume you will have more responsibility dumped on you than you ever imagined when you were sitting in your basic course. You're expected to figure it out, whatever "it" may be. I guarantee your operational commander is never going to think of everything, so you have to be able to anticipate--every day, vehicles use fuel; people eat and drink water; they get hurt; weather and terrain conditions change. Anticipation--that is the key!


Arpi Dilanian is a strategic analyst in the Army G-4's Logistics Initiatives Group. She holds a bachelor's degree from American University and a master's degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Matthew Howard is a strategic analyst in the Army G-4's Logistics Initiative Group. He holds a bachelor's and master's degree from Georgetown University.


This article was published in the January-March 2020 issue of Army Sustainment.

Related Links:

Army Sustainment Homepage

The Current issue of Army Sustainment in pdf format

Current Army Sustainment Online Articles

Connect with Army Sustainment on LinkedIn