Maj. Gen. James Smith serves as the commanding general of the 21st Theater Sustainment Command (TSC), the Army’s largest sustainment command located overseas. A 1992 graduate of Christopher Newport University who commissioned as a chemical officer and was most recently the Chief of Transportation, Smith now leads the 21st TSC and its 10 subordinate units executing all sustainment activity rendered in support of U.S. Army Europe and Africa. Army Sustainment sat down with Smith, who assumed command in June 2021, to discuss the challenges central to setting and resetting the European and African theaters for future conflict as well as opportunities the Army is undertaking to posture itself for contested and dispersed operations in varying environments across all domains.
We’re over two years removed from Defender-Europe 20 and are preparing for its 2023 iteration. What were some of the key operational and tactical sustainment lessons learned borne from those exercises?
We’ve been running the Defender series since 2020. While its first iteration was truncated due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the exercise still generated readiness for participating units. Some units weren’t able to deploy in 2020, so we ensured a more normal Defender in 2021 and 2022 to account for any potential atrophy. For us, we use Defender and linked exercises to demonstrate our ability to aggregate U.S. based combat power in Eastern Europe, build unit readiness in a complex joint, multinational environment, and leverage host nation capabilities to increase operational reach. I mention multinational and host nation because interoperability is foundational to everything we do and one of the most important sustainment lessons we continue to reinforce.
Realistically speaking, 21st TSC will continue to work by, with, and through our allies and partners in theater. Whether performing executive agent functions for other services, leveraging host nation support, or integrating logistics capabilities from multinational forces, it will not be a unilateral approach, in my opinion. The Defender series provides us with those opportunities to work closely with our allies and partners to expand our interoperability in all domains through technical, procedural, and human aspects. Perhaps obvious, but another function of Defender is demonstrating the expanded geographical area of operations here in the European theater. If you look back 20 or 30 years ago, our lines of communication weren’t as long as they are right now. We focused on the western portion of Europe, primarily in Germany. Over time we’ve expanded our mission sets from the Scandinavian countries, through the Baltics, all the way down to Greece. Our lines of communication and support that we’re tasked to provide for units operating across that vast geographic area represent an immense undertaking. Being on the ground and understanding the movement corridors has given me a profound appreciation of the scope and scale of Team 21’s daily sustainment mission.
The Defender series also allows us to rehearse large movements and exercise use of Army pre-positioned stocks (APS) to form the basis of another key lesson learned as we continually assess how we set the theater and leverage pre-positioned stocks in varying locations. What we’re really asking ourselves is: are we effectively locating and utilizing our APS? By asking and answering this, we gain greater insight into where APS can increase our readiness and capacity for deterrence. Having units inventory, sign for, and employ APS exercises the equipment and builds muscle memory as we set the theater, especially on a fast timeline.
It seems like these key lessons are continuous in nature. Is that true?
I certainly think many of them are continuous; they are more constant refinements than major upheavals in many cases. One that’s unique to our theater and one I didn’t even have a great appreciation for until I spent some time here is the amount of coordination that has to happen when you’re talking about cross-country boundaries. As I mentioned earlier, in some instances, we’re moving from the High North all the way down to Greece. With this comes a wide array of considerations you have to keep front of mind, from diplomatic clearances and host nation support to escort requirements. There are a lot of policies, regulations, and guidelines that we have to follow to move equipment in and around the European theater, and even more considerations when we start talking about moving ammunition and explosives. We’ve got to work within the confines of the respective country’s laws and policies, and as recently demonstrated, we have to be able to do all of that at the speed of war.
There is a lot of discussion in the transportation space about leveraging our infrastructure, such as seaports, to our logistic advantage through deception operations. From the 21st TSC perspective, how do you approach and operationalize that posture across the European theater in consideration of contested resources that have, historically, held firm as a key strategic advantage for the Army and Joint Force?
We frame that problem set with one guiding question in mind: how can I offer the combatant commander options for execution? From this, I have to ensure that they have enough options and flexibility to expand decision space to achieve their objectives. Part of developing options is, of course, port diversification. This boils down to our ability to identify where it makes the most sense to flow forces and associated equipment into the European theater. It’s not just a matter of deploying to the continent on a regular, predictable cadence and location. We’re ensuring a deliberate port selection process, rehearsed during Defender under the assumption that we may have to do this in a real crisis. In addition to providing more options to the combatant commander, port diversification also allows us to assess a port’s capabilities, to include determining infrastructure and reception, staging, onward movement, and integration (RSOI) requirements that are mutually beneficial to the 21st TSC and our partners and allies.
With the Army’s shift toward a multidomain mindset comes the assumption of operating within and from a contested homeland. What does this new dynamic mean for theater-based operations undertaken by the 21st TSC? Does this alter the approach to setting the theater or receiving deployed combat power?
This assumption certainly upends the status quo. We are at a point, at least at the TSC level, where we’re preparing to fight in multiple domains simultaneously. In a certain sense, we’re already doing just that. Historically speaking, projecting cargo and personnel from the homeland has been mostly unrestricted, but this uninhibited capability most likely won’t persist. We should assume that we’re operating in a contested environment. From cyber threats to labor-based port disruptions, things certainly aren’t business as usual. In the joint security area alone, which includes the theater’s sustainment stocks and varying sea and aerial ports of debarkation, we’re anticipating similar kinetic and non-kinetic threats. In response, we’ve established a joint security coordination center to integrate and effectively leverage each warfighting function to ensure we can sustain the fight across contested terrain and over time.
Outside of port diversification, what are some other key interoperability initiatives central to sustainment?
As our Army transforms into a data-centric force, 21st TSC and the greater sustainment enterprise are also making great strides in this space. Pushing the mission partner environment down to lower formations across the 21st TSC extends collaboration at echelon amongst our NATO partners. Additionally, year over year, we’re enhancing interoperability using logistic functional area services to synchronize multinational movement data and prioritize the use of critical transportation assets.
Sustainment interoperability also extends into the command and control domain. The 21st TSC works closely with the Joint Support Enabling Command, an entity under the NATO force structure charged with commensurate RSOI responsibilities for NATO. As I mentioned, a TSC does not operate alone, so having that visibility of our collective equities within NATO comes as a force multiplier with activities central to setting the theater.
Arctic or extreme-cold environments present challenges to force sustainment operations the Army may not have needed to prioritize since World War II. What are the most fundamental sustainment challenges in these environments? How are we, as an Army Sustainment Enterprise preparing ourselves to ensure our capabilities remain a key strategic advantage in the future fight?
There’s much to consider on the sustainment side as we reframe our posture in the Arctic. One aspect that isn’t necessarily unique to that region, but will certainly be front of mind, is how we sustain over vast distances. Can we identify and take advantage of avenues and key movement corridors to support units operating far north of the equator? Further, how can we extend our operational reach and ability to sustain those forces primarily from our Central European theater base? Again, setting the theater is a continuous process. That won’t change with new requirements in the Arctic, but the ways in which we execute our sustainment support that far north will have to account for the harsh environment. Everything from ensuring our Soldiers have the right cold weather gear to how we deliver and consume Class III products will come with environmental nuance.
21st TSC is focused on Europe, and its Arctic needs moving forward, but it also maintains joint security and support responsibilities to U.S. Africa Command’s (USAFRICOM’s) operations when directed. How are you balancing varying demands from two largely different areas of operation?
Our equities in USAFRICOM are, environment notwithstanding, similar to those in Europe. We’re well-postured to provide exercise support and crisis response based on how we survey, set, and reset both theaters. The lessons learned I discussed earlier are, frankly, theater-agnostic in that sense. Partnering with and supporting Southern European Task Force — Africa keeps us nested with sustainment equities on the African continent.
Mike Crozier is a strategic analyst in the Army G-4’s Logistics Initiatives Group. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Georgetown University.
This article was published in the Fall 22 issue of Army Sustainment.