Edward Lucas
AUTHOR:Edward Lucas
05 September 2017

Defending the frontline

Here is some shocking news. One of the best bits of the American armed forces is not fully prepared for an all-out war with Russia. Worse, some of its capability gaps have been plugged only with the help of allies and partners from Europe’s ex-communist east.

That is the gist (and the spin) of an interesting story from Politico this week. It draws on a report about the combat readiness of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, which is based in Italy. This unit spent much of the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan but is now focussed on rapid reaction to the Russian threat in Europe.

Its recent training in Ukraine was, unsurprisingly, useful. Russia is a sophisticated adversary, unlike the jihadist and tribal militias the U.S.-led coalition forces faces elsewhere. It operates drones and has electronic-warfare capabilities.

Equally unsurprisingly, these Russian capabilities are well known to American allies in the frontline states. Countries like Romania and Latvia, as well as the battle-hardened Ukrainians, have plenty of ideas about tactics which will foil or blunt the Russian approach to warfare.

The phrasing of the Politico report is therefore a touch breathless to my taste. The assessment it quotes says that the 4,000-strong 173rd lacks “essential capabilities needed to accomplish its mission effectively and with decisive speed.” On the assumption that what is wrong with a spearhead force like an airborne brigade is probably true of the rest of the army, Politico’s headline is even gloomier: “US Army unprepared to deal with Russia in Europe.”

Yet armies do not habitually operate in a state of perfection. They are always learning lessons, adapting training and tactics, and trying to make the best of constraints on time, manpower and other resources. In an alliance like NATO, even the sole military superpower, the United States, expects to draw on the expertise and experience of other countries.

That is why troops train. It is much better that the U.S. Army learns about its weaknesses now, thanks to training alongside the Ukrainians, than finds out about them later, facing Russia in a real military conflict.

Moreover, the gaps are fairly easy to plug. An effective countermeasure against drones is cheap camouflage nets. The 173rd Airborne does not have enough of these. That can be solved with a few crumbs from the defense budget. The aging Humvees need replacing by more robust vehicles. That is already under way. Some of those new trucks need better guns. That doesn’t require another moonshot.

Other requirements, such as an integrated light-tank unit, will be harder to arrange. But America does have quite a lot of armor elsewhere in the army. American soldiers are also going to have to learn to manage without the GPS geo-positioning system, which Russia can easily jam. The alternative is old-style star charts. These need to be updated.

This leads on to another implied criticism in the Politico report: that America is dependent on help from flimsy east European allies. To counter possible Russian jamming of communications systems, the report recommends using old-style high-frequency (HF) radio instead of satellite equipment. Turns out that Latvia helped out by training the Americans in that, with a joint exercise in Germany. The 173rd also relied on Romanian troops to help operate short-range anti-aircraft weapons.

But this is just as it should be. American allies are not just consumers of security—they provide it too. It would be much more worrying if the frontline states had nothing to offer their big-power security guarantors. The Politico report should be read as a sign not of weakness in military planning, but of strength.

Europe's Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis. 

Photo: U.S. Army/SPC Brian Chaney