Soldiers and equipment from the Army's 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, from the 1st Cavalry Division based at Fort Hood in Texas, are arriving in Europe this week for a nine-month rotation in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve.
Operation Atlantic Resolve started in April 2014, in response to Russian interference in Ukraine, and is meant to emphasize US commitment to European defense through “continuous, enhanced multinational training and security cooperation.”
The Ironhorse Brigade's arrival is the third back-to-back rotation the Army has pursued in order to have an armored brigade in Europe, where the US has been looking to bolster its armored presence.
But the route the brigade is taking to its base points to another capability the U.S. and its NATO partners are trying to boost: The ability to move around Europe on the ground.
A U.S. Army Soldier guides an M1 Abrams Main Battle Tank from 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, off the ramp of the ARC vessel Endurance May 20 at the Port of Antwerp, Belgium. The unit arrived to continue the ongoing support to European security and deterrence operations as part of Atlantic ResolveU.S. Army / Sgt. 1st Class Jacob A. McDonald
The unit will primarily be based in Germany and mostly operate in eastern Europe, but the first of three ships carrying its tanks, trucks, and mobile artillery arrived this week in Antwerp, a Belgian port that hasn't seen a major U.S. military movement of this kind in the past 10 or 20 years, according to an Army release.
Maj. Gen. Steven Shapiro, commander of 21st Theater Sustainment Command, which supports U.S. military operations in Europe and Africa, said the vehicles will move across Europe via convoy, line-haul, river barge, and train. The Army has issued notices about planned movements by road and rail in western and eastern Germany.
“Sometimes what is old is new again, and that is coming in here,” Shapiro said. “Antwerp and Rotterdam were major ports when we were operating during the Cold War … We are coming back to Antwerp in a big way.”
The brigade will send about 2,500 pieces of equipment through Antwerp, including 87 M1 Abrams tanks, 138 armored personnel carriers, 18 Paladin self-propelled howitzers, and more than a thousand other vehicles.
“It's a totally different type of deployment,” said brigade commander Col. Wilson Rutherford IV. “We could have gone into the port of Gdansk, , which is much closer, but we wanted to exercise this port, exercise the barge movement, the line haul, and the convoys.”
“This is very different from the 2/1 [ABCT] and 3/4 [ABCT] deployments, but the goal is to learn as much as we can,” he added, referring to previous rotations by the 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team from the 1st Cavalry Division and the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team from the 4th Infantry Division — the latter of which is known as the Iron Brigade.
The U.S. military's presence in Europe has steadily declined since the end of the Cold War. TheArmy once had 300,000 soldiers stationed there, but that force dwindled to roughly 30,000. In April 2013, the U.S.'s last 22 Abrams tanks in Europe returned to the U.S., ending the Army's 69-year history of stationing main battle tanks there.
That absence was short-lived. In January 2014, 29 Abrams tanks arrived in Germany, joining other armored vehicles there for what were to be short stints in small formations. That approach changed in early 2017, when the Iron Brigade arrived with tanks and armored vehicles for the first nine-month, back-to-back rotation.
But the new emphasis on operations in Europe has encountered logistical hurdles.
A tangle of customs rules and local regulations have hamstrung movements across borders. Infrastructure issues — like bridges or roads not built to carry heavy armored vehicles — have also hindered operations, as have shortages of transports.
These obstacles have created issues for training operations — a convoy of Paladins was halted by German police in January because the contractors transporting them violated several regulations — and would present issues for any peacetime mobilization effort.
These problems led NATO to conclude in an internal report late last year that its ability to rapidly deploy around Europe had “atrophied since the end of the Cold War.”
That report recommended setting up two new commands — one to oversee logistics operations in Europe, particularly in central and eastern Europe, and another to manage the shipment of personnel and supplies across the Atlantic.
In March, NATO said the new logistics command would be based in the city of Ulm in southern Germany (The U.S. has volunteered to host the new Atlantic command in Norfolk, Virginia). That same month, the European Union said it was working to address the conflicting regulations and infrastructure issues hindering military operations.
“By facilitating military mobility within the EU, we can be more effective in preventing crises, more efficient in deploying our missions, and quicker in reacting when challenges arise,” EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini said at the time.
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