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Empowering European Defense: A 21st Century US Army Strategy

Image courtesy of DVIDS/Bill Boecker

This article was originally published by the Small Wars Journal on 19 December 2018.

Since the close of the Second World War the United States has retained a significant ground force presence in Europe to defend against Russian aggression. While laudable during the halcyon days of the Soviet Empire, it is past time for this anachronistic policy to end. Europe now has the unrealized economic and political capacity to overmatch a weakened Moscow that can only provoke with economic and informational warfare while accosting weak states along its borders.[1] In the 21st century, the United States Army should accordingly adopt a more dynamic strategy for how it contributes to European security and would join a potential, though improbable, NATO war to defeat Russia.

A modernized approach could reimagine America’s military role in Europe, as once criticized by Dwight Eisenhower, where it is not “carrying practically the whole weight of the strategic deterrence force.”[2] More specifically, it would remove permanent US ground forces while empowering allies to create integrated area denial defenses at scale. It does not mean, however, reducing diplomatic engagement, withdrawing from NATO, ending multi-national exercises, or endangering commercial access. Instead, American landpower should enable Europeans—whose combined annual expenditure of 226 billion dollars on defense spending dwarfs Russia’s 47 billion—to organize and unify to counter aggression.[3]

New Strategy, New Opportunities

Any new approach to US Army involvement in Europe would develop in a strategic context where a massive land war with Russia has become politically abhorrent and practically impossible.[4] Despite alarmist rhetoric that perennially inflates and misinterprets the hybrid Russian threat, there is, in actuality, almost no chance of a conventional contest in Europe that resembles the Second World War.[5] While neither the Europeans nor Russians have the industrial or strategic means to sustain multiple army corps and complex fires networks over continental distance, opposing nuclear arsenals prevent violation of sovereign borders or degradation of national defenses.

Given this paradigm, the US Army should adjust its current posture of frontline belligerent to a strong commitment to enable with specialized capabilities like special forces, cyber, space, air defense, and theater lift while wealthy—and perennially negligent—nations like Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Poland provide conventional formations. This refined approach would eschew expensive garrisons in Central Europe and risky “trip wire” battalions in East Europe in favor of empowerment and strategic optionality. More importantly, it would provide the American people the time and space to decide on how to join another major European war on favorable terms as they did in the two previous world wars.

While Article 5 demands mutual defense between all NATO members, it does not require allies in North America to impetuously join a bloody ground war in continental Europe as the British did in 1914 and 1939. This is why the US Army’s rhetoric of “Fight Tonight”—which would require thousands of young Americans to “Die Tonight”—in distant and murky conflicts is misguided.[6] The next great power collision will unleash a panoply of new technologies and the resulting bloodletting will be unpredictable and potentially catastrophic. Sending US soldiers to Russia’s borders, though intended to deter aggression, guarantees that American citizens would be among the first to perish.

This is why flexible response with delayed mobilization is more appropriate for the US Army. Its strategy should empower the Europeans—whose combined economic GDP of 19 trillion dollars vastly overmatches Russia’s 1.9 trillion—to defend their own continent through development of an effective multi-domain ballistic defense, with a cross-Atlantic guarantee of reinforcement, material support and nuclear assurance.[7] This allows America, with its dominant economy and manpower reserves, the separation to increase production of war material, adapt to the modernized battlefield, and expand its land force without being bloodied in the first clashes of a European conflagration.

From a US perspective, a less entangled involvement in Europe’s affairs would allow another benefit: a national discussion on how to best engage in a conflict that could kill scores of thousands of Americans far from home. The US Army’s current rotations in Eastern Europe—which could be seen as needlessly provocative—denies Washington, D.C., the ability arrive at a measured decision.[8] Though interventionists would decry the loss of deterrence and reaction time, a more deliberate approach to deciding how to counter Russia’s nuclear-centric fires complex could actually facilitate de-escalation and reduce potential for a premature strategic exchange.

This criticism finds traction in a moral context where a recent J. Wallin survey found that 86.4 percent of Americans believe that “the military should only be used as a last resort.”[9] Even as the US Army deploys tanks near Russia’s borders, the American people remain largely oblivious to the singular risk of a large-scale war incurred by the forward action. While US soldiers routinely deploy to places like Afghanistan and Syria without broad public awareness, those missions are not provoking an insecure power with over 6,800 active nuclear warheads.[10] The resulting disconnect between public knowledge and intervention invites a dangerous moral hazard with a potentially terrible bill to pay.

Looking Back to Move Forward

A transition in the US Army’s role in a European war from lead to supporting role has clear precedent. Contrasting with its current fixation with risking premature exposure, the US Military has historically succeeded best when it retains maximum optionality through less constrained global postures. The reality of the vast oceanic separation with Europe and Asia, along with unchallenged dominance in the Western Hemisphere, has afforced this priceless luxury.[11] While these geographic separations have less salience in newer domains like cyber and space, America should seek to maximize its unique spatial advantages instead of negating it through protracted overreach.

This truth is especially germane in matters of land warfare, where expeditionary forces become easily mired in complex political and social conflicts with unpredictable outcomes. Similar to the late British Empire, the United States should adopt a more dynamic, commerce-oriented strategy that recognizes that its interests lie in safeguarding market access and not in controlling distant populations or fighting wars deep in the Eurasian land mass. This means that sending cumbrous brigades and divisions early and permanently to Europe—an expensive endeavor that instantly narrows strategic choices—should only occur as a last resort with full national mobilization to ensure favorable strategic outcomes.

This strategy is supported by America’s unequivocal record of success in both World Wars. In the Great War from 1914 to 1918, it supported allies with material assistance while deciding how and when to join the immensely costly fight. While the delay certainly frustrated allies, it allowed the American body politic to discuss, decide, mobilize, and then intervene in a manner that provided increased political leverage to influence the post-war settlement.[12] In moral terms, it also ensured that US citizens did not suffer the scale of attrition endured by Europeans in a war that did not threaten the loss of home territory or influence in the Western hemisphere.

The Second World War, where the United States entered the conflict after a lengthy national discourse that culminated with Japan’s attack on Hawaii, revealed a second instance where joining the contest deliberately resulted in a position of strategic advantage. In tactical and operational terms, the delay allowed the US Army to train and equip for an unprecedented intensity of joint and combined arms warfare based on lessons from early fights between Allied and Axis powers. In strategic terms, the delay allowed the American political process to align manpower and industrial expansion towards social consensus, national mobilization, and a robust wartime economy.[13]

Critics would argue that, in some ways, the US Army arrived unprepared for the World Wars due to reduced peacetime engagement. However, the horrific losses suffered by nations who hurried into combat—exemplified by the French Army at the Battle of the Frontiers in 1914—dwarfed the setbacks that American soldiers faced during initial combat.[14] With so many untested lethal technologies now proliferating, it would be better, especially in distant expeditionary wars, for Americans to fight with maximum knowledge of the evolving battlefield. While no two conflicts are the same, the US Army should emulate previous successes in continental warfare instead rushing to possible failure.

National and Coalition Dissonance

President Eisenhower reportedly said of American military security commitments that, “considering the European resources, and improvement in their economies, there is no reason that they cannot take on these burdens.”[15] Even then, at the onset of the Cold War, it was clear to parties not invested in interventionism that a united and well-armed Europe could stave off Russian aggression and that the United States should only perform a limited support role. With the Warsaw Pact and Red Army long extinct and Russia materially incapable of large-scale conquest, the US Army has the opportunity to recalibrate its strategic posture and focus on more salient global priorities.

This means rebuilding readiness at home after almost two decades of costly wars in the Middle East while shifting attention to regions, allies, and adversaries commensurate with American interests. Though the US Army finds the Russian Army to be a useful adversary when identifying institutional relevance, the current spending on conventional forces in Europe would be better spent countering Moscow’s malign cyber, informational, and economic threats to the West.[16] The misguided deployment of American tanks near Russia’s borders—representing a mismatch of problem and solution—only distracts from relevant threats while incurring unnecessary risk.

Criticism of the current situation becomes acute in light of the robust commerce that Europeans maintain with Russia even as it wages a bloody war in Ukraine.[17] The US Army’s aggressive posture has, essentially, provided assurance for wealthy European states to increase reliance on Russian energy and even collaborate with Moscow on the Nordic Stream 2 pipeline. Germany, for example, already pays Moscow over 10 billion dollars annually just for natural gas.[18] Put another way, American taxpayers are investing to protect Europe, which allows Europeans to pay for Russian energy, which inexplicably funds the Kremlin’s war machine—which in turn “threatens” Europe and requires expanded US intervention.

The disconnect between word and deed across NATO begs a simple question: if Russia is such a territorial danger, why have Europeans not increased military readiness to match American rhetoric?[19] Recent promises by Germany, for example, to increase defense spending to just 1.31% of GDP in 2019 have arrived only after incessant badgering by the US president.[20] NATO members closest to Russia have likewise refused to dramatically increase readiness. While Poland currently spends about 2% of GDP on defense with intent to increase just to 2.5% by 2030, the more vulnerable Baltic nations’ military investments remain perplexingly mundane considering the “urgency” of the Russian threat.[21]

The resulting disconnect between how NATO members misalign diplomatic, informational, military, and economic means towards a secure Europe undermines coalition objectives. While the Russians, similar to the Chinese, have combined diverse national capabilities into unified strategies—including weaponizing energy exports to support military objectives—the United States and Europe have allowed agendas to drift in isolation.[22] If the Russian threat truly requires forward positioning by US Army brigade combat teams, the commitment should be absolutely contingent on credible reform in European capitals to ensure a logical convergence in coalition priorities.

Empowering European Defense

A revitalized US Army strategy should center on creation of a European-led, American-supported, A2/D2 fires complex at scale that would dramatically raise the cost of any Russian incursion. Instead of rotating scattered tank battalions through the Baltics or forecasting NATO counter-offensives from Germany, the coalition should emulate Moscow’s investment in integrated fires networks to create a multi-domain shield across Eastern Europe. This means reorganizing Europe’s already-substantial combined military investment into modernized task forces featuring an unprecedented integration of air defense, rocket, cannon, drone, cyber, space, informational fires to allow overwhelming dominance.

A modern area denial strategy at depth could align coalition efforts towards a more unified approach to safeguard Europe. Layering reconnaissance-strike networks across contested frontiers would benefit from superior American industry, demonstrate pan-European resolve and communicate defensive intent. While the alliance would yet require effective forcible entry and armored forces, the forward nature of the defense would deter Russian aggression with capacity to unleash an instant and overwhelming military response. The concept would ultimately allow a range of first and counter-strike optionality, to include nuclear response, that favors both American and European interests.

A final reason for withdrawing permanent US troops from Europe centers on how the current US Army posture supports Russian propaganda.[23] Though the American presence seeks to reassure allies, it also buttresses Moscow’s domestic support as the flagging regime can accurately claim that NATO has advanced combat forces to its borders. This miscalculation follows decades of the West violating promises it reportedly made following German unification in 1990 to limit NATO expansion to Central Europe and respect a modest Russian sphere of influence.[24] For Moscow, Operation Atlantic Resolve serves as a priceless gift to its information warfare campaign that it had to concoct in previous decades.

Given the evolved global strategic landscape, the US Army should modernize its approach to seize and exploit continuing positions of strategic advantage. As once argued by Eisenhower—with an uncanny foresight—sending US forces to Europe was never supposed to be a “permanent and definite commitment.”[25] While some favor the permanent and forward deployment of American troops, a more effective and moral approach would be to avoid expensive garrisons and risky actions in favor of enabling support and wartime reinforcement. Looking to the future, the US Army should empower Europe’s unrealized military potential with a more dynamic strategy that reflects 21st century reality.

The views presented in this article are the author’s and not necessarily those of the U.S. Department of Defense or U.S. Army.

End Notes

[1] de Fouloy, Christian, “EU vs Russia Military Strengths,” Association of Accredited Public Policy Advocates to the European Union, January 25, 2018.

[2] Memorandum 226, Conference with President Eisenhower dated November 4, 1959, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958–1960, Western European Integration and Security, Canada, Volume VII, Part 1, Office of the Historian, United States Department of State.

[3] de Fouloy, “EU vs Russia Military Strengths,” January 25, 2018.

[4] Zachary Morris, “Nuclear Constraints and Concepts of Future Warfare,” The Strategy Bridge, August 7, 2018.

[5] General Mark Milley quoted in “The Pentagon’s Four Horsemen: Milley rates the threats,” Breaking Defense, January 21, 2016.

[6] C. Todd Lopez, “Deterrent forces ready to ‘fight tonight’ in Europe, general says,” US Army Press, May 3, 2017.

[7] de Fouloy, “EU vs Russia Military Strengths,” January 25, 2018.

[8] Max Fisher, “The risk of an unintended war with Russia in Europe, explained in one map,” Vox, February 9, 2016.

[9] Kadira Pethiyagoda, “Foreign Policy Populism: the Final Frontier,” The National Interest, January 27, 2018.

[10] Amanda Macias, “There are 14,500 nuclear weapons in the world: Here are the countries that have them,” CNBC Politics, July 24, 2018.

[11] Aaron David Miller, “How Geography Explains the United States,” Foreign Policy, April 13, 2016.

[12] Allan Millett and Peter Maslowski, For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America (New York: The Free Press, 1994), 348.

[13] Ibid., 418-420, 427-428.

[14] Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars (New York: Mariner Books, 2012), 102-103.

[15] Memorandum 226, Conference with President Eisenhower dated November 4, 1959.

[16] Sydney Freedberg, “The Pentagon’s Four Horsemen: Milley rates the threats,” Breaking Defense, January 21, 2016.

[17] Alliston Multer, “US Energy Sec’y: Europe should cut dependence on Russia gas,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 18, 2018.

[18] Elena Mazneva, “German $10 Billion Gas Bill Shows Perks of Close Russia Ties,” ‎Bloomberg, April‎ ‎24‎, ‎2018‎.

[19] Niall McCarthy, “Defense Expenditures Of NATO Members Visualized,” Forbes, July 10, 2018.

[20] Andrea Shalal and Sabine Siebold, “German leader, defense chief vow boost in military spending,” Reuters, July 4, 2018.

[21] “Poland Commits to Spend 2.5 Percent of Its GDP on Defense,” US News and World Report, October 23, 2017.

[22] Stephen Blank, “Russia has weaponized the energy sector in war against the West,” The Hill, October 17, 2017.

[23] Ewen MacAskill, “Russia says US troops arriving in Poland pose threat to its security,” The Guardian, January 12, 2017.

[24] Joshua Itzkowitz Shifrinson, “Russia’s got a point: The U.S. broke a NATO promise,” The LA Times, May 30, 2016.

[25] Memorandum 226, Conference with President Eisenhower dated November 4, 1959.


About the Author

Nathan Jennings is a US Army Strategist who served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He taught history at West Point and is a graduate of the School of Advanced Military Studies.

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