U.S. Army Europe will soon dispatch a survey team to eastern Europe to scout locations for tanks and other military hardware as part of a broader effort to bolster the U.S. military presence in a region rattled by Russia's intervention in Ukraine, the Army's top commander in Europe said Friday.
"We are doing surveys here in the next few weeks up in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria to see if there is a place where perhaps some of that equipment could be stored there," USAREUR chief Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges said during an interview with Stars and Stripes. "Maybe it's a company, maybe it's a whole battalion, we don't know yet until we do the survey."
In 2015, the Army expects to rotate a full-sized, U.S.-based heavy brigade of some 3,000 troops and additional tanks and other armored vehicles through Europe in connection with the service's Regionally Aligned Force initiative. Last year, the program kicked off on a smaller scale, bringing combat tanks back into Europe after a brief absence following the elimination of two Germany-based heavy brigades in 2013. Now, the regional concept is picking up steam, with plans for 220 armored vehicles in Europe.
"The big question for us right now is ‘where are they going to go?' Obviously, a part is going to stay here," Hodges said, referring to the Grafenwöhr training area. "We really want to put some in southeastern Europe, some in the Baltics, some in Poland. Those countries want them bad -- an obvious reason, they're a deterrent aspect."
Once the surveys are concluded, a formal recommendation will be submitted to European Command chief Gen. Philip Breedlove, Hodges said. That will happen sometime in February.
In the meantime, the challenge is finding places to store all the inbound heavy gear. Initially, the regional brigade concept called for forward positioning enough equipment to support a battalion rotating through Europe at any given time. Hodge's plan calls for expanding those "European Activity Sets" to the brigade level, making it easier for larger elements to move in and out of Europe for training missions.
"The European Activity Set is growing obviously," Hodges said. "The ultimate EAS will include the full armored brigade combat team, three maneuver battalions, a reconnaissance squadron, artillery, engineers and all that. That's probably about 220 armored vehicles, tanks, Bradleys."
Hodges expects all the heavy armor equipment to be in place by the end of 2015.
"Some of it is already here now, in fact, its right at Grafenwöhr," he said.
Meanwhile, USAREUR could for a time hold on to at least one site that it had previously planned to turn over to the Germans -- Coleman Barracks in Mannheim -- which has the potential to be used as a temporary storage site until permanent locations are found in the east, according to USAREUR.
Hodges, who was at the Army's sprawling training center in Hohenfels, Germany, on Friday to observe U.S. soldiers working alongside Canadian, British, Dutch and Hungarian troops, said the Army plan to rotate a heavy brigade through Europe comes at a crucial time. The latest rotational brigade bound for Europe -- 1st Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division -- fits into an overall European Command strategy that aims to deter Russian aggression, reassure allies in the east, and strengthen training partnerships with allies, Hodges said.
Europe-based troops also continue to play a key role. In the spring, the Vicenza, Italy-based 173rd Airborne Brigade will deploy a battalion into western Ukraine to train the country's national guard and Defense Ministry personnel in a range of tactics, Hodges said.
For nearly a year, Ukrainian forces have been at war with Russian-backed separatists in the country's east. While Moscow has denied sending troops into Ukraine or providing heavy weapons, Hodges said there are numerous signs of Russian involvement.
"Hundreds of armored vehicles, rocket launchers and UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) that are being provided, either employed by Russians or by their proxies in the eastern Ukraine," Hodges said. "The sky is full of Russian UAVs and they are immediately finding all the Ukrainian formations, and (the Ukranians) are suffering huge causalities from artillery, rockets."