NATO Allies Still Block US Convoy Movements in Europe

3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division stages their vehicles after crossing into Poland from Germany after conducting a three-day convoy, Jan. 12, 2017. (U.S. Army/Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Tarr)
3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division stages their vehicles after crossing into Poland from Germany after conducting a three-day convoy, Jan. 12, 2017. (U.S. Army/Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Tarr)

Two Army brigade commanders said Wednesday the continuing problem of red tape and restrictions to cross-border movements in Europe pose a major challenge to forming a credible deterrent.

"Europe can be a tough operating environment, particularly with regards to freedom of movement," said Col. Clair Gill, commander of the 1,800 troops of the 10th Combat Aviation Brigade (CAB) of the 10th Mountain Division out of Fort Drum, New York.

"Coordinating movements across multiple borders involves weeks of planning and clearances, and any one error can jeopardize an entire large operation," Gill said.

"Our brigade can move across Europe when needed," said Col. Michael Simmering, commander of the 3,500 troops of the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team of the 4th Infantry Division out of Fort Carson, Colorado.

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However, "It is no secret among the senior leadership and it's definitely not a secret to us -- freedom of movement is and remains the number one challenge in the U.S. Army Europe area of operations," he said.

Simmering and Gill spoke at an Army Pentagon briefing on the lessons learned following the completion of nine-month rotations of their commands in Europe.

Both echoed Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, who was retiring Wednesday following three years as commander of U.S. Army Europe, on making USAREUR a more agile force and improving interoperability with NATO allies.

Hodges is succeeded in the role by his former deputy, Maj. Gen. Tim McGuire, who will serve as acting commander while the Army searches for a permanent replacement.

In addition to problems crossing borders, Gill said he found that he needed a quick fix to navigational difficulties his UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters experienced in coordinating with the GPS systems used in Europe.

In the U.S., the Black Hawks can rely on ground-based systems for navigation when flying on instruments in clouds and fog, he said, but Europe mostly uses satellite GPS.

"We knew it was a potential issue" before the 10th CAB deployed," Gill said. "We don't have that [advanced GPS] system in our Blackhawks right now," Gill said, and so the Black Hawks were initially limited to flying where there were ground-based systems.

The Army came up with a solution that Gill described only as a "box" installed on the helicopters to allow them to navigate by satellite. "It would allow the unit that's currently in theater to fly in that satellite-based environment" while the Army works on a permanent fix, he said.

On the cross-border problem, Simmering noted that Hodges had backed a proposal for the creation of a military "Schengen zone" in Europe. The so-called "Schengen zone" was created by 26 European states to abolish passport checks and other types of border controls at their mutual borders.

The current border checks pose "a system-wide challenge for everybody at this point in time," he said. Trying to move units quickly across borders "is something we experienced frustrations with routinely," he added.

"The bottom line is freedom of movement is a challenge in Europe," Simmering said. 'I'm confident that we have people working on it. Do I see at my level right now as a brigade commander a readily apparent solution? I can't point to one."

Gill gave the example of having one of his trucks break down at a border crossing. There was a rule against towing it into the next country. He brought in a wrecker, put the truck on the wrecker, drove the wrecker across the border, and then resumed towing the truck in the next country.

Gill said he also had a problem in moving his brigade to ports to begin the trip back to Fort Drum.

One country, which he declined to name, refused to allow the convoy to pass. So what did he do? "Circumnavigate," he said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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