Reforger Redux, Military Exercises in Europe

U.S. M1A2 Abrams tanks return to Germany for joint military exercises for the first time in decades. U.S. Army Photo

In what maybe a sign of the times, Defense Secretary Ash Carter has called upon the member nations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to boost military exercises in Europe. You can read the article here, but the BLUF is that Russia’s continued aggression and increased military spending has Western leaning Baltic countries worried. Secretary Carter proposed that in addition to increasing defense spending in Europe, large scale NATO military exercises should return. During the Cold War era, large scale military exercises were conducted on an annual basis but were ceased due to costs and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now with a resurgent and aggressive Russia, NATO may see the return of a defensive strategy against Russia that was developed almost 70 years ago during World War II.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter being introduced to regional leaders by Commander U.S. Forces General Breedlove during a meeting of NATO in Germany. It was during this meeting that Secretary Carter called for the renewal of military exercises in Europe. DoD Photo.

NATO’s cold war defensive strategy against Russia came from Field Marshal Erich Von Manstein, a Nazi who commanded various units and armies of the German Wehrmacht during World War II. It was Manstein who defied Hitler’s orders to stand firm after the Nazi Wehrmacht suffered its disastrous defeat at Stalingrad and began a fighting retreat. Russian General Georgy Zhukov believed the German Wehrmacht to be broken and kept pressure on Manstein’s forces, eventually retaking the strategic city of Kharkov. The Russians celebrated, not realizing that Von Manstein had been leading them into a trap. While falling back, Von Manstein had been rebuilding and resupplying his army. It was at that moment that Mansfield turned his army and launched a sharp counter offensive that destroyed three Russian armies and routed three more. By the end of March 1943, Manstein recaptured most of the territory that had been lost after the fall of Stalingrad and handed General Zhukov what may have been his greatest defeat. The tactic became known as a mobile defense and involved periods of fighting withdraw followed violent counter attacks into the enemies weak points. The strategy is still studied by military officers to this day.

German Tiger 1 tanks advance on the Eastern Front. By pioneering a new form of mobile defense that combined a fighting retreat with sharp counter offensives to blunt the Russian’s numerically superiority, Von Manstein was able to recapture most of the territory lost by the Wehrmacht after its defeat at Stalingrad. German Federal Archives, Photo via Wikipedia.

After the war, Field Marshal Erich Van Manstein was rightly tried for war crimes at the Nuremberg Trials and sentenced to 18-years in prison for murders carried out by his troops against civilians. His actual sentence would end up lasting four years as the world changed during that time. The newly formed North Atlantic Treaty Organization was looking across the border at thousands of Soviet tanks that were projected to reach the English Channel in only a matter of days if war broke out. Von Manstein may have been a Nazi war criminal, but nobody was better at fighting Russia and NATO hired him as an adviser. His mobile defense became the bulwark of NATO’s defensive strategy and large scale military exercises were developed that utilized Von Manstein’s mobile defense strategy. NATO member nations drilled their troops in the methodology of a fluid defense that allowed their numerically inferior troops to fall back and then rapidly counterattack to hit Soviet forces where they were weak. By the 1960’s this principle would be refined into what became the annual military exercise called Reforger.

Elements of a U.S. Armored Division is unloaded at a port in Europe to participate in Exercise Reforger 1990. National Archives Photo

Elements of a U.S. Armored Division are unloaded in Germany to participate in Exercise Reforger 1990. National Archives Photo

Exercise Reforger standing for “Return of Forces to Germany” was the realization that the United States couldn’t afford to keep a large standing Army in Europe with its commitments in Vietnam and other global hot spots. Instead, NATO forces would focus on delaying any Russian advance with Manstein’s mobile defense while the United States rapidly deployed its forces across the Atlantic to form the nucleus of a counter offensive. From 1969-1993, at least one division of actual fighting troops were rapidly deployed on an annual basis from the United States to Europe in what was a practice for a very possible war. The Soviet Union was concerned enough with the effectiveness of the strategy that it began a very costly submarine building program in the 1970’s to prevent American reinforcements from reaching Europe.

M1 Abrams main battle tanks move along a road with turrets trained, preparing to fire off of their left flank during Exercise Reforger '85.

M1 Abrams main battle tanks move along a road with turrets trained, preparing to fire off of their left flank during Exercise Reforger ’85. National Archives Photo and Caption

Exercise Reforger was discontinued in 1993 after the Soviet military disbanded. The presence of U.S. forces was reduced to a shadow of what it once was and many European countries all but shut down their armed forces, resting safe with the knowledge that the United States would come to their aide if there were ever a problem again. By the end of first decade of the 21st century, many European countries were lulled into a false sense of security. Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia should have been Europe’s wake-up call but it wouldn’t be until the 2014 Russian Invasion of the Ukraine that Europe would be shaken to its core. The Ukraine had been in the process of becoming a member of the European Union. Now half of its territory, notably its industrial sector, is under Russian control.

The United States, the United Nations, and the European Union all pressed economic sanctions against Russia. Despite that, Russia’s 2015 defense spending ballooned to $84.5 billion, a 97% increase over 2014 and is expected to increase again next year. While that is still well below defense spending in the United States, it is well above any other country in NATO and Russia’s spending is all directed on one front. In terms of proportion, Russia’s military spending in Europe dwarfs that of the United States which is focusing the bulk of its defense dollars in the Middle East. Russia has rolled out new designs for tanks, APC’s, artillery platforms, aircraft, and infantry arms but also maintains a massive stockpile of cold war era weaponry that could be modernized and made combat effective for little money.

With the both Ukraine and Georgia mostly occupied, the nations that will bear the brunt of any future Russian aggression are Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Only Poland has a military of any note. The three smaller Baltic countries still rely upon Soviet era hardware and conscripted troops (Latvia now has a small professional army, but would be dependent upon conscripts in the event of any war). Not one has a defense industry to manufacture weapons and has traditionally relied upon the Ukraine for support. With Ukraine’s defense industry now in Russian control, the west is the only source of weapons and munitions for their defense.

U.S. Armored Personnel Carriers cross the border from Estonia into Latvia during Operation Dragoon Ride, a military exercise to show U.S. Support for the Baltic NATO members in March 2015. U.S Army Photo

Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia have been members of NATO since 2004 and the United States and every other member of NATO is treaty bound to help them in the event of a conflict with Russia. It is with this realization that NATO is starting to hold some military exercises in the Balitic states, but nothing on the scale of a Reforger type exercise. While it is expensive, NATO is working to reorganize the armed forces of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia to become more mobile, and use combined arms tactics to make their fighting forces more self-sufficient. The hope is that these capabilities would enable the Baltic countries to practice a mobile defense and buy time for NATO forces from Germany, France and the United States to be brought forward and help. This was exemplified on a small scale when the United States sent a small armored column through all three countries in 2015 to show its support. While a token force may not have made much impact, the effect would be bolstered by a division size element or larger that actually operated with local forces in realistic combat training on an annual basis.

Mechanized infantry dismounts as part of military exercises in Germany. U.S. Army Photo

At the conclusion of his visit with NATO, Secretary Carter said that no decisions had been made regarding how to counter the Russian aggression seen in the Ukraine. While military exercises may not seem like much, they’re expensive and usually require some type of answer on the same level of significance from your adversary. Planting a large contingent of NATO troops on Russia’s Baltic border would require an equal response from Russia and take pressure off the Ukrainian front as Russia diverts troops. Field Marshal Erich Von Manstein was the only man that General Zhukov considered a worthy opponent. It also happens that Von Manstein and the early NATO planner’s strategy for countering and containing Soviet aggression worked for the better part of four decades.  It would be interesting to see how Vladimir Putin would react to some large scale Reforger style exercises.

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