"The Long Trek" was written by Thomas Gutschker and first appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. The article was later translated into English. Read the article in German here                   

The U.S. Army brings an armored brigade from Texas to Antwerp and from there to Poland. During the Cold War something like that ran smoothly. Today the planners first must find a train which will take it.

The U.S. Army brings an armored brigade from Texas to Antwerp and from there to Poland. During the Cold War something like that ran smoothly. Today the planners first must find a train which will take it. By Thomas Gutschker. If you meet larger U.S. military convoys on German roads during the next weeks, you should stay calm. No, this is not the real emergency, the Russians are not marching in the direction of the northern German lowlands or the Fulda gap – if somebody can even remember this phrase. And no, they haven’t invaded the Baltics or Poland. It is just an exercise, but one that is considerable. The U.S, Army brings a complete armored brigade from Texas to Europe: 3,300 Soldiers, 87 main battle tanks, 138 armored personnel carriers, 18 howitzers, a thousand other military vehicles, and 350 tractor trailers. Troops and vehicles will arrive in Antwerp starting next weekend and will then be taken to Poland. This is now happening for the third time since the beginning of 2017. But now a lot more people will see the exercise, because for the first time the Americans will use all traffic routes: road, rail, water.

This is a huge challenge with months of planning for the military planners, even the combat experienced ones from America. Politically speaking the signal points in two directions. To the inside, toward the European population: Larger troop movements will happen more often again, they have something to do with the changed threat conditions. And to the outside, towards Russia: The United States are ready to defend the Eastern flank of NATO – it is part of deterrence. Of course, the willingness is not enough, skill must be part of it. And that is why the Americans are training now what they haven’t had to train for decades: to speedily move large combat units to Europe.

The name of the man who is organizing this is Steven Shapiro. His desk is located in a kaserne at the edge of Kaiserslautern. The two-star general commands the logistics command of the U.S. Army in Europe, 7,000 men and women work for him. “We have to rebuild our deployment skills.” Says Shapiro – not only the military has to learn, but also the rail and port operators. They have not shipped tanks for a long time.

When Shapiro started his service in the Army in 1986, everything was completely different. “During the Cold War all our efforts All our efforts were directed toward reaching Europe and to fight side by side with our allies against the Soviet Union. We trained this for decades, even during the Vietnam War,” he remembers.

Every year during fall the large NATO exercises happened. They were called “Reforger”, the abbreviation for “Return Forces the Germany.” The Americans brought tens of thousands of soldiers across the Atlantic. On the autobahn, they often put traffic at a standstill. People living near the Lueneburg Heath had to see every year, how the flourishing landscape was plowed up by tanks. During Sunday walks in places of the region one could meet soldiers in camouflage, sometimes they lurked in the bushes next to the bench. It was exciting for the children, normal for the adults.

And for the Federal Republic it was existential. It is easily forgotten, but at that time the Warsaw pact had three times as many soldiers, tanks and artillery pieces in the Eastern part of Germany than the NATO in the West. The Soviet Doctrine was designed for a quick surprise attack. West Germany was to be overrun in a few days. To defend against that, the alliance had to win time – to stop the attackers before they reach the Rhine river. At the end of the eighties, 240,000 G.I.s were permanently stationed in the Federal Republic, everything was ready for a further 60,000. The soldiers only had to fly in and drive to their positions. After this, one wave after the other would have come with their complete equipment over the Atlantic. The ambitious goal: to bring ten divisions, 300,000 personnel, in ten days into the combat zone.

A lot has changed since then, Germany has moved to the center, the Soviet soldiers have long left. But now it is Poland and the Baltic states who share a country border with Russia. And after Moscow has destabilized one country after the other in its neighborhood, after it has started to conquer foreign provinces like the Ukrainian Crimea, NATO’s focus has moved to the East. Now it must protect allies that have a similar problem as West Germany had earlier. They are lacking strategic depth. Two years ago, an American think tank, the Rand Corporation, simulated a Russian attack against the Baltic states. The bitter realization: At the latest after three days, the Russians would have had the region in their hands. NATO would need at least seven brigades in place to stop a march through, the military planners recommended.

Since then, NATO has been working at full speed. In each of the three Baltic states it has stationed about 1,000 personnel, the first combat troops ever in the area of the former Warsaw Pact. But together that is only one brigade – not enough. Much more is difficult, however, because the alliance wants to adhere to the Founding Act with Moscow. With this, NATO commits itself not “to permanently station” “substantial” combat troops in the area of the former Warsaw pact. That is why now a new armored brigade comes every nine months from the U.S. spreads itself over the countries at the Eastern flanks, trains there – and then goes back home. Everything with full equipment. Additionally, the Americans have started to store the equipment for four further armored and artillery brigades in Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium – as in the Cold War. Then, in the worst case, they would just have to be relocated quickly to Poland.

That sounds easier than it is. Ben Hodges who commanded the U.S. Army in Europe until the end of 2017, can tell you a thing or two about that. After the crisis in Crimea in 2014, he sent his first soldiers toward the East. “I assumed we would be able to freely move as in the Iraq or Afghanistan just without being in danger,” says Hodges. “Since that was all NATO territory.” Nevertheless, there continued to be borders, customs officials and a pile of differing regulations. Hundreds of pages had to be filled out for some vehicles. NATO has standard procedures for that, but the customs officers in Poland and the Baltic states were not familiar with the. How could they? They hadn’t been trained to wave U.S. tanks through. Additionally, there were national regulations that differed from NATO rules – especially concerning hazardous transports. The logistics command in Kaiserslautern had to conduct paper wars, while the soldiers stewed frustratedly in their tanks. “We needed 30 days of preliminary preparation,” says a planner. “Now we have reduced it to five days.”

Hodges recognizes the progress; however, he is not at all satisfied: “He have to able to move at least as fast on our ground as the Russians do on theirs,” he says. He is less thinking about a large pitched battle as in the operations plans of the Cold War, but more about the “hybrid warfare” of the Russians. In its defense plans, NATO adapts to Moscow being as covert as possible in an attack on the Baltic States. Example Crimea: Suddenly “little green men” showed up, without national patches. They gained control of roads, ports and parliaments, before the Ukraine could react. For such cases, the alliance has created a spearhead with 3000 personnel, a super rapid reaction force. “If we want to give our political leaders options below open war, our troops have to be as fast as possible at the operation location,” says Hodges. And that during peacetime, when normal life continues.

Not only customs and hazardous material regulations will then be a challenge. Normal traffic will also continue. Authorities must approve convoys, the railways must find flat wagons and space in tightly timed timetables. The armored brigade alone which will shortly arrive in Antwerp, needs 28 special trains and nearly 1,000 tractor trailers to bring its equipment to Poland. Three hundred vehicles drive themselves, fifty armored personnel carriers and command vehicles are transported the first piece of the way on the Rhine. “This is the most important lecture until now,” says logistics commander Shapiro. “We have to use all transportation means, so that nothing gets stuck when there is a problem somewhere on rail or road.”

Previously the Bundeswehr owned its own flat wagons to transport tanks across the country. There were also secondary branch lines specially for the military. Both have been abolished as part of the “peace dividend”. The privatized Deutsche Bahn concentrated itself on the civilian sector. Its 4,000 flat wagons are mainly used to transport large steel pieces to customers. They are well utilized, because no industrial operation maintains large storage. “Military transports are a very volatile and short-term business,” a railway spokesperson says. In the meantime, the company has prepared a part of its fleet to be able to be used for battle tanks. The U.S. armored brigade needs 850 flat wagons. Because that many do not exist, part of the equipment must stay for five days until the wagons return empty. The German railway has purchased thirty wagons specifically for guard personnel which accompany each transport in the front and back – because the Americans are not allowed to lose sight of their equipment.

Tractor trailers are easier to get on the market. However, there is another problem: Roads and especially bridges must be authorized for such transports. How much weight can they bear? How high and wide are underpasses? In Western Germany even today, you sometimes can see yellow signs as the one on this page. They don’t show the speed limits for tanks, but the load class for convoy traffic (the first number, approximate weight in tons) and for single traffic – a remnant of the Cold War. In Eastern Europe, the Americans must test first how much weight roads and bridges can bear. However, they can’t build anything new. Large deviations are therefore sometimes necessary to reach the operational destination.

Of course, it would be easier to unload the tanks not at the North Sea coast but at a Baltic Sea port. But: These ports would be particularly vulnerable in a conflict with Russia. NATO expects cyber attacks on their infrastructure for instance – and not long ago trained such a scenario. During a hot conflict supplies could not be delivered into a combat zone anyway. That’s why Bremerhaven is a prime choice. But if a lot of materiel must be transported very fast, one port is not enough. That’s why the destination is this time Antwerp, and next time perhaps Rotterdam. The U.S. logisticians have about ten European pots in mind. At every location they must train dozens of dockers, because they load and unload the military vehicles themselves and therefore must be able to drive them. A large expenditure, both logistically and financially. The complete transport of the now arriving armored brigade will cost 45 million Euro.

The Americans initially had to take care of everything themselves. NATO wasn’t really able to help them, because it had no access to civilian structures under normal conditions. Hodges and his planners were at a loss. Then the European Union got involved. Most of its member states agreed on a closer future military cooperation. One of their projects: to improve ”military mobility.” The EU Commission immediately submitted an action plan. It wants to standardize customs forms - that is in their responsibility. It also examines how and where the traffic network for military transports can be improved. And it wants to spend a lot of money on that. Medium-term budget planning of the Union foresees 6.5 million Euro, to make Europe’s infrastructure military-capable.

“This is huge progress,” Ben Hodges, the former U.S. Army commander, thinks. He meanwhile works for a think tank in Washington. And Hodges has more ideas for improvement: “NATO should create incentives for members to invest more money in their traffic network. Best by letting states such as Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands include these investments in their military expenditures.” This pertains to the two percent target of NATO which none of the three countries are even close to achieving. They could, for instance, buy flat wagons themselves or establish contracts with the rail companies to guarantee transport of a certain amount of equipment at any time. The U.S. military used to have such contracts with civilian air freight carriers, says Hodges. This way they could afford a certain amount of overcapacity. That is, of course, a dream of the future, first of all the alliance must agree to this.

The U.S. Army logisticians are now concentrating all efforts on transporting the armored brigade from Antwerp to eight Polish locations, a distance of more than 900 kilometers. The vehicles carry a barcode with information about their target destination. The code is being scanned at every transload point – like a parcel in the mail. Additionally, they have real-time GPS information. Military planners are therefore reasonably sure of where their equipment is currently at. They coordinate all movements with centers in the states they are crossing. Part of this is also that local authorities receive timely information. This is especially important in the East where in many places U.S. tanks have never been seen before. The Americans are aware that especially in Eastern Germany they encounter a population that has not always a friendly connection to them. The U.S. logistics command in Kaiserlautern has for weeks already been establishing contacts to the state governments and mayors.

The military wants to be especially fast this time. One battalion is supposed to participate in a large exercise just a few days after its arrival in Poland. Eight to ten days, that is the longest it can be on the road. That would be a record – but is also only a first step toward the speed of which the U.S. soldiers and their allies at the Eastern flank dream of.

Thomas Gutschker

13 May 2018

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