The U.S. Army’s rapid reaction force in Europe is under-equipped, undermanned and inadequately organized to confront military aggression from Russia or its high-tech proxies, according to an internal study that some who have read it view as a wake-up call as the Trump administration seeks to deter an emboldened Vladimir Putin.
The Italy-based 173rd Airborne Brigade, a bulwark of the NATO alliance that has spent much of the last decade and a half rotating in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan, lacks “essential capabilities needed to accomplish its mission effectively and with decisive speed,” according to the analysis by the brigade, a copy of which was obtained by POLITICO.
When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, the unit’s paratroopers were the first American troops to reach the Baltic states to deter another potential incursion on NATO’s eastern flank.
But the assessment details a series of “capability gaps” the unit has identified during recent training with Ukrainian troops with experience battling Russian-backed separatists, who have used cheap drones and electronic warfare tools to pinpoint targets for artillery barrages and devastated government armored vehicles with state-of-the-art Russian antitank missiles.
Some of the shortfalls, like the brigade’s lack of air defense and electronic warfare units and over-reliance on satellite communications and GPS navigation systems, are the direct results of the Army’s years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the enemy has no air power or other high-end equipment and technology.
“The lessons we learned from our Ukrainian partners were substantial. It was a real eye-opener on the absolute need to look at ourselves critically,” Col. Gregory Anderson, who commissioned the report earlier this year during his stint as the brigade’s commander, told POLITICO after it had obtained a copy of the report. “We felt compelled to write about our experiences and pass on what we saw and learned.”
The report has so far been distributed only through internal channels to the Army staff and other military headquarters.
The analysis comes to light as Russia gears up for one of the largest military exercises in the post-Soviet era — a weeklong war game called Zapad that could involve as many as 100,000 troops and will be held later this month in Belarus. It also comes as the Pentagon seeks to step up its effort to deter Russia, including by rotating other American ground units on a temporary basis into Eastern Europe and the Baltic countries to demonstrate resolve. That’s part of an Obama administration effort known as the European Reassurance Initiative.
The 173rd Airborne Brigade, based in Vicenza, Italy, parachuted into Iraq in the early days of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and saw intense combat in Afghanistan. While its roughly 4,000 soldiers would be no match for a Russian assault on Europe on their own, the 173rd is considered a primary element in deterring Moscow from threatening NATO’s borders — particularly since the departure of two U.S. Army tank brigades from Germany was completed in 2013.
Yet years of deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan, where the 173rd mostly confronted ragtag groups of insurgents, have dulled some of its skills in the type of higher-end combat that Russia has been sharpening in Ukraine, the report found.
Some of the problems the report identifies have low-tech solutions that the Army could implement relatively easily. Amazingly, camouflage nets to hide vehicles from enemy helicopters or drones are “hard-to-find luxuries for tactical units.”
To fill other gaps, the report pins hope on a pair of new Army vehicle programs that could help the brigade if they are fielded soon enough.
The 173rd’s aging up-armored Humvees, designed to protect against roadside bombs in Iraq, would be “easy prey” for Russian armored vehicles, and the report recommends replacing them with the forthcoming Ground Mobility Vehicle, a much lighter-weight, more mobile truck. The Army announced this summer that it is buying nearly 300 of these vehicles from General Dynamics to equip the 173rd and stateside paratroop and special operations units, although none will carry the 30 mm guns that the report recommends some be outfitted with.
The report also calls for the brigade to be equipped with a small contingent of light tanks, which would offer much-needed protection to forward scouts against Russian anti-armor missiles. That solution is likely a ways off. The Army is only expected to issue a formal request for proposals for its light tank program later this year, a first step to developing a new weapon system.
Even if the service quickly settles on an already available prototype, it will be several years before the new vehicles reach the 173rd or other Army units. In the meantime, the brigade will have to rely on heavy armor units that rotate regularly from stateside bases.
The common thread running through the paper is the challenge posed by Russia’s jammers and other electronic warfare tools.
An enemy equipped with these “could effectively neutralize a GPS system from 50 miles away using one-fifth the power of a tactical radio,” the report estimates, so “we should assume that GPS will be either unavailable or unreliable for the duration of the conflict if the [brigade] faces a near-peer threat or sophisticated non-state actors.”
Here, too, some of the solutions are low-tech. High-frequency or HF radios are more difficult for enemy electronic warfare specialists to pinpoint and jam than the satellite radios that have become the norm for U.S. units over the past 15 years. HF radio equipment and training have fallen by the wayside in the American military during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but not in some allied militaries.
The shortfalls have required the 173rd to call on allies from Latvia to help it learn how to communicate in the face of Russian jamming — a stark indicator of how badly knowledge of a key communication method has degraded in the American force.
In February, according to the paper, a Latvian military communications specialist spent a week teaching HF techniques to the 173rd, and since then, the brigade’s paratroopers have honed their HF proficiency during a joint exercise with Latvian troops in Germany. To fix the problem, though, the Army needs to systemically resume teaching HF radio communications stateside, the report says.
U.S. artillery also relies heavily on GPS, and as the 173rd has learned during exercises in the Baltic states, there is more to breaking that dependency. Before GPS, artillerymen used a set of star charts called the Army Ephemeris to precisely estimate their positions before targeting the enemy — and the Army has not updated those charts in more than two decades.
To better protect against jamming and spoofing and go on the offensive against enemy drones, the brigade and other Europe-based units have recently bought off-the-shelf commercial systems, and a more capable Army system is scheduled to come online in 2023 — but the report says the 173rd needs better jamming gear sooner than that, along with 10 small teams of electronic warfare specialists to use it.
Meanwhile, according to a military source who spoke with POLITICO, a sister unit from the 2nd Cavalry Regiment in Poland has had to depend on Romanian troops to operate short-range anti-aircraft guns. And the paratroop brigade lacks “essential capabilities needed to accomplish its mission effectively and with decisive speed.
“These ideas and proposals are potentially useful for all airborne brigades, and for the Army writ large,” the report notes.
Some former Army officers who have read the report agree, and hope the document acts as an alarm bell for the service at a time of renewed focus on Eastern Europe and tension with Russia.
“The report is framed as being about the 173rd, but it’s really about more than the 173rd. It’s about what the Army needs to do,” said Adrian Bonenberger, a former infantry officer who fought with the brigade in Afghanistan and now lives in Ukraine, studying and writing about the conflict there. “If Russia uses electronic warfare to jam the brigade’s artillery, and its anti-tank weapons can’t penetrate any of the Russian armor, and they’re able to confuse and disrupt and quickly overwhelm those paratroopers, we could be in for a long war.”
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