In recent weeks, US troops on opposite sides of Europe have used new ways to get equipment and supplies to troops in forward locations, reflecting NATO’s increased focus on mobility amid heightened tensions with Russia.
This month, US Army logisticians and transporters unloaded 300 pieces of equipment belonging to the Army National Guard’s 81st Stryker Brigade Combat Team at the port of Esbjerg in Denmark.
The gear was to be transported by rail and road to the roughly 800 soldiers who recently arrived in Poland to join the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence battlegroup that has operated there since late 2017.
“This is the first time the US Army has worked with the Danish armed forces at the Esbjerg port to execute an operation of this kind,” an Army press release said, adding that “expanding” the number of European seaports that can support Army deployments was “a key objective.”
That gear arrived in Esbjerg a month after US soldiers and sailors unloaded gear and fuel in Durres, Albania to kick off the Defender-Europe 21 exercises.
Rather than offloading directly in Durres’ port, US personnel conducted a joint logistics over-the-shore operation, unloading vehicles and other heavy equipment from USNS Bob Hope, a US Military Sealift Command cargo ship, onto smaller vessels for transport to shore.
JLOTS operations allow US sealift vessels to load and unload personnel and equipment in what the Army described as “severe environments, damaged ports, or over a bare beach” using smaller ships.
The JLOTS operation included a bulk fuel transfer over-the-shore, in which 20,000 gallons of petroleum was pumped from a ship in the Adriatic Sea to a supply point on “an unimproved beach” in Durres for distribution to units in the field.
The JLOTS operation at Durres was the first in Europe since World War II, the Army said, and the bulk fuel transfer was the first of its kind in 30 years.
Defender-Europe and its counterpart in the Pacific are “great exercises” for US Transportation Command, which oversees Military Sealift Command, Army Gen. Stephen Lyons, head of Transportation Command, said at a recent Hudson Institute event.
The “most important part” of Defender-Europe was to reinforce US European Command’s “imperatives of deterrence, of assurance to our allies and partners, and again … demonstrating our ability to project power at our time and place of choosing,” Lyons added.
‘Shoot, move, and communicate’
Since Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea, NATO has put renewed focus on its ability to move forces and supplies into and around Europe.
NATO expanded from 16 members in 1991 to 30 in 2021, incorporating countries where infrastructure, such as railways and roads, didn’t match that of Western Europe or couldn’t support the tanks and other heavy equipment used by the alliance’s militaries.
Administrative obstacles, such as customs and transportation regulations, also hindered cross-border movement.
A NATO internal report in 2017 said its ability to rapidly deploy throughout Europe had “atrophied since the end of the Cold War.”
European countries are working to ease those administrative roadblocks and to improve their infrastructure.
NATO has also established two new commands to support logistical operations – one in Norfolk, Virginia, to oversee transatlantic reinforcement and one in Ulm, Germany, to manage movement in Europe.
US Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe and head of US European Command, told Insider at an event in December 2019 that the alliance was “dedicating tremendous energy to this very issue.”
New prepositioned stocks for the Army and the Air Force’s new deployable airbase system also allow US troops arriving in Europe to “immediately hit the deck running” and “shoot, move, and communicate with success against any potential foe,” Wolters said at an Atlantic Council event this week.
“We take logistics very, very seriously. We’re improving our ability to increase our posture once we get the forces where they need to be,” Wolters added, responding to a question from Insider.
Exercises since 2016, including Defender-Europe 21, continue to improve that logistical capability, which Wolters said was essential to warfare.
“It’s just as important to be lethal in air, land, sea, space, and cyber as it is to be lethal in logistics,” Wolters said.
The US Army issued an apology this week after soldiers accidentally stormed a factory in Bulgaria during a training exercise last month.
During Exercise Swift Response 21, soldiers with the 173rd Airborne Brigade practiced seizing and securing the Cheshnegirovo airfield. Soldiers stormed and cleared bunkers and buildings across the decommissioned airfield.
The private business, according to CNN, was a factory that makes processing machinery for the production of olive oil.
The Army said in its statement that no weapons were fired during the incident, which was caught on the factory’s security cameras. As Task & Purpose noted in its report, a Bulgarian reporter posted the following video on Twitter.
“The US Army takes training seriously and prioritizes the safety of our soldiers, our allies, and civilians,” the service said. “We sincerely apologize to the business and its employees.”
The Army is investigating the incident so that it can determine the source of the mistake to make sure that training areas are clearly defined for future exercises. An Army spokesperson told Task & Purpose that no soldiers have been disciplined.
Though there do not appear to have been any injuries from the unintentional incident, Bulgarian President Rumen Radev expressed great displeasure with these developments, according to Nova TV, a local CNN affiliate.
In discussions with his defense minister and the commander of Joint Forces Command, he said that “it is inadmissible to have the lives of Bulgarian citizens disturbed and put at risk by military formations, whether Bulgarian or belonging to a foreign army.”
“The exercises with our allies on the territory of Bulgaria should contribute to building security and trust in collective defence, not breed tension.”
Exercise Swift Response 21 was a multinational exercise involving more than 7,000 paratroopers from 10 countries, according to the US military. The goal of the exercise was to practice rapidly inserting ground forces for crisis response.
The drill, which lasted from May 10 to May 14, was a part of the larger Defender Europe 21 exercise, which involves over 28,000 troops from 26 countries.
Michelantonio “Tony” Vaccaro wanted to serve his country with a camera during World War II, so he tried to join the US Army Signal Corps. But under Uncle Sam’s rules, the 20-year-old draftee was too young for that branch.
So Vaccaro, the orphaned son of Italian immigrants, became a private first class in the 83rd Infantry Division. By June 1944, days after the first wave of 156,000 Allied troops descended on the beaches of Normandy, Vaccaro landed on Omaha Beach, where he saw row after row of dead soldiers in the sand.
Vaccaro was armed with an M1 rifle. He also brought along his personal camera: A relatively compact Argus C3 he’d purchased secondhand for $47.50 and had become fond of using as a high-school student in New York.
In addition to fighting on the front lines during the Battle of Normandy and the ensuing Allied advance, Vaccaro photographed what he was seeing. At night, he’d develop rolls of film, mixing chemicals in helmets borrowed from fellow soldiers. He’d hang the wet negatives on tree branches to dry and then carry them with him.
When he had enough to fill a package, he’d generally mail them home to his sisters in the US for safekeeping and to ensure the images would survive even if he did not.
From 1944 to 1945, he moved through France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany.
Along the way, he took photographs that few others – even the press and Signal Corps photographers – were in a position to take: a fellow soldier’s last step before shrapnel tore through him, a jubilant kiss between a GI and a young French girl in a newly liberated town, and many stomach-churning portraits of ransacked corpses that still haunt him.
During 272 days at war, he captured thousands of photos. After the Allied victory, he felt sickened and debilitated by the devastation he saw. He wasn’t ready to return to the US. And he never wanted to photograph armed conflict again.
He bought a Jeep and traveled with his camera, eventually photographing brighter moments, like the reconstruction of Europe and the beauty in the lives of famous artists and everyday people.
Vaccaro went on to make a name as a fashion and culture photographer. He traveled the world shooting for magazines like Look and Life and taking portraits of bigwigs including John F. Kennedy, Pablo Picasso, Frank Lloyd Wright, Georgia O’Keeffe, and many more.
A half-century would pass before Vaccaro began publishing the bulk of his surviving wartime photos. The surviving images have been shared widely, including in the 2016 HBO documentary “Underfire: The Untold Story of PFC. Tony Vaccaro,” in which Vaccaro revisits the history that he had to break Army rules to chronicle.
Vaccaro, now 98, survived a bout with COVID-19 last spring that put him in the hospital.
He continues roaming his neighborhood photographing everyday people and selling prints through Monroe Gallery of Photography. From his Queens, New York, studio more than seven decades after World War II, he closes his eyes and thinks of the brutality he documented as an infantryman.
“I see death,” Vaccaro told Insider. “Death that should not happen.”
Below, he describes six of his photos that he says capture “the insanity of war.”
Near Ottré, Belgium, January 1945.
Vaccaro developed the roll containing this image while on leave in 1945. He remembers calling this photograph “Death In The Snow” at first, later deciding that “White Death” was a more “elegant” and fitting name to honor Pvt. Henry Tannenbaum’s service and sacrifice. Tannenbaum was killed in action on January 11, 1945, during the Battle of the Bulge.
“When I first took this photo of a GI dead in the snow, I was not aware of who he was. What I did was to chip the snow away and look for his right arm, because in those days, [on] the right arm we carried our dog tags. He was Pvt. Henry Irving Tannenbaum. He was one of the soldiers who fought there, just like me. We fought in the snow. He died in the snow. He was my friend. I knew he had a son. … Many years later I got a call from his son.”
‘Gott Mit Uns’
Hürtgen Forest, Germany, 1944.
The burned body of a German tank driver, as seen through Vaccaro’s lens.
“He’s burning. This was frontline. You can smell him. We knocked out his German tank. We knocked it out, and he jumped out of there and fell dead in front of us. He was the pilot of this tank. Similar age [to me]. Here he’s gone. … But [before the photograph] I heard him scream, ‘Muter, muter.’ He was calling for his mother.”
“I took cover [by lying down next to him] and read his belt buckle: ‘Gott mit uns.’ … It means ‘God is with us.’ [Before the war] I had seen people that die and go to the church, and from church they go to the cemetery, like my father when I was four. This was a different death.”
‘Final Steps of Jack Rose’
Ottré, Belgium, January 11, 1945.
Vaccaro captured this image of a soldier he identifies as US Army Pvt. 1st Class Jack Rose of the 83rd Infantry Division, still upright, just after shrapnel from a mortar explosion severed his spine. The explosion, visible between Rose and the fence, threw Vaccaro back many feet. Rose, 23, was killed in action.
“That was Jack Rose. The last step. I was photographing him when this shell comes and explodes. He got killed there, in the village. … The shell could have come to me, too. I was lucky.”
Near Walternienburg, Germany, April 1945.
Vaccaro says the streaking on some of his war photos comes from the grueling conditions he was in – he didn’t have time to properly process and store his work in combat – and possibly from water damage due to a flood in the office where the images were stored after the war.
“We were going forward when a shell comes in, in the back, and explodes. This was Rhineland Battle. I was in a hole as the mortar exploded. I raised my arm up with the camera in my hand above the hole to catch this picture. If that shell had come 20 yards over, I was with these two [soldiers seen in the picture], and my hole was here, and if the shell came [where the two soldiers were or where Vaccaro was], I wouldn’t be here talking today.”
‘The Family Back Home’
Hürtgen Forest, Germany, January 1945.
When Vaccaro encountered this dead German soldier, it appeared that other American soldiers had already looted his valuables.
“This is a man who we killed in frontline [fighting]. … That was it. The family back home. A dead German soldier with the pictures he was carrying of his family. … Of course I had photos of my family too. … It reminds me of the tragedy of mankind. He’s not a German. He’s a human being.”
“We just must stop using ‘I’m Italian. I’m French. I’m Spanish. I’m German.’ That’s what makes us enemies of each other. We’re all humans. In Spain. In Germany. It’s a terrible mistake that man has made. We are humans. And nothing else.”
Frankfurt, Germany, March 1947.
Vaccaro captured this image after the war, while photographing the reconstruction of Europe for Stars.
“This man came back [from being a prisoner of war in the US]. He’s crying. … He gave up. You see where his family had been. The war is over. He came back, and his house had been destroyed. That’s why I call this the defeated soldier. He was German. … Later I was told that he lived here.”
“The point is, you see, on this Earth there is only one species, one church. Unfortunately we take this one species and create hundreds and thousands of churches, and each one is different from the next. And that’s why man is not attaining peace yet.”
The US Army successfully test-fired an atomic cannon exactly 68 years ago Tuesday. It was the first and only time the US military ever fired a nuclear weapon from a conventional cannon, according to the Army.
During the Cold War, the US military developed many different ways to unleash nuclear destruction on an enemy, including a towed artillery piece built in the early 1950s that could fire a nuclear round packed with as much explosive power as the atomic bomb that devastated Hiroshima less than a decade earlier.
The Army’s M65 280 mm Motorized Heavy Gun, the largest mobile artillery piece the US ever built, was based on Nazi Germany’s Krupp K5 heavy railway gun, a devastating indirect-fire weapon Allied service members fighting in Italy during World War II named “Anzio Annie.”
Weighing roughly 85 tons, the M65 cannon required two transporter trucks to move. In 1953, the US military moved two of these cannons by rail from Fort Sill, Oklahoma to a test site in Nevada, where crews used one to fire a nuclear artillery round in the first and last test of the cannon’s capabilities.
With that shot, “Able Annie” became “Atomic Annie.” Though the name applies to one gun, it has been used to refer to M65 cannons in general.
The other M65 cannon that was present for the testing in Nevada but never fired was a backup cannon named “Sad Sack,” a weapon that has had a rather uneventful history compared to Atomic Annie.
After the testing wrapped up, Sad Sack was supposed to be sent to an operational unit for overseas deployment while Atomic Annie was to return to Fort Sill, but during the transport process, the two cannons were accidentally switched.
This error was not discovered for 10 years. Soldiers preparing the big cannon for an event marking the tenth anniversary of the Grable test at Fort Sill realized that the serial numbers did not match that of Atomic Annie, the whereabouts of which were unknown to most at the time.
When the Army tried to find “Atomic Annie,” which was briefly renamed “AWOL Annie” during the search, it was a bit of challenge because the atomic artillery pieces had been deployed across Europe and Asia, and their specific locations were classified to the point that only a limited number of people actually knew exactly where they were.
The legendary atomic cannon was eventually found in Germany and retrieved. It returned to Fort Sill in 1964, and Sad Sack was given to the Smithsonian, according to the Army.
Due to the rapid pace of nuclear-weapons development during the Cold War, the M65 cannons like “Atomic Annie” were obsolete within a decade of their initial fielding. The M65, which was fielded to deliver a devastating nuclear strike behind enemy lines, was withdrawn from service in 1963, just 10 years after the first and only shot.
President Joe Biden awarded the first Medal of Honor of his presidency on Friday to a retired US Army Ranger and Korean War hero for “conspicuous gallantry.”
Retired Col. Ralph Puckett Jr., 94, received the military’s highest honor for valor for his outstanding actions on “Hill 205” near Unsan, an area about 60 miles from the Chinese border deep in what is now North Korea, on November 25, 1950 – heroism for which he was initially awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
Then a first lieutenant, Puckett led the 8th Army Ranger Company, a new unit that only had five-and-a-half weeks of training before being sent into combat, into a fierce battle for a position overlooking the Chongchon River.
During the assault, he purposefully and repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire, allowing his soldiers to find and eliminate enemy machine guns pinning down some of his troops.
Though they captured their objective, the fight for Hill 205 was far from over.
Throughout the night and into the next morning, Puckett’s Rangers faced wave after wave of counterattacks by a superior force of hundreds of Chinese troops. They were outnumbered almost ten to one.
Puckett was injured by a hand grenade during the first wave, but he refused evacuation and continued to lead, directing “danger close” artillery strikes against the assaulting enemy forces in the freezing cold.
Disregarding his own safety, he also moved from foxhole to foxhole, checking the perimeter and distributing ammunition so that he and his men could keep up the fight.
The White House said that “the Rangers were inspired and motivated by the extraordinary leadership and courageous example exhibited by First Lieutenant Puckett.”
The enemy launched a sixth and final assault on Hill 205 early on November 26. Puckett had temporarily lost access to artillery support, and it was clear that his forces could no longer hold their position.
Puckett was severely wounded by mortar rounds that landed in his foxhole and left him unable to move as their position was being overrun, with casualties mounting and the fighting breaking down into hand-to-hand combat.
He ordered his men to withdraw and to leave him behind, so as not to slow their retreat. His Rangers ignored the latter order. Two men fought to get to him and retrieved their commanding officer before retreating to the bottom of the hill, where Puckett called in tremendous and devastating artillery fire on Hill 205.
“They did not hold the hill, but they exacted a high price,” Biden said at the ceremony Friday.
The White House said this week that “Puckett’s extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of military service.”
Puckett was offered a medical discharge but chose to continue serving, according to the Army. Puckett later deployed to Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division.
During his 22 years in the Army, he earned two Distinguished Service Crosses, two Silver Stars for valor, two Bronze Stars, and five Purple Hearts, among other military honors and distinctions. With the addition of the Medal of Honor, Puckett is among the most decorated soldiers in US history.
Puckett joined the Army Enlisted Reserve Corps as a private in late 1943. He was discharged in 1945 so that he could attend the US Military Academy West Point, from which he graduated in 1949. He commissioned as an infantry officer, a second lieutenant, later that same year.
He retired from the US military as a colonel in 1971, and in 1992, he was inducted in the Ranger Hall of Fame.
“He feared no man, he feared no situation and he feared no enemy,” retired Gen. Jay Hendrix, who served with Puckett, said in an Army statement. “Clearly a unique, courageous soldier in combat and even more importantly, in my opinion, Col. Puckett was an ultimate infantry leader.”
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz called the US military “woke” and “emasculated” compared to Russia’s military in a tweet on Thursday.
Cruz based his criticism on a TikTok video comparing a Russian recruitment ad with a US Army commercial spot. While Russia’s ad featured moody lighting and buff, shirtless men writing in the dirt, the US Army clip offered an animated telling of the life of US Army Corporal Emma Malonelord, who was raised by a lesbian couple in San Francisco.
Insider reached out to Cruz’s office for additional comment on the tweet.
“After graduating high school at the top of my class, and after meeting with an Army recruiter, I found it: A way to prove my inner strength,” Mannelord says in the clip.
Malonelord is one of five military members featured in the Army’s newest commercial series featuring a diverse array of recruits. The series, dubbed “The Calling,” aims at sharing “a rich tapestry of stories that represent the diverse upbringings and life experiences that make up today’s Army,” according to a US Army press release.
Cruz never served in the military. During a 2015 interview with CNBC’s John Harwood, he said that he had “considered it many times” but had never enlisted. “I will say it’s something I always regretted. I wished I had spent time in the service. It’s something I respect immensely.”
In an effort to update and upgrade its air defense systems, the US Army delivered the first four operational Stryker anti-aircraft vehicles.
The 5th Battalion, 4th Air Defense Artillery Regiment (5-4 ADA), under the 10th Army Air and Missile Defense Command, is the first battalion in the Army to test, receive, and field the Mobile Short Range Air Defense (M-SHORAD) system. The 5-4 ADA is based at Shipton Kaserne in Ansbach, Germany.
They will replace the 1980s-vintage Avengers, a variant of the 4×4 Humvee that can only fire Stingers. The Avenger was less mobile and much more vulnerable.
At one point, the Army had 26 battalions of Avengers. But during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the enemy had little to no airpower, the military neglected its air-defense capabilities.
By 2017, active-duty units were down to just two battalions, with National Guard units having seven.
The skies are once again dangerous
But things began to change.
In 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea it used drones to great effect. Furthermore, the Syrian civil war witnessed the Turkish military forces using drones. Russian and Turkish drones were also used during the war in Libya.
Iran has also developed a large drone fleet. Crucially, it is beginning to show up with its proxy forces in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen where Houthi rebels have launched drone attacks on Saudi Arabian oil facilities and airbases.
China is likewise developing its drone fleet.
The Army realizes the need for upgraded air-defence systems …
Thus, with near-peer competition heating up, the new threat needed to be addressed.
Therefore, the Army began fielding offers to test upgraded air defense systems in 2017. A year later, it awarded a contract to Leonardo DRS Land Systems.
The Leonardo DRS system was placed on the available Stryker A1 platform. It provides maneuver Brigade Combat Teams with a full “detect-identify-track-defeat” capability. This is a requirement to defeat Unmanned Aerial System (UASs), rotary-wing, and fixed-wing threats.
Additionally, the Stryker armored vehicles are better equipped to keep up with armored vehicles when moving cross-country. Thus, they will provide better protection at increased ranges for maneuvering forces.
Last year, the 5-4 ADA selected 18 Air and Missile Defense crewmembers to conduct a six-month initial operational assessment with the prototype M-SHORAD systems. The assessment took place at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico.
… and it’s loving it!
“I developed a passion for this system,” said Spc. Andy Mendoza, a crewmember from the 5-4 ADA in an interview with the Army’s Defense Visual Information Delivery Systems (DVIDS). “We learned how to operate in every position on these, but also how to take care of them. Being one of the gunners selected to be part of that, it was really a huge honor. I’m really proud to be able to bring what I learned back home to the rest of the crew.”
“There’s really no comparison to anything I’ve operated in my career,” said Sgt. Andrew Veres to DVIDS. “Everything in these systems is an improvement – the survivability, mobility, dependability, off-road ability – it gives us the ability to stay in the fight longer.”
The Army plans to add the M-SHORAD system to four additional Air Defense battalions beginning this year.
“The Army’s air and missile defense force structure is growing and modernizing significantly to meet the threats of peer competitors and our obligation and commitment to providing air and missile defense forces to the joint fight,” General John Murray, the commander of the Army’s Futures Command said.
Given General Murray’s comments, it is no surprise that the first upgraded anti-aircraft vehicles were delivered to a unit in Europe.
In the summer of 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression, newly elected President Franklin Roosevelt announced he was going to slash the US Army’s budget.
Roosevelt’s decision was not unexpected, for he’d entered office pledging that economic recovery was dependent on personal sacrifice – including a fifteen percent pay cut to all federal employees. If federal employees were making sacrifices, he calculated, then why not the Army?
Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the then-US Army Chief of Staff, vehemently opposed the cuts, but knew that he couldn’t win in a stand-off with the popular president. So while MacArthur worked behind-the-scenes to reverse the budget decision, he swallowed it in public.
But in studying the numbers given him by the White House, MacArthur realized the only way to meet Roosevelt’s budget goal was to either cut his service’s request for new weapons – or gut the US Army officer corps.
It wasn’t actually much of a choice: The Army could always buy new weapons, MacArthur reasoned, but it couldn’t always buy new officers. Then too, cutting senior personnel would mean depriving his service of some of the best young officers in its history, including Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton, and Omar Bradley.
MacArthur made the right decision: Eisenhower and his cohort provided the best combat leaders in World War II and, arguably, the best combat commanders in American history.
Of course, 2021 is not 1933 – this is not the Great Depression and Joe Biden’s defense budget does not envision military cuts – but MacArthur’s decision has particular resonance now, as the Army debates whether to spend its money on buying more soldiers or buying newer weapons.
In March, we got our answer. During an address to the service’s powerful advocacy arm, the Association of the United States Army, Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville announced that he favored buying new weapons.
While assuring AUSA members that “people are our number one priority,” McConville went on to say that, in fact, they’re not. Instead, the Army is prioritizing a new suite of capabilities – long-range precision fires, a next generation combat vehicle, monies for new vertical lift capabilities and more missile defense assets.
As crucially, McConville has abandoned his previous commitment to increase Army end strength to 550,000 soldiers, an increase from the approximately 485,000 currently in uniform. McConville confirmed that decision on May 11, when he announced a cap on Army end-strength.
But McConville’s announcement might not be the final word on Army strength. According to acting Secretary of the Army John Whitley, it’s likely that the Army might be in line for even steeper personnel cuts, depending on the budget priorities laid out by the White House in its yet-to-be-released 2022 defense budget.
Testifying before the House Appropriations defense subcommittee last week, Whitley confirmed that “there is a lot of risk” to the Army’s bottom line in the new budget, a view confirmed by Texas Republican John Carter, who speculated that, when the final defense budget is decided, the Army would take “the lion’s share of the cuts.”
Which is to say that when Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks and her boss, Lloyd Austin, receive the service’s final budget numbers (sometime over the next two months), they are likely to shift resources from the Army into the Air Force and Navy.
Their logic seems unassailable, even for Army partisans: The American military’s “pivot to Asia” has left land forces on the outside looking in, the service is facing increasing challenges in attracting new recruits, the nation’s grindingly slow, but certain, retreat from the Middle East has downgraded the need for Army counterinsurgency resources, and the Pentagon’s new-found love affair with cyber and networked battle systems has left the Army scrambling to remain relevant.
“This is a service in search of a mission,” a senior Pentagon official says. “When the US does any sabre rattling, it’s going to rely on the Air Force and Navy, not the Army. The Army has a pretty small sabre.”
McConville knows this better than anyone, as his service’s recent history shows.
Back in 2009, Air Force Chief Norton Schwartz and Chief of Naval Operations Gary Roughead signed a secret memorandum committing their services to “joint forces integration” to meet what they viewed as the emerging challenge to American military primacy – especially in the Pacific.
The Army responded by accusing the Navy and Air Force of a “budget grab,” but initiated their own pivot: In 2014 the service created a Pacific Pathways program that increased the number and tempo of training exercises with Pacific military allies.
It also launched a crash program to identify new weapons systems relevant to the Pacific environment (long-range precision fires is the poster child of the effort), and inaugurated newly formed security force assistance brigades to relieve regular Army units of combat advisory missions.
In addition, most recently, it created three “multi-domain task forces” to target ships, satellites, network precision fires and engage in cyber warfare.
Not surprisingly, the first MDTF (which was the centerpiece of McConville’s March 16 transformation plan), has been deployed to the Pacific.
But at least for a few senior Pentagon civilian officials as well as senior retired Army officers, the new initiatives reflect the Army’s bid to be a part of the Asia pivot. It’s not clear that the bid is working.
America’s major Pacific partners, including Australia, have shown little willingness to host a permanent Army presence in their nation and most of the Army’s recent Pacific Pathways training efforts have focused on island nations with few military assets (like Micronesia and Palau).
The Army’s plan to field new weapons systems has also met with skepticism. One retired colonel who has advised McConville describes the Army’s effort to develop over-the-horizon artillery capabilities as “designing a bigger catapult,” while another defense analyst scoffs at the Army’s initial plans to develop a new vertical lift capability.
“In any future war, anything flying under 50,000 feet will be destroyed in the first five minutes,” the analyst tells Responsible Statecraft, “and McConville knows it.”
This same defense analyst asks the question that he says is likely to be posed by Hicks and Austin when they view the Army’s final budget numbers: “What happens to the Army when it doesn’t have anyone to fight?”
The likely result of this, defense budget experts speculate, is not only that the Pentagon’s focus on China will mean a focus on the Air Force and Navy – at the expense of the Army – but that if McConville wants to fund modernization (new weapons) and readiness (with increased small-unit training), he will have to do so with budget numbers that will yield a cut in Army end strength.
Such a choice has, in fact, been on offer since at least October of 2020, when retired Marine Col. Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, provided a detailed breakdown of the Army’s budget choices: “In an environment of constrained resources,” he concluded, “the Army will need to cut existing Brigade Combat Teams if it wants to build new units and procure new systems. So far it has been unwilling to do this.”
Cancian confirmed his views in an interview at the time: “I simply don’t see how the Army doesn’t come under the ax,” he said.
So it is that Army end-strength is now seen as the “low hanging fruit” for those calling for cuts in defense spending. For good reason: Just as military personnel numbers eat up a large portion of Pentagon outlays, cutting personnel, too, is the easiest way to save billions.
A recent proposal circulated among members of the House Armed Services Committee called for cutting four infantry and two armored brigade combat teams, and their support personnel, for a savings of approximated $18 billion. The bottom-line figures mean a 12% reduction in the Army, yielding a final force of 390,000 soldiers.
The proposal goes on to note that, since the current number of 31 Army brigade combat teams stand at 80% manning levels “a cut of 12 percent would have no impact on combat capabilities.”
The claim seems more than notionally true: The Army maintains trip-wire deployments in Europe (just over 25,000 soldiers), South Korea (under 20,000 soldiers), the Middle East (estimated at just under 2,000 soldiers) and Afghanistan – where the US Central Command is currently overseeing a redeployment of some 2,500 soldiers.
“The Army needs to get a clue,” the senior Pentagon official who spoke to Responsible Statecraft says. “It’s not that the US military is pivoting to Asia. It’s that it’s pivoting to the Air Force and Navy – and has been for the last 10 years.”
As crucially, and though this factor has remained largely unstated in the defense media, there is a sense that what the Army is objecting to has nothing to do with American strategy, or which service is best positioned to add value to future defense needs.
Rather, what the Army fears is that the Air Force and Navy will begin taking a larger share of the nation’s defense dollars – and at their expense.
The Army’s objections are a perfect expression of what is wrong with the military-industrial complex: The conflict is not over who is best positioned to fight who, but over who gets what.
Then too, and most recently, it’s become apparent that senior Army officers realize the threat to their service’s budget comes not only from its sister services but also from defense intellectuals who view the Navy and Air Force as front-line responders in the Pacific – with the Army relegated to a support role.
Some of the Army’s arguments smack of desperation. Writing in War on the Rocks on May 6, Lt. Gen. Charles Flynn and Lt. Gen. Laura Potter pleaded that a future Pacific conflict in which the Army plays second fiddle would be a mistake.
“U.S. air-, cyber-, and spacepower are essential to securing American interests in the Indo-Pacific,” they wrote, “but we are unaware of any historical example where a war ended at sea or in the air – or in space or cyberspace for that matter. Does the United States compete in those domains? Absolutely. However, war is won, and peace is preserved, on land.”
The War in the Pacific, in World War II, ended when the Japanese government decided it could no longer win without a Navy (which had been destroyed, though not by the Army), nor prevail against the onslaught on air corps bombers that were burning down their country. The denouement was delivered on two of their cities by US aircraft.
Even US Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur, whose troops defeated the Japanese in New Guinea and the Philippines, realized his victory was possible only because his soldiers were delivered ashore by Navy transports, defended by Navy aircraft carriers and protected by an air corps that shot the Japanese out of the sky.
Or, as one retired senior Air Force officer told me several years ago: “The Army needs to realize that the Pacific is blue, not green.”
During Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the US military was at its finest, liberating Kuwaiti civilians from the forces of an evil dictator.
In every way, every branch of the military and every American ally was on display, showing they could handle anything the enemy might throw at them and coming out on top.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in the ranks of US military armor.
Between the Army and the Marine Corps, the battles fought during Operation Desert Storm were some of the largest tank battles the United States ever fought – and among the largest in world history.
1. The Battle of Kuwait International Airport
The biggest tank battle in United States Marine Corps history is also the fastest. It’s also one of the most forgotten battles in history, despite the massive size of the forces involved.
On February 25, 1991, the 1st Marine Division and 2nd Marine Division, along with the Army’s 2nd Armored Division’s Tiger Brigade, Army Special Forces, and – later – the 4th Marine Division’s 4th Tank Battalion met 14 Iraqi divisions and a field artillery brigade.
The 1st Marines had broken through the Iraqi lines and into Kuwait City, on its way to the airport drove through them and ahead, fighting skirmishes along the way and destroying at least 100 enemy tanks. The 2nd Marine Division would approach from the other side.
One tank unit, Bravo Company, 4th Tank Battalion woke in the morning to find 35 Iraqi Republican Guard tanks moving to hit them from the front. Outnumbered 3-to-1, the Marines of Bravo Company snapped to, destroying all of them in about 90 seconds. This battle came to be known as the “Reveille Engagement.”
2. The Battle of 73 Easting
A young Army officer named H.R. McMaster (yes, that H.R. McMaster) was leading a group of nine M1A1 Abrams tanks through the desert at the start of the Desert Storm ground war.
Soon, his tanks came over a hill – and right into the path of an entire Iraqi tank division.
When outnumbered by hundreds, many officers would withdraw or surrender. McMaster plowed through. His troop destroyed 28 Iraqi tanks, 16 personnel carriers and 30 trucks in 23 minutes.
They called in other tank troops as they fought and were soon joined by more Americans, more than 840 armored vehicles in all. With the Iraqis knocked out, the Americans were free to engage behind the lines and onward into Kuwait.
3. Battle of Norfolk
What happens when American and British Armor meet the Iraqi Republican Guard inside Iraq? Some 1,100 Iraqi tanks destroyed, along with hundreds of artillery pieces and armored personnel carriers and thousands of Iraqi prisoners.
With 12 divisions on the battlefield, this was the second largest tank battle in US history and the largest of the Gulf War.
Two hours after the Battle of 73 Easting, coalition forces advanced to Objective Norfolk, an intersection on Iraqi supply lines and an important hub for moving material. Defending Norfolk was the Tawakalna Division of the Iraqi Republican Guard, which had just been bloodied at 73 Easting.
By the time the US Army’s 1st Infantry Division controlled Norfolk, the Tawakalna Division ceased to exist.
4. Battle of Medina Ridge
For two hours, the US Army’s 1st Armored Division and the 2nd Brigade of the Iraqi Republican Guard Medina Luminous Division slugged it out at one of the Iraqi desert’s few landmarks. Around 348 M1A1 Abrams tanks met hundreds of enemy tanks in one of the toughest battles of the war.
The Iraqis, positioned behind the ridgeline, could only be seen directly when US tanks crested the hill. Which would have been an effective defense if it weren’t for the Army’s Apache helicopters and the Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt IIs constantly strafing them.
The Iraqis arguably put up the stiffest defense of the war at Medina Ridge, but the loss was still lopsided – four US tanks were destroyed while the Iraqis lost 186.
Dubbed “Regaining Arctic Dominance,” the strategy aims to create a dedicated headquarters and specialized Arctic warfare units, improve infrastructure in the region, and invest in individual and collective training.
Although mentioned only briefly in the document, Army special-operations units are expected to have a significant role in the region both in peacetime and during war.
Why the Arctic?
Economic and military activity in the Arctic is nothing new, but the region’s value has been steadily increasing as it becomes more accessible.
As the ice melts and more passages open, trade becomes easier. The Northern Sea Route, stretching along the Russian coast from Norway to the Pacific Ocean, promises to connect Europe and Asia, two markets with more than 70% of the world’s GDP.
In addition, the increased accessibility caused by climate change allows for the exploitation of natural resources that have thus far been unreachable. Although the exact size of the oil and natural gas reserves underneath the Arctic is still uncertain, it is considerable enough to catch the interest of every major global player and several regional ones.
Further, climate change means that the region is becoming increasingly accessible to military forces.
Recent satellite images show that Russia is amassing forces in the region and testing new weapons.
In addition to Russian ground and air force buildup in the Arctic, there is the formidable Northern Fleet, which is Russia’s largest naval formation, accounting for close to 75% of its naval power. It is responsible for both the Arctic and the Atlantic oceans.
Russia is a legitimate Arctic state and has the world’s longest Arctic coastline. China doesn’t border the Arctic, but Beijing still wants a slice of the pie.
In 2018, China declared itself a “near-Arctic state” and launched the Polar Silk Road Initiative. Similar to the much-criticized Belt and Road Initiative, this project aims to make the Arctic a route for Chinese goods.
Since 1996, the countries bordering the Arctic – Iceland, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Canada, Russia, and the US – have used the Arctic Council to address issues facing the region, with the exception of security matters. A number of non-Arctic states have observer status with the Council, including China.
Army commandos in the Arctic
In the Arctic, Army special-operations units can contribute significantly to deterrence in peacetime and in a potential conflict.
Rangers, Delta Force operators, and Green Berets all have valuable mission-sets and skills that can translate very well to the Arctic domain.
The 75th Ranger Regiment is the world’s premier light infantry special-operations unit focused on direct-action missions, such as raids, ambushes, and airfield seizures.
The harsh Arctic climate means logistics and the resupply of forces are particularly challenging, making the Rangers’ ability to seize airfields especially useful in case of conflict.
Delta Force is the Army’s direct-action special-mission unit and primarily specializes in hostage rescue and counterterrorism.
In the Arctic, Delta Force could conduct unconventional warfare and sabotage operations similar to the World War II missions of the British Special Air Service (SAS), a unit that influenced Delta’s formation and early days.
The SAS wreaked havoc on Nazi and Italian forces in North Africa, destroying more planes on the ground than the Allied planes did from the air. SAS operations also forced the Axis powers to use a significant number of their forces for base and vehicle convoy security rather than on the frontlines.
“We certainly have the capability and the necessary skill sets to operate all alone and deep behind enemy lines for long periods without regular resupply. The Unit has already done it in the past during Desert Storm and the invasion of Afghanistan but also more recently in Syria,” a former Delta Force operator told Insider.
Finally, Special Forces operators can be very valuable as trainers of conventional Army units.
Green Berets thrive in foreign internal defense, or the training of foreign partner forces. They can take that knowledge to train their conventional counterparts in specialized skills such as mountaineering and cold-weather operations.
The 10th Special Forces Group already routinely trains soldiers from the Army’s 4th Infantry Division in cold-weather operations.
There are many other courses run by Green Berets that could prove useful, such as the Special Operations Advance Mountaineering School and the Winter Mobility Instructor Course.
“If you look at the Multi-Domain Task Force and long-range precision fires that will be in there, the capabilities, it’s ideal for the amount of training space that we have, whether it’s a maritime component, whether it’s a land component, or an air component,” Maj. Gen. Peter Andrysiak, commander of US Army Alaska, told Insider during a March press briefing.
“So there’s a lot of opportunities to look at the breadth and depth of a future battlefield where Special Operations Command will play a role,” Andrysiak added.
All of the above units can also conduct special reconnaissance and direct both airstrikes and naval gunfire.
Other Army special-operations units, such as the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, known as the “Night Stalkers,” and the Psychological Operations Groups could also contribute by enabling operations or shaping the critical information environment.
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.