The U.S. Army has upgraded its sole rocket battalion in Europe. The update underscores the slow but steady expansion of American ground forces on the continent following a decade of deep cuts.
1st Battalion, 6th Field Artillery, 41st Field Artillery Brigade in October 2019 began training on the latest software for its eight or nine Multiple Launch Rocket System launchers. The software improves firing times for the 270-millimeter rockets.
The Grafenwoehr, Germany-based battalion is the only American MLRS unit in Europe. A sister battalion plans to stand up in 2020, at which point U.S. European Command will possess between 16 and 18 MLRS launchers.
After decades on the continent, U.S. Army MLRSs departed Europe back in 2006 as part of a slow decline in the Army’s European force-structure that coincided with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the 2008 recession.
The cuts accelerated in 2013 as the administration of Pres. Barack Obama struggled to shift forces to the Asia-Pacific region while still waging wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, the Army began demanding more troops and firepower.
The MLRSs only partially meet the demand. The 67,000-strong EUCOM still lacks the forces to defeat a Russian invasion force. A U.S. Army regiment with 300 Stryker wheeled vehicles is the only mechanized American force permanently in Europe. The Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade also is based in Europe.
The Army also temporarily deploys one armored brigade at a time to the continent. A typical armored brigade has around 90 M-1 tanks and 130 M-2 fighting vehicles plus around 18 M-109 self-propelled howitzers.
Air Forces Europe oversees just three fighter wings. One in the United Kingdom flying F-15Cs and F-15Es and one each with F-16s in Italy and Germany. The three wings combined possess fewer than 200 fighters, none of them stealthy. F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters and bombers including B-2 stealth bombers frequently deploy to Europe on a temporary basis.
The California think-tank RAND in 2016 war-gamed a Russian invasion of the Baltics. In RAND's scenario, the Russian forces quickly overran lightly-armed NATO forces. The Western alliance quickly deploys helicopters and air-mobile troops to confront the Russian advance. But NATO tanks are too slow to arrive.
"What cannot get there in time are the kinds of armored forces required to engage their Russian counterparts on equal terms, delay their advance, expose them to more-frequent and more-effective attacks from air- and land-based fires and subject them to spoiling counterattacks," RAND explained.
“You always want to shoot faster, you always want to shoot more accurately and you always want to shoot longer,” said U.S. Air Force general Tod Wolters, the EUCOM commander. “You want to be able to put more targets at risk across the potential battle space, wherever that battle space may be,” Wolters said.
“With the current posture, we’re probably not as fast or as deep as any commander would prefer, and to be more effective you would like to be able, for example, to deliver fires from all domains,” Wolters said. “Not just from the air, but from the maritime, from [Special Operations Forces], from space, from cyber and certainly from land.”
Wolters said he and his fellow commanders must “ensure that we have fine-tuned the effect that both of us can deliver for a given problem set and a potential battle space location, to make sure that we’ve got the right fire at the right time coming from the right domain.”
Wolters’ predecessor U.S. Army general Mike Scaparrotti previously complained that EUCOM doesn’t have enough warships. In March 2019 he told a Senate committee he wanted two more destroyers to supplement the four that the U.S. Navy already stations in Rota, Spain.
The general said he also wants a "better pace" of carriers and amphibious ships deploying to European waters, according to USNI News reporter John Grady. The extra ships would help deter "an evolving and modernizing Russian fleet," Scaparrotti said.
Wolters said he and other commanders in Europe struggle to coordinate the forces that they do have in order to hit an enemy force fast enough and hard enough to defeat it. “Those are areas … none of us are satisfied with at this time.”