M2A3 Bradley Fighting Vehicles road march back to their tactical assemble area after a situational training exercise lane as a part of Combined Resolve VI at Hohenfels, Germany May 16, 2016.

M2A3 Bradley Fighting Vehicles road march back to their tactical assemble area after a situational training exercise lane as a part of Combined Resolve VI at Hohenfels, Germany May 16, 2016. Ralph Zwilling via U.S. Army

Russia Has 100K Troops On the Move. Here's Why NATO Can't Do the Same

From mismatched rail lines to red tape, a host of obstacles show why NATO needs its own version of Russia's upcoming Zapad 2017 exercise.

Richard Barrons knows how to move large amounts of military equipment around continental Europe. When he served in Germany as a young British officer in the 1980s, NATO forces worked steadily to hone the skills of theater-wide deployment.

“There were major reinforcement exercises to bring troops from the UK and the U.S. across the continent to the West German border with East Germany,” recalls Barrons , the British Army general who led the UK’s Joint Forces Command before stepping down last year. “We trundled down West German autobahns at 15 kilometers an hour in a vast convoy of armored vehicles. And we had to keep within four hours of our bases to maintain a high level of readiness, which was also regularly exercised without warning.” Such pains were as necessary as they were onerous, he said. “Moving large forces requires a great deal of skill and can only be learned and tested by actually doing it.”

And should the many militaries of a multinational force fail to properly coordinate the transport of troops, arms, and gear from farflung locations over civilian roads and railways, the battle can be lost before it has started.

An exercise involving exactly such large geographical maneuvers is currently getting underway in Russia. Under the name Zapad (“West”), an estimated 100,000 troops will spend the third week of September practicing to defend their western frontier. NATO’s Baltic members worry that the exercises are a rehearsal for invasion, and whether that’s right or not, the alliance is long past due to restart Zapad-type exercises of its own.

For the past couple of decades, NATO has focused on out-of-area missions while giving short shrift to the defense of Europe. The United States has been closing bases in Germany; France withdrew its last forces in 2014, and Britain will do so within the next several years. The alliance’s newest members have not been required to update their infrastructure to support a theater-wide war effort.

To be sure, NATO has a rapid-reaction force that could quickly come to the aid of one of its members, but the alliance would struggle to mobilize and move the larger forces required to repel any serious attack. For the past couple of years, Gen. Ben Hodges, the commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, has visited European capitals with slides that show the alliance’s logistical gaps. One shows the 1987 edition of NATO’s Reforger exercise, in which 115,000 troops from six militaries (and their equipment) travelled up to 600 kilometers by road, rail, or air to reach their mock battlefronts. Another slide shows how the alliance's multinational defense-of-Europe exercises have dwindled to a fraction of their former size.

Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea was a wakeup call of sorts. Last year, NATO held its largest exercise since the Cold War, gathering some 30,000 troops from 24 countries to Poland for ten days of war games . Yet a broad NATO mobilization would face many obstacles. Some member states still require many days before providing diplomatic clearance – essentially, entry permission – to NATO troops. Several countries have railheads that don’t support the heavy equipment used by the U.S. and other allies, and some countries’ roads don’t support that equipment. Baltic railroads even use a different rail gauge than their NATO allies. More fundamentally, there’s no plan to deal with any of this.

“Today there’s no consensus among the 28 [NATO members] about what the plan should be for the defense of the alliance,” said Barrons. “There is no NATO general deployment plan, so in the heat of the moment you’d have to figure one out as you needed to get moving. Without planning and regular training at scale, we’d end up with massive traffic jams. By contrast, the Russians do practice, and they do so as a single entity.”

The alliance, then, needs its own Zapad. “In light of the volatility of current relations with Russia, the magnitude of Russian forces, and the geographic advantages those forces have in proximity to potential points of conflict compared to the alliance’s main fighting forces, it’s high time for NATO to start testing its readiness for large-scale, rapidly breaking contingencies,” said Ian Brzezinski, a deputy assistant secretary of defense under George W. Bush. “That was a main purpose of the Reforger exercises during the Cold War. Today we need similar exercises but ones that also test, refine, exercise and demonstrate the ability of European allies to rapidly deploy to the alliance’s Eastern front.”

Given that Russia never stopped holding its Soviet-era Zapad exercises, a similar NATO effort could hardly be portrayed as escalation. What’s more, it would allow the Western alliance to address the gaps that have chewed away at its territorial defense capabilities over the past couple of decades. “Even before the capabilities are all in hand, NATO needs to wargame the reinforcement challenge in a scenario of an escalating large-scale, multi-domain conflict with Russia with multiple fronts, for example the Baltics and the Black Sea,” says Alexander Vershbow, who was until last year NATO’s Deputy Secretary-General. “While a lot of this can be done through simulations and CPXs, both the forces and the political authorities in NATO capitals need to be stress-tested as well.”

Planned major exercises would also be an impetus for member states to improve their roads, railheads, and diplomatic clearance procedures. Equally importantly, they would have to make sure their armed forces were capable of exercises involving divisions rather than platoons. Exercises do, of course, involve expense. But with all NATO’s member states having committed to raise their defense spending to 2 percent of GDP, exercises defending the continent seem a sensible way to spend some of that money.

Large exercises are about more than logistics; they are about credibility. It’s long past time to repair the logistical and organizational foundations that support NATO’s cornerstone promise to come to any member’s defense. Even if the U.S. is unlikely grow its European military force back to Cold War strengths, it should push for NATO Zapads.