“I am reluctant to say it will be continuous or persistent because there are no troops living in barracks here, but just about every month you got American soldiers that are here, participating in some sort of exercise,” the general heading US Forces Europe told BNS in a brief interview after visiting the country’s troops in Lithuania.
Around 30 US troops currently participate in the Iron Wolf II exercise in the Švenčionys district, eastern Lithuania. After the drills, they will go back to their deployment site in Poland that currently hosts a US brigade of approximately 4,000 troops. Another 1,000 troops, mainly Americans, serve in the international NATO battalion stationed in Poland earlier in 2017.
In the Baltic states, companies of US troops have been rotated since 2014 in response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. In Lithuania, the US troops lived in Rukla, a small town in the Jonava district, central Lithuania, that currently accommodates a German-led international Allied battalion.
Hodges, 59, is visiting Lithuania as the chief of the US Forces Europe for the last time. He will retire in December to become analyst at the US-based Center for European Policy Analysis.
In his words, NATO will have to continue working to ensure interaction of troops, as many military units of the Alliance are international. Hodges said development of an anti-missile defense shield was among the priority tasks.
BNS: Recently you said to journalists that there were more than 40,000 troops participating in exercise Zapad 2017. Can you tell me more about this exercise, its manner, scenario and capacity?
Hodges: Here is what I have learned from Zapad, from watching it. Number one, there were many more people in the exercise than what the Russian Federation claimed (nearly 13,000). A lot more. There is no point to give a specific number because every day the number would have been a little bit different. But the point is that the Russians could have done a lot more to be transparent and reduce anxiety instead of claiming a certain number, when everybody knew there was more. To me that was the point. They could have lower the anxiety just by being more transparent.
BNS: Speaking about the scenario of this exercise, what was it about?
Hodges: What you saw was a series of activities that would include offensive actions, defensive actions, special operations. They had their annual strategic nuclear exercises right after Zapad. It was like working on the different parts. (…) In Luga area, for example, their focus was on long-range artillery, rockets and unmanned aerial systems. Then you had river crossing, then you had long movements. So the different pieces were happening all over Western Military District and Belarus at the same time.
BNS: We had some US soldiers stationed in Lithuania during the Zapad, a company of US soldiers right now are participating in an exercise here. But what will happen in the future, since the brigade in Poland is already established and the EFP battle groups are fully operational in Baltics and Poland, as well? Can we expect the persistent presence of US soldiers in Lithuania and other Baltic states?
Hodges: There are always US special forces soldiers in Lithuania, just like they are in Latvia and Estonia. (…) I am reluctant to say it will be continuous or persistent because there are no troops living in barracks here but just about every month you got American soldiers that are here, participating in some sort of exercise. I am always open to adjusting that if there is a requirement for it but they are practicing movement all the time, they are exercising all over Eastern European Atlantic Resolve area.
It is one of the reasons we are so interested in the improvements here in Pabradė to be able to do even more sophisticated, larger live fire exercises. It is a great example of Lithuanian host nation support, which makes it attractive for us.
BNS: I wanted to ask you since your retirement is coming up pretty soon and you have been serving in your current positions for around three years.
Hodges: In November it will be three years, yes.
BNS: Have the US, NATO and local authorities been successful removing these strategic gaps between Baltic states and Russia? I mean the Suwalki gap, so called an Anti-Access/Area Denial capabilities in Kaliningrad.
Hodges: I would say there is three or four aspects in this. First of all, everybody in the West knows Suwalki gap now. I mean it is a name that is recognizable, which means that people appreciate, why it is important. So that is a positive thing.
Everybody in the Alliance and in the EU (…) recognizes the need for cross-border military mobility, the need to move quickly. The Britons just did a big exercise, where they moved across Germany and Poland with vehicles. Everyone is working on this know. So that is a real progress, in my view – recognition of the need to be able to move quickly, to be able to move faster than Russian Federation forces to prevent the crisis.
The third thing is that the unity of the Alliance is as solid as I have never seen. You have soldiers from Spain, Italy, Croatia, France – they are part of EFP in the Baltic countries. So it is not just Germans and Americans and Britons in Baltics. The fact that Canada is back in the continent – that is significant.
Of course there are plenty of things we still have to work on – interoperability, communications systems, for example. Missile defense is at the top of the list for things that all of us are interested in. But when I look back at year where we are now it feels that we are moving in the right direction. So I am very optimistic.
BNS: Many experts say that relations between NATO and Russia will remain this tense at least in a close future. What do you think of them in a military way, what is the future warfare?
Hodges: What Russia does is they use the full range of capabilities, from economic, information, electronic, cyber, but also large exercises. It is not inevitable that we will have a conflict with Russia, nobody wants that. I want to emphasize again that the door is wide open for the Russian Federation, there are so many places where we should be cooperating, where we need to cooperate and work on real issues, but they only respect strength. As long as the Alliance sticks together and do what you see outside here (more than 2,000 troops are participating in Iron Wolf II exercise in the training area outside Pabradė) and continue to do that, then I think they would act rationally.
But if we look like we are not prepared, that we are not willing to do whatever it takes to defend each other then I think that raises the risk. And so what you will feel is the constant sort of pressure with them using everything that they have to try to disrupt the Alliance, to undermine the Alliance, to undermine elections. I think that is the norm that we should all be accustomed to.
BNS: Do you mind if we announce the day of your retirement?
Hodges: Yes, December 15.
BNS: Thank you for the interview.