U.S. Army Corps: Assuring NATO Preparedness

The Alliance’s Challenges

When NATO Commander and U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove addressed a group of foreign policy experts at the Atlantic Council on September 15th, he reassured the audience that despite significant challenges, the NATO Alliance is dedicated through its “shared values” to keeping Europe and NATO “whole and committed to collective security.”  He surmised that Europe could not be whole, stable and at peace without the cooperation of Russia, a country he characterized as having “broken world morals.”

Discussing the outcomes of the NATO Summit in Wales earlier this month, Gen. Breedlove focused on the essential elements of success for the NATO Readiness Action Plan and the important role it will play in the stability of eastern Europe moving forward. His plan calls for a three tiered approach: the existing NATO Response Force must be more responsive and agile; a NATO “forward presence” force must be established, and if rotational forces are used to man it, they must execute rotations of sufficient length to ensure force continuity and stability; and finally, NATO requires an operational level (i.e. Corps) headquarters that can focus on the collective defense aspects of NATO’s mission under Article 5, which Gen. Breedlove contends does not exist at the operational level.

A Sad Twist Of Irony

It is a sad twist of irony that the headquarters best suited to fulfill the NATO operational headquarters requirement, the U.S. Army’s V Corps, was deactivated last June. The U.S. Army Corps is, by design, manned, equipped and trained to function as an operational or Joint Task Force headquarters. For recent successes in setting up such multi-national command elements, one need only look to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Joint Command (IJC) in Kabul, Afghanistan. It has successfully served as the operational headquarters for ISAF for nearly five years, bringing the capability, versatility and unity of command resident in a U.S. Army Corps.

The deactivation of V Corps is symptomatic of broader fiscal realities within the U.S. Department of Defense that are requiring significant reductions to service force structure across the board.  Nowhere are these force structure reductions more prominent than within the U.S. Army. As the Army recedes from nearly 575,000 during the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts to an active end strength of 490,000 by the end of fiscal year 2015, it finds itself with only three remaining Corps Headquarters (I, III and XVIII). With I Corps firmly committed to the rebalance in the Pacific and XVIII Corps serving as the Army’s expeditionary and contingency headquarters, this leaves only one U.S. Corps uncommitted within the Army.  Even now, XVIII Corps is deployed to Afghanistan as the IJC headquarters as III Corps recovers and refits from its deployment last year. 

Rotate In The Army Corps

The U.S. Army, in conjunction with European Command, needs to consider rotating a Corps headquarters to Europe. As U.S. force structure retrogrades to the continental U.S. and the Army draws down, Corps headquarters cannot afford to be tied to one region or selected contingency plans. Today’s Corps must be expeditionary, agile, capable and able to rapidly build into multinational combined joint task forces. It would be the height of hubris to suggest that U.S. Army Corps are superior to those of our allied partners, but as many European nations have suffered a slower economic recovery than the United States, they are contracting their military capacities, not expanding them. With no European NATO nations meeting their promised level of spending on defense, the U.S. still provides the most effective military command and control capability to the alliance.

NATO’s civilian and military leaders have high hurdles to overcome to realize the NATO Commander’s concept. With the U.S. focused squarely on ISIS, a new commitment to the Ebola epidemic in western Africa and an ongoing commitment to the war in Afghanistan, bandwidth is narrow. But all are in agreement, accelerating NATO’s military preparedness is essential to addressing the threat of Russian opportunism. An Army Corps headquarters in Europe is the best way to ensure that preparedness.