July 15, 2022:
After more than a decade of efforts by Poland and other new NATO members in eastern Europe, the United States has agreed to move its U.S. Army 5th Corps (aka as Fifth or V Corps) headquarters to Poland and build support facilities, including storage for prepositioned military equipment that enable U.S. combat brigades to fly in their personnel and use the prepositioned equipment to be combat ready within 24 hours. The 5th Corps headquarters will assume many of the functions it performed for decades in Germany during the Cold War. In 1950 the U.S. reactivated 7th Corps to assist in command-and-control of American forces in Germany or ready to move to Germany if there was a major war. That never happened and the Cold War abruptly ended in 1991 when the Soviet Union dissolved. During the 1990s American forces in Europe were reduced and 7th Corps was deactivated in 1992, with any remaining responsibilities transferred to 5th Corps. After September 11, 2001 the 5th Corps left Europe and served in Iraq and Afghanistan as a combat zone headquarters. In 2012 5th Corps was deactivated with its responsibilities in Afghanistan, like those in Germany, assumed by higher headquarters. In 2020 5th Corps headquarters was reactivated but kept in the United States with forward elements stationed in Germany to handle the smaller number of combat units the U.S. was assigning to NATO control. In 2022 the entire 5th Corps operation was moved to Germany temporarily while a new base was built in Poland, where 5th Corps would gradually move to Poland over the next year as facilities were ready.
The new NATO members in eastern Europe have spent years resolving administrative problems that would otherwise make it impractical to put a major NATO headquarters in Poland.
When NATO expanded eastwards a unique set of logistical problems were encountered. These new problems were not fully appreciated until 2015 when the United States decided to send military units by road (and railroad) to the easternmost new NATO members. NATO gained a lot of new members in East Europe between 1999 (when Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined) and 2004 (when Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia joined). Unlike the original members of NATO, who were all in West Europe or on the Mediterranean (Greece and Turkey), many of the new members could not be reached quickly by sea or air transports carrying reinforcements because of their proximity to Russian naval and air forces. Moreover, during the Cold War most of the combat forces needed to confront the major threat (Russian invasion of West Europe, mainly West Germany) were already in place, as were weapons and equipment (but not personnel) for additional American REFORGER combat divisions. Regular “REFORGER” exercises tested the ability of the troops to be flown in and take possession of their prepositioned equipment. Some of the eastern NATO members asked the United States and NATO to establish bases or token forces in the most vulnerable (to Russian attack) new members. Some of that was done but for the most exposed new members NATO established a rapid reaction force of 30,000 troops and the first of those to be sent east, by land, was a Spearhead Force with 5,000 troops plus hundreds of vehicles (including armor and artillery). When this was first tried in 2015 it was a disaster because NATO forces had never had to move a ground force, in peacetime across so many national borders. The biggest obstacle turned out to be the red tape. It took three years of strenuous efforts to fix it.
While the armed forces available to NATO far outnumber those of Russia, there is a major impediment to assembling and moving those forces by road to the aid of NATO nations bordering Russia. That enemy is the ancient bureaucracies that control the movement of foreign troops crossing borders, even those forces coming to your aid. This was demonstrated in early 2015 when a U.S. Army mechanized battalion made a very well publicized road march from Poland, Lithuania and Estonia back to its base in Germany. The American battalion required hundreds of hours of effort to complete the paperwork and get the permissions required to cross so many borders in military vehicles.
The pile of paperwork and weeks required to handle it were used as very concrete evidence to persuade the East European nations to streamline the process, or have themselves to blame if reinforcements did not arrive in a timely fashion. As usual a compromise was worked out and by 2016 six NFIUs (NATO Force Integration Units) were organized, each consisting of 40 troops trained and equipped to handle the paperwork and traffic control measures required to get military convoys across eastern borders as quickly as possible to specific countries (Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania). The NFIU work out of embassies and stay in constant touch with the border control bureaucracies of the East European nations involved. NFIUs also arrange for rest areas and resupply for the convoys.
NFIUs also ensure that the routes used have roads and bridges that can handle the heavy trucks and armored vehicles involved. This is a crucial matter in East Europe. Since the 1950s West European nations have constantly upgraded and maintained roads and bridges to handle heavy vehicles, but East Europe had not, at least until the 1990s, and the deferred upgrades, after 35 years of communist misrule, are still underway. The dozens of Russian divisions stationed in East Europe until 1990 were brought in piecemeal over decades, often transporting heavy equipment by ship or rail. Moreover, NATO heavy equipment is heavier than their Russian counterparts so even East European bridges built to handle Russian tanks often cannot deal with heavier M1s and Leopards.
The NFIUs maintain a new database on 15,000 kilometers of East European roads and hundreds of bridges. Available cross-country routes have also been mapped and put into the database. Because of such road and bridge restrictions, the original 2015 test force used 20-ton Stryker wheeled armored vehicles and not the heavier 63 ton M-1 tanks and 27 ton M-2 infantry fighting vehicles that usually accompany Strykers.
The 2015 test was called Operation Dragoon Ride and it rolled through Central Europe to send a message to Russians. From March 20th to April 1st, a U.S. Army squadron returning from Atlantic Resolve NATO exercises took an unusual route back to its base in Germany, after spending three months in training facilities in Poland, Lithuania and Estonia. The unit involved was the 3rd Squadron (battalion) of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry Regiment. This unit refers to itself as dragoons (an ancient term for horse-mounted infantry) and the apparent reason for Dragoon Ride was to demonstrate to the locals as well as the Russians that American armored units could reach the East European NATO nations by road, as well as by ship, aircraft or rail. Dragoon Ride purposely rode close to the Russian border, often in full view of Russians and Russian media. The American troops frequently stopped in towns and villages so the locals could meet their allies, take pictures and quietly enjoy the pain this demonstration was causing the increasingly aggressive Russians. What Dragoon Ride was really about was to test the feasibility of using this route for the much larger Spearhead Force and their heavier vehicles.
While that test aspect was not publicized, the Russian government knew full well what Dragoon Ride was really all about and that this road movement took the efforts of hundreds of unseen troops and bureaucrats to deal with the paperwork. For all of 2015, it required nearly 6,000 travel documents to be prepared, filed and approved to get foreign military vehicles across East European borders. Some of these documents take several weeks to get approved, operations like Dragoon Ride required hundreds of them, and nearly as many NATO local government personnel were involved with this paperwork as were actually participating (500 troops) in the actual Dragoon Ride (of 120 vehicles). While all these rules and approvals would not stop invading Russians they would, in theory, slow down reinforcements from the West. The Russians also know that even with NFIUs the movement of these troops is a slow and frustrating process and are ready to take advantage of it. NATO continued to battle the bureaucracies to speed up the flow of reinforcements. It took the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine to motivate all East European NATO members to make quick access by NATO ground forces a priority.