Stryker force heads out on its second — and highly visible — road march as Russia puts Poland and Romania in the crosshairs
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
Last spring the U.S. Army’s 3rd Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment did something historic.
Inside their Stryker armored vehicles, the soldiers of 3rd Squadron drove across Eastern Europe in the longest road march American troops have conducted on the continent since World War II. Dragoon Ride, as the Army termed the exercise, was the longest march across Eastern Europe by U.S. troops ever.
The geopolitical context was obvious.
The war in Eastern Ukraine had only just settled into the frozen conflict marked by sporadic clashes that it is now, and which we can now expect to persist for years. European governments, for their part, were freaking out at Russia’s military resurgence and years of declining military spending within NATO.
But for 13 days, 600 American soldiers and 120 vehicles moved freely across more than 1,000 miles of former Warsaw Pact territory. The reaction from locals on the ground was mixed but generally positive, as the soldiers met cheering crowds waving American flags.
In terms of what the military calls “information operations,” Dragoon Ride was a coup — and at low cost compared to sending expensive warships or bombers to flex U.S. military muscle near Russia’s border. And it was highly visible (which was the point), bringing the soldiers into direct contact with locals across the alliance’s eastern periphery.
It was enough of a success that the U.S. Army is doing it again.
Dragoon Ride II formally began on May 27 with two convoys — Task Force Hell and Task Force Saber — heading for the Baltic States over the coming days.
The trip snakes through the Czech Republic, Poland, Latvia and Lithuania and ends in Estonia. There, the soldiers will train with other NATO armies during the Exercise Saber Strike war game, which will last through June 22.
“We emphasize mission readiness with vehicles, personnel and equipment,” Sgt. 1st Class Paul Joseph of the 2nd Cavalry said in an Army news release.
“You always have to be ready to move within 96 hours to get to wherever part of the world. So, this is actually a practical exercise to ensure we are able to move and promote interoperability with our allies and with other nations while moving up to Estonia.”
The timing of Dragon Ride II makes it worth watching. U.S. and Russian aircraft and warships are dodging each other in close encounters. In April, two Russian Su-24 fighter-bombers came crazily close to — and buzzed — the destroyer USS Donald Cook in the Baltic Sea.
On May 12, the United States switched on its SM-3 missile interceptors in Romania, which can intercept short-to-medium range ballistic missiles. More missiles are planned for Poland in 2018. On Friday, Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin warned Romania and Poland that if they “did not know what it means to be in the cross-hairs, then today we will be forced to carry out certain measures to ensure our security.”
The 2nd Cavalry’s Strykers are decidedly low-tech machines — at least when stacked next to an Aegis-integrated SM-3 missile launcher.
The eight-wheeled troop carriers pack machine guns, grenade launchers and anti-tank missiles. A variant known as the MGS has a 105-millimeter gun. They’re also relatively light for armored vehicles, with standard Strykers weighing in around 18 tons. (The tracked M-2 Bradley weighs nearly 28 tons.)
But in the worst-case situation — a full-scale Russian invasion of the Baltic States — it’s unlikely the Strykers could mount much of a defense.
Earlier this year, the influential RAND Corporation wargamed out the scenario and found the Russian army could reach Tallinn or Riga, the capitals of Estonia and Latvia, within 60 hours. Even with advance warning it’s unlikely that anywhere near enough U.S. troops could get there in time.
“Such a rapid defeat would leave NATO with a limited number of options, all bad,” the RAND study warned.
But who says Russia will ever do that? And there’s another complication. If Russia stirred up trouble in the Baltics, it might not choose to do so with conventional means. NATO war planners are arguably more concerned about a more discreet and less obvious “invasion,” marked by well-armed paramilitaries with plausibly-deniable connections to the Kremlin.
In other words, the Ukraine scenario.
The small armies of the Baltic States could have as much trouble dealing with such a foe as the Ukrainians. But there is one important difference — Ukraine is not in NATO and can’t count on hundreds of U.S. troops in armored vehicles a road march away. Add them, and you have a recipe for deterring the Kremlin.
At least, that’s the theory.