Will the Presidential Election Change the US Defence Posture? Gen. Hodges: A Strong European Pillar Needed

LiGen(REt.). Ben Hodges photo by
LiGen(REt.). Ben Hodges photo by

Whether it’s President Trump or President Biden, we are still going to need a strong European pillar because the United States does not have the capacity to do everything - as Lt General (Ret.) Ben Hodges, former US Army Europe Commander told in an interview.

Jakub Palowski, So, let me start with a general question. We're in the middle of another wave of pandemic both in the U.S. and Europe and here in Poland, and it seems it is hurting us more than in the spring. But the pandemic has caused not only health, but also the other – fiscal and political challenges to us on both sides of the Atlantic. Do you think that NATO countries will continue to engage in developing their defensive capabilities, while countering the pandemic and despite its negative economic impact?

Lt General (Ret.) Ben Hodges, former US Army Europe Commander: Yes, I think we have no choice. We have to continue to defend ourselves. I mean, the threats that existed before the pandemic, both from the Kremlin and from the Chinese Communist Party and from Islamic extremism, those threats are still there. And so we still have to make sure that we can protect each other, that we can protect our citizens and our critical infrastructure. And if you look at what our adversaries are doing, the Kremlin has continued with its pattern of exercises, with the threat of Belarus, the illegal occupation of Crimea, killing Ukrainian soldiers in Donbass, supporting the Assad regime in Syria, supporting General Haftar in Libya. And then, of course, today, there are reports about Russian Navy escorting Iranian oil tankers through the eastern Mediterranean to Syria in violation of sanctions.

So, they are continuing to do everything that they already were doing before. Likewise, the Chinese Communist Party continues to build ships for their nation at a significant pace. And a I mean, they're very active here. And in all the other things that they're doing, the language on Taiwan, has not changed. And of course, we saw the effects of Islamic extremism in Paris just a few days ago [The interview had taken place before the 29 October attacks - ed.).

I think Poland, Romania, Lithuania and other countries are setting the right example. And even Sweden, I'm sure you saw Sweden the other day, has announced a significant increase of their defense budget. It is a country that is not in NATO, its non-aligned taking proven steps and they recognize the threat from the Kremlin.

But what about other countries which are not, let's say, directly threatened by the Russian Federation. Are you confident that the decision makers and public will be convinced to continue investing in defense even despite the pandemic?

Of course, I can't speak for every country, but I see enough.

Germany recently announce a significant purchase of a lot of the transportation capability and is preparing upgrade of fighter aircraft fleets. It is also continuing its modernization of Leopard Main Battle Tanks. And nobody has backed away from their NATO commitments in the Enhanced Foreign Presence Battlegroup.

So I feel confident that most everybody recognizes that of course it's going to be expensive, but they still have to meet their obligations to their own people as well as to the alliance. So, yes, I am confident.

Let me move that side to the other side of the Atlantic, because in less than two weeks, we have presidential elections in the United States. How do you think could the election outcome shape the U.S. engagement in NATO or in wider speaking in defense of Europe and in Poland in particular?

Well, you know, the relationship between Poland, the United States is so old and so strong and so deep that I would not see any significant changes if it's a Biden administration or Trump administration. I think that relationship will probably be continued regardless of the election outcome. I do think that if it's a Biden administration, then we'll probably see a more traditional approach to interaction inside NATO and through multinational, multilateral institutions.

If it's a second Trump administration, I mean people know what to expect. So if Biden was elected, then I would imagine some things proposed by the Trump administration might be halted or slowed down, such as withdrawal from Germany, but I don't know that. But regardless whichever candidate is elected, there's going to be a continued expectation of European allies doing their part and a continued and growing emphasis on the Indo-Pacific region.

So whether it's President Trump or President Biden, we are still going to need a strong European pillar because the United States does not have the capacity to do everything.

Referring to what you have said recently, we have seen an article by Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state in the Democratic administration, and she called for reducing of the heavy armed forces, which for the time being are basically the cornerstone of current and also future plant US presence in Europe. Do you think that due to the Covid19 pandemic and the fiscal issues, is there a risk of further cuts in US force structure that would be so substantial that would force US to reduce its presence or its commitments? For example, the continuous presence of brigade, armored brigade combat teams or the Army prepositioned stocks and maintaining them?

Well, I was interested when I saw the article from the former secretary of state who would normally not be talking about armor technology and heavy force. That's not her normal area of expertise. So obviously, somebody is advocating for this and asked her to write about it.

There are two parts to your question.

When it comes to the use of armor or armored formations compared to other types of capabilities, there is always going to be a need for mobile protected firepower. Always. We're always going to need that. Now, whether that's Leopard or Abrams tank that weighs 70 something tons, or maybe it's a combination of fewer tanks with more robotics that don't requires tons of steel to protect crew members or maybe our future armored vehicles that the turret will people out inside of it.

So, again, these are ways to reduce the weight. But I would always be in favor of reducing the weight as long as we can protect crew members or we can do it without humans inside the vehicle.

So that's one part of it. And while I'm not a tank person - I am infantry, but I've always wanted to have mobile protected firepower with me. Now on the other side. I don't think it's not defense cuts that would dictate whether or not we have continuous presence.

It's the Army, the U.S. Army that is so stretched. I mean, we have people nearly everywhere. And we're not, when you consider all the tasks, the Army is not big enough to do everything it has to do, even with the National Guard and Reserve. And so the Army is, I think, understandably concerned about what we called “op-tempo” (operational tempo), that troops are coming and going and being deployed too long.

And so, I can see the possibility of the what we now call heel to toe rotations, where there's always a rotational our brigade in Europe, being changed – not cancelled, but perhaps changed in such a way that there might be a gap between rotations in order to reduce the op -tempo. But I'm not the authority on that. But I think that the Army leadership has to consider the impact of this. Of course, Europe is not the only place where we have soldiers deployed, as you know. But again, I think that there's going to be a continuous presence, but it may not look exactly like it does right now. I just I don't know.

The current administration who has substantially increased defence spending, mainly the base budget of the now we have a pandemic and the fiscal challenges, but there is also a tendency among some of the Democratic administration members or prominent Democratic political for a deep cuts in defense to fund domestic programs in the US. Do you think it may happen? And to what extent could influence the U.S. presence in Europe, in particular in Poland?

Well, of course, as you know, I think the same thing happens in Poland and other democratic nations where competing priorities for defense, health care, infrastructure, environmental issues, education, on and on and on. You know, these are always competing priorities.

And the Department of Defense or defense spending always has to compete with these other things. And, of course, you know, we're trying to grow our Navy. We get the Navy is not big enough to do all is being required of. A nuclear force it's very expensive to modernize. And the Trump administration wants to modernize its nuclear force, and the Air Force, the Space Force, and I imagine that whether it's a Republican administration or a Democratic administration, you're going to see that same competition.

On the other hand, if there is a reduction of US presence anywhere in Europe, I don't think it will be because it's too expensive for the US to pay for it. It will due to some other reason, whether is a political reason or a strategic reason. But I don't think the defense cuts will be the cause, because, I mean, frankly, compared to some of the other things, that is not a huge cost. And I do think there will be expectations that allies help pay for some of these things to reduce the costs.

By the way, Poland has quite recently signed an agreement with US, which includes cost sharing on the Polish side, but also quite of firm commitments on the US presence on the American side. And that agreement is basically concerning, among other things, of course, the continued presence of the Army forces including heavy brigade armored teams. Will the agreement be honored then?

You know, I there are various factors that enter into the equation, but I mean, I believe this was a good faith agreement and it would be honored as such.

That certainly is the expectation, and I believe it's a requirement. I mean, we need to have continuous heel to toe. I would really be against any break-up of that heel to toe rotation. You know, the Army used to have two armored brigades that were permanently stationed in Germany and they were inactivated and sent home. And then right after that, the Russians invaded Ukraine. And now we had to try to recover from that by using rotational forces. So, yes, these things are expensive. But, you know, the Kremlin respects strength.

And if they see that we're weak or not prepared or not willing to do what's required, then I think that's one day they act. So, I believe that the Army, the Department of Defense want to and intend to keep continuous rotational presence, as has been agreed. And at least the creating of these headquarters and the continued rotational deployment of logistics and perhaps even air defense is something that's going to continue for the foreseeable future. That's what I would expect even under a new administration, because I think these are essential for deterrence.

And, of course, Poland and Romania, are the two countries that represent the center of gravity of the NATO deterrence from a combined arms perspective. You know, both Poland and Romania are doing their part to that end. On the top of that, both Poland and Romania continue to improve their own internal infrastructure to help with rapid reinforcement. And I think Poland and Romania are both setting a great example for living up to their own Article 3 obligation, as well as helping with Article 5.

To summarize, you expect the US President to continue, but you see that there are some factors that basically could influence it.

Well, I would just say that there has always been pressure on budgets, there has always been pressure on priorities and, you know, we are not acting alone. And that's why alliance is so important that we have 30 nations together, plus partners like Sweden and Finland and Ukraine and Georgia to help carry the load.

And of course, you know, we can't predict what the Chinese Communist Party is going to do in the Indo-Pacific region. Just like we can't predict what the Kremlin is going to do. We can't predict what Iran is going to do, but we have to be prepared for what they might do. And there's always a pressure to meet and to anticipate and meet all of these requirements. So that's why I'm saying that. As far as I can see, yes. And that's what I would recommend, is that, yes, we can do exactly what it's agreed.

But now, you know, this requires eternal vigilance to protect our fellow citizens.

Let me move a little bit to talk to another point. We have a conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh right now with the very widespread use of UAV's. I would say that widespread to a level not seen before, especially regarding some classes of the UAVs like loitering munitions. What would be, in your opinion, the implications for land forces in the European theater, particularly when it comes to air defense forces?

Well, three things come to mind. Number one, it has made clear the effectiveness of when you have different types of UAVs and weapons that are integrated into your operations and you can connect down to artillery or rockets. The ability to identify targets and then to strike quickly, is I mean, the Turks demonstrated in Syria. We're seeing it in Libya and Yemen. And now, of course, in the latest theater in Nagorno-Karabakh, this is no longer just the US having UAVs. Everybody has them now.

And so, my first the first major implication is that everybody needs to make sure you have this capability because it's a game changer. And to practice to be able to integrate shooters with UAVs, and also use armed UAVs or loitering munitions like we have seen. That's implication number one.

What else is important in your opinion?

So, let me start with implication number two. You can see the lethality and what happens to soldiers who were untrained or undisciplined, who do not do what's needed to protect themselves.

I mean, all the video that I am sure you have seen the same thing is vehicles should not be open or soldiers clustered in groups, as if they think they cannot be seen. And this is horrible to see so many people being killed like this. But the Armenian side does not appear to adapt very well, neither did the Syrians. The implication for land forces of NATO is that we have to continue to improve our ability to avoid detection.

And that's not just from visual detection, it's also the heat signature. And from the signature of your communications networks, our command post have so many different networks out now that give a huge signature, electromagnetic spectrum that can be detected. And so we have to work very hard to continue improving our ability to avoid detection in that very close practice. I mean, you have to train in such a way and we do that at home. And that's an important part of the exercises that we do in Germany. And I believe the Polish forces are doing that as well.

The third thing is, to your point about air defense. Clearly, we have got to develop systems that are kinetic or non-kinetic that can stop UAVs. Obviously we're not going to shoot a Patriot at these things or Aegis missile, you're going to have to have smaller systems. The signature of this UAVs are so small that some of the legacy shoulder fired air defense systems (MANPADS) are not necessarily effective.

So it's a combination of laser, of jamming, something that could break the link between the UAV and its home base or take control of it. As well as, traditional munitions that are going to be used. Both, guns and missiles, but also non-kinetic. And by that I mean not only lasers but also some sort of electronic signal that can jam the UAV or it can intercept it and capture it – electronic warfare.

So, perhaps to summarize, what would be the greatest challenges during and after the pandemic for European NATO forces and also for US forces in Europe?

Well, two things. And the one is our political leaders have to acknowledge that there is a threat. And that's hard because when you acknowledge there's the threat, then you're obligated to do something about it. And so I think too many elected leaders in Western Europe and southern Europe are reluctant or unwilling or don't believe that the Kremlin is a threat and that the Chinese Communist Party is a threat. And so because of that, they therefore don't invest with the same urgency that Poland and Romania and Lithuania do. That's the biggest challenge.

The next big challenge is more an operational thing. But it's the military mobility. It is still too difficult to move around Europe. In order to offer an important part of deterrence is for the Kremlin to look over and see that we can move as fast or faster than they are. So, they don't make a terrible mistake in gambling that they could attack somewhere before we could respond. So everything is required for a military mobility, infrastructure, legal and diplomatic changes, host nations support, cyber protection of infrastructure. All of these things are essential to have the necessary mobility to protect the Europe. We need a military Schengen that would allow us to move quickly in this time before the crisis starts, so that we can prevent the crisis.

Well, I think that the last thing I would add is that, you know, NATO is the most successful alliance in the history of the world. It's not perfect but it remains strong. And, you know, there are always challenges and the US has got to stay involved. I believe that we will stay involved. I don't pay attention to tweets. I pay attention to action. And what I see is a continued increase in US capability in Europe. And so our allies should remain confident in the United States, even as they continue to do to fulfill their own responsibilities exactly the way Poland has.I see, thank you very much.

Thank you for the conversation.