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The US Army's Top General Points a Spear at Russia

On the eve of his retirement, the US Army's top general told VICE News that the military knows Russia is "getting ready for something." Now the US and its allies must decide how best to prevent it.
August 21, 2015, 6:18pm
Photo by Evan Vucci/AP

"We know the Russians are getting ready for something. We just don't know where."

General Raymond Odierno, then the top general in the US Army, said this to me a week before he retired on August 14. We were at a military exercise in the Mojave Desert, and Odierno was watching through a night-vision scope as Special Operations soldiers from the 75th Ranger Regiment touched down in tilt-rotor Ospreys and seized and cleared a runway several hundred feet away. This was Operation Dragon Spear, the last major military exercise Odierno observed before his retirement.

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The scenario in the exercise centered on the trials and tribulations of America's put-upon allies, the Atropians, and their jerkwad neighbors to the north, the Donovians. In Atropia, pro-Donovian forces known as the Bilasuvar National Freedom Movement, along with their armed wing, the Bilasuvar Freedom Brigade, were in cahoots with the CASTRO criminal-terrorist network, and were up to all manner of naughty stuff. This was especially bad news, what with Atropia's valuable reserves of the nerve-gas antidote Atropine.

Just to be clear — and to avoid shouts of "No blood for Atropine!" — the military made up all of that for the exercise. But it wasn't mere playtime; there are some very important reasons why hundreds of US soldiers jumped out of perfectly good airplanes in complete darkness to defend a fictional country from a non-existent enemy.

And it all has to do with Odierno's extremely unusual comment.

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Six or seven hours before paratroopers were scheduled to jump, Odierno and General Joseph Votel, commander of US Special Operations Command, gave a short briefing to the assembled press, explaining some of the reasons behind Operation Dragon Spear. Planning for the exercise — it was intended in part to demonstrate the close working relationship and integration between Special Forces and conventional soldiers — began about a year ago, Odierno said.

About a year ago was also when the conflict in Ukraine started to rapidly widen. Surface-to-air missiles were being deployed in earnest by the separatists as direct Russian involvement ratcheted up. The US State Department issued a release condemning Russian involvement and escalation on July 14, 2014, the same day a Ukrainian military transport was shot down; three days later, Malaysian Airlines flight 17 was shot down, killing everyone on board; on Sunday, July 27, the US State Department released satellite photos showing Russian artillery firing from Russian soil into Ukrainian territory. This was a pretty good sign that the Kremlin wasn't content to leave the fighting in Ukraine as a completely "independent" — wink, wink — insurrection, and had ticked over into a straight-up military invasion.

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Related: Can the US Army Still Fight as a Heavyweight?

It was, as Western military planners were beginning to take note, a hybrid war — an "all of the above" way of fighting that encompasses everything from street-level criminal activity, to insurgency, to Special Forces operations, to advanced multi-million dollar conventional weapons systems. It includes both good ol' fashioned propaganda and bleeding-edge cyber attacks.

Thus, it's reasonable to surmise that Odierno and Votel sat down over some brewskis — or whatever it is that four-star generals have whilst deciding the fate of the world — and agreed the US should conduct an exercise showing that the military could both fight back against another country's heavyweight military and face down a hybrid threat. Successfully doing so would deter Russia, reassure NATO allies, and prove that the US Army could actually operate in this Brave New World. It would also knock some rust off of the military after more than a decade of focusing on fighting insurgents. Thus, Operation Dragon Spear was born.

This is not to say that Dragon Spear was modeled on a US intervention in Ukraine. It was, however, almost certainly modeled directly on a hypothetical intervention in the Caucasus. Judging by Army materials VICE News reviewed, Dragon Spear was adapted from an earlier exercise initially planned in response to events in the Republic of Georgia in 2008, when the country was being partially annexed and quasi-invaded by Russia.

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The conflict in Ukraine six years later was in many ways a live-fire Georgian War Re-enactment. Then, as now, Moscow was breaking off a couple chunks of a former Soviet Republic, carving out frozen states — countries established on territory occupied during a conflict and not granted full legitimacy by the international community — like South Ossetia in Georgia or the Donbas People's Republic in Ukraine.

It's not news that Dragon Spear was intended, in large part, to send a direct deterrent signal to Russia and reassure NATO that the US is prepared to respond should Russia try to expand its Georgian War Re-enactment into a traveling road show, with possible stops in other former Soviet states — like NATO members Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia.

All of this basically syncs up with conversations VICE News had with a variety of officers at Dragon Spear. The US is capable of fighting as a heavyweight, but after more than a decade of preoccupation with counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army had let its conventional war-fighting capabilities atrophy a bit. Thus, it needed to reboot and refresh its capability to fight high-intensity conflicts against peer and near-peer opponents. The officers with whom we spoke generally said that this did, in fact, specifically mean Russia.

And China. And Iran. And North Korea.

"There are a multitude of scenarios around the world where there are neighbors in conflict with one another, and one neighbor is stronger than the other, and that stronger neighbor [is] fomenting an insurgency," Colonel Joe Ryan, commander of the 2nd brigade of the 82nd airborne, told VICE News. "So we replicate that scenario in everything from the capability that an enemy might have — capabilities that that enemy either has intrinsically or that the enemy might gain in direct combat with that neighbor — that we might have to fight against. Think about [the Islamic State] in Iraq and the Syria area. Think about a North Korea/South Korea potential scenario…. Ukraine's another great example. A near peer threat that is fomenting an insurgency, in a nation that is, perhaps, on better terms with the United States, where we're clearly in support of one outcome there, which is the deterrence of aggression by the near peer threat."

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The officers clearly didn't want any potential adversaries feeling like the US Army was exempting them from the list of Countries Who'd Better Not Get Any Bright Ideas — but the officers also spoke about how Dragon Spear was very distinctly geared toward training against a hybrid threat like the ones seen in Georgia and Ukraine.

This also tracks pretty closely with what Odierno said in his final press conference last week.

"In the last 18 months, we have really started to train for what we call hybrid warfare, which [is] actually the warfare I consider Russia is, in fact, conducting," he said. "We are in the process of increasing our capabilities to do this."

Odierno also explained that the military is shifting from more than a decade of counterinsurgency operations, and needs to revisit its broader skill set.

"We're not where we need to be," he said. "I think I've said we've got about 33 percent of our brigades right now who can… operate at that level. And we need to — my goal is we should have about 60 percent."

* * *

Public demonstrations and exercises almost always refer to fictional countries, even when the fiction is pretty clearly just a fig leaf. America's Cold War training exercises usually called the opponent forces the "Red" team, rather than Soviets. Meanwhile, the association of specific planning documents with specific countries is usually classified, even if it's an open secret. Everyone knows OPPLAN 5027 is about war on the Korean peninsula, but the fact that it's a plan for fighting North Korea is still technically considered a secret.

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Although exercises aremessaging tools, the Department of Defense is not the State Department; it can't just go out and conduct independent foreign policy. So when asking what country is supposed to take the hint, or who the hypothetical adversary is supposed to represent, you're almost always going to get answers like the ones that most officers were giving: the Army is inclusive in its saber-rattling, and they fervently hope that nobody is left feeling undeterred by the show of force.

Odierno wrapped up his career in the military less than a week ago, so it's reasonable to think that he was open to stepping outside of regular protocol to mention a few concerns, particularly if he thought they are of critical national importance. Odierno is considered and thoughtful when he speaks, so if he sought to raise awareness, he probably attempted to do so without setting off alarms that would spark partisan debate. That's probably a smart move given the way that some of the reporters at his final press conference jumped on specific remarks, trying to tie them to pre-existing political sideshows.

Thus, as Operation Dragon Spear unfolded, it became increasingly apparent that the traditional target of Army deterrence — "everyone" — wasn't the target audience for this exercise. More to the point, per Odierno's remark, the exercise was very specifically intended to deter Russia, because somewhere deep in the bowels of the Pentagon, someone is getting concerned that Russian President Vladimir Putin might be up to no good. And nobody — especially nobody senior — ever violates bureaucratic etiquette and calls out a specific country for conventional deterrence.

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Bearing this in mind, I reviewed some of Odierno's earlier remarks, as well as those made in the week and a half between Dragon Spear and his last day in the Army.

During the exercise, Odierno mentioned that part of the exercise was intended to show some leadership to Europe, a point highlighted by the recent start of huge airborne assault drills in Europe involving the US and its NATO allies. He noted that the US sometimes has to get out in front of NATO in order to get other members to move. Thus, even though there were no foreign participants in Operation Dragon Spear, part of the audience for the exercise was European military leaders. The Army wanted to convey the idea that NATO needs to step up its game to fight a hybrid war, which is an essential task if NATO is going to deter Putin from pulling any fast moves.

Recent polling suggests that people in more than a few NATO member states needed to be reminded of their obligations: A Pew poll released in early June showed that in three of eight NATO countries surveyed — France, Germany, and Italy — a majority of people were in favor of sitting out a war with Russia if the Russians attacked another NATO country. In only two NATO member countries — the US and Canada — did more than half the respondents say that they thought their country should meet its longstanding obligations to militarily defend a NATO ally if it comes under attack.

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People in almost all the countries surveyed appeared pretty certain that the US would come to the aid of any NATO ally under attack. In other words, there are a hell of a lot of people in Europe who have no interest in defending an allied nation attacked by Russia, but pretty much everyone in Europe is happy to let the US do the fighting and dying for them.

Beyond the remarkable cynicism of such a stance, that outlook delivers a terrible blow to the goal of deterrence. However, it does mesh nicely with something Odierno said in his final press conference when asked about whether he was concerned that Russia might try to gnaw off a chunk of a NATO member.

"Russia is constantly assessing the reaction of NATO to any of their actions," Odierno said. "And based on how — what I worry about is miscalculation — that they perceive that, maybe that NATO… might not be as concerned, and they make a mistake and miscalculate, and do something that would violate Article V of our NATO agreement. So, that's something that greatly concerns me."

In other words, Odierno is concerned that Putin might convince himself that the US would simply roll over if Russia got grabby with a NATO ally.

You may be wondering why "Don't mess with NATO" isn't conventional wisdom, and why Odierno would be so concerned with relaying that message. In an article in the Daily Beast, entitled "Pentagon Fears It's Not Ready for a War With Putin," the former commander of the US Army in Europe, retired Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, said:

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We were beating the drum of Russia in 2010, and we were told [by Washington officials], 'You are still in the Cold War.' All the things we predicted would happen, happened, but it wasn't at the forefront of the time…. This gets to a lack of trust between the government and the military. We were monitoring Russian movement and they were increasing not only their budget but their pace of operation and their development of new equipment. They were repeatedly aggressive and provocative even though we were trying to work with them.

If the Army expressed concern over what happened in Georgia in 2008, but were then told to hush, it would explain why it had a Georgia-like scenario in Operation Dragon Spear sitting on the shelf.

To be fair, this is a lot to read into a handful of remarks by military bigwigs. Who knows, maybe Odierno is just a Cold War relic trolling the international community. Regardless, it's exceedingly likely that from Moscow's point of view, Dragon Spear is pointed directly at them.

* * *

Unfortunately, sending a message to Russia could backfire. Some argue that the mere conduct of exercises serves to make conflict more likely rather than serving as an effective deterrent. But that's been a standard knock on military exercises for ages.

The more interesting idea is that Putin truly sees himself not as the strategic aggressor, but rather as the victim. A recent article in the Daily Beast quotes Russian political analyst and former Kremlin adviser Stanislav Belkovsky as saying, "Putin is ready to fight with NATO, as he seriously believes that the US wants to occupy Russia."

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From that viewpoint, Operation Dragon Spear could be the rehearsal for a US invasion, using a manufactured threat to an allied country as a pretext, much in the same way that the Germans staged an "invasion" of Germany by the Polish army as a pretext for invading Poland in 1939.

And so the attempt to deter Russia may be a real-life example of what political science nerds call a "security dilemma," in which the actions of one state to make itself more secure can end up making other states uneasy, which in turn prompts them to do stuff to bolster their own security, thus creating a sort of feedback cycle of escalation.

But is it better to fail at deterrence (as ended up happening in Georgia and Ukraine) than to risk escalating tensions?

Taking all the various omens, portents, and signs together, I would guess that shortly before the public demonstration of Operation Dragon Spear kicked off, the Russians did something that was interpreted by US intelligence as being very similar to something they did in advance of the incursions into Georgia, Ukraine, or both. This grabbed the attention of senior Pentagon leadership and of Odierno, who found themselves with a happy coincidence and golden opportunity, in Dragon Spear, to send a warning to Putin about getting too gutsy.

Related: The Russians Are Coming: NATO's Frontier

But before anyone starts digging fallout shelters, let's have a reality check: There is almost certainly no real-deal intel about, say, Russian tanks massing on the Lithuanian border. If it were something that imminent, President Barack Obama would be ringing the alarm bell loud enough to wake the dead. And even if Obama didn't, the Lithuanians sure as hell would.

"The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war." That quote is variously attributed to many people, countries, and eras. But if a specific piece of deterrence works in preventing conflict, it's almost impossible to know if it, in particular, worked. All one can do is hope that by sweating in the Mojave Desert while defending Atropians from the intrusive fiddling of their Donovian neighbors, the US Army won't have to shed blood defending a real place from a real threat.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan