On the frontline with US Army tanks in Latvia

I recently travelled to Estonia and Latvia to see firsthand how NATO and the US is boosting its forces in the region in support of its Baltic allies. The region is currently going through an unprecedented build up of military forces, not seen since the Cold War.

The reason? A fear that an increasingly aggressive Russia could launch a conventional, or even hybrid, attack on the Baltics mirroring its actions in Ukraine.

We have a detailed analysis of the build up over at Shephard that can be read here.

While in Latvia, I visited the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team (ABCT), which is the first unit to be deployed to Europe as part of a continuous US armoured brigade presence in the region.

The US military likes to call this ‘heel-to-toe’ rotations, which means that once 3ABCT is done later this year, another unit will follow on straight after to maintain that deterrence role.

In Latvia, I got a chance to see one of the most potent units in 3ABCT, the 1st Battalion, 68th Armored Regiment (1-68th ‘Silver Lions’), which operates armoured Humvees, Bradley IFVs, and the M1A2 Abrams Main Battle Tank.

Weighing nearly 70t and bristling with advanced technology, including a 120mm main gun, the Abrams is the most deadly weapon in the US Army’s arsenal.

Its presence, along with other armoured vehicles, in the Baltics is to act as a deterrent against any outside threat.

I arrived in Adazi in the morning, it is just a short drive away from Latvia’s capital, Riga. I joined several local Latvian journalists and TV crews and we were transported out to a training area to view section-level live firing with Humvees, Bradley IFVs and, finally, Abrams tanks going through the range.

The Humvees, equipped with long-range sighting systems, and Bradleys would go through first to scout ahead for the Abrams.

As the country lacks an armoured capability, the exercise did not involve Latvian troops, though Colonel Gunars Kaulins (pictured above) of the Latvian Joint Forces Headquarters was there to observe the exercise – the area is, afterall, run and managed by the Latvian military.

The firing range is one of the only areas in Latvia where the army can fire high calibre and in-direct fire weaponry.

Once the Bradleys and Humvees had carried out their mission, it was time for the Abrams to roll forward. As this was a section-level exercise, two tanks would manoeuvre into firing positions and fire their main gun.

Lt Col Stephen Capehart, commander of the 1-68th, told me during the exercise that once his troops had qualified at squad-level, then the Battalion would move up to more complex exercises at platoon and then company level.

The brigade has been preparing for the European deployment throughout 2016, which included ‘home-station’ training at Fort Carson, Colorado, and a brigade-level exercise last July. The brigade then went through a deployment-validating rotation at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California.

Much of the training focus has been on combating a so-called ‘near-peer’ adversary, which is military speak for an army that will likely be well-equipped and well-disciplined.

Training for a potential near-peer conflicts marks a significant shift for the US military, which for several years has been training its troops to fight against insurgencies with roadside bombs and other rudimentary weapons.

That shift is particularly important in Europe where the most significant threat is, right now at least, Russia. It has modernised its armed forces and according to both Estonian and Latvian officials I spoke to, represents a clear and present threat to Eastern Europe.

The deployment of US and NATO forces, including 3ABCT and the presence of Abrams tanks, has made a difference and will likely make Russia think twice before launching an attack in the future.

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