Two American battle tanks were deployed to Bulgaria this weekend by plane from Ramstein Air Base in Germany to take part in a maneuver intended to reassure NATO allies and show the US military’s ability to rapidly deploy equipment across Europe.
The pair of M1A2 Abrams battle tanks will be joined by 15 US Army soldiers from the “Speed and Power” battalion out of Fort Stewart, Georgia and will be the first US tanks to conduct live-fire exercises across the Black Sea from Russia in an exercise next week.
“The point of all this is to show not only our NATO allies the power of the M1A2, but to also show our adversaries that we have the power and coordination to quickly and rapidly move M1A2s to various countries throughout Europe,” 1st Liutenant Frank Wood, who is leading the two-tank formation from 3rd Infantry Division’s 3rd Combined Arms Battalion, 69th Armored Regiment (3-69 armor) told Stars and Stripes newspaper.
It is the first time the US military has airlifted M1A2s within Europe, Stars and Stripes reported. Wood said the US Army hasn’t shipped tanks by air since 2003. The US has also never fired a tank in Bulgaria before, he added.
“Our soldiers understand that they are doing something unique and the importance of the magnitude is not lost on them,” Maj. Matthew Dawson from the 3-69 armor told NBC News.
The US Army Europe’s (USAREUR) “European Activity Set” (EAS) is being expanded, with many pieces of equipment coming from the 3rd Infantry Division. About 120 pieces of their equipment that arrived in Europe in March will be left behind, Stars and Stripes reports.
The US troops from Georgia, in Europe for three months, were in integrated training with Bulgarian soldiers in May in Hohenfels, Germany for the first time before shipping out to Bulgaria.
“They definitely loved our tanks,” Woods said.
The United States has, in the past, refrained from stationing heavy military equipment on states bordering Russia to avoid damaging the positive relationship between the two countries. That relationship, however, has soured since last year.
Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in March 2014 and is believed to back separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine. It accuses the US of overthrowing Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich, favoured by Moscow.
Russia has been the subject of economic sanctions by the US and the EU since the start of the conflict in Ukraine. It vehemently denies any involvement and claims that Russians fighting alongside Ukrainian separatists are “volunteers.”
The United States is in talks to store heavy military equipment in the Baltics and Eastern Europe to deter Russian aggression in Europe, a senior US official said on June 13.
The move, if approved, would be the most serious deployment of heavy military equipment since the Cold War in newer NATO-member states in Eastern Europe -such as Bulgaria-.
The plan seeks to reassure allies made uneasy by Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea in March 2014, although the plans fall short of a permanent presence of “boots on the ground.”
NATO defence ministers are meeting in Brussels on June 24 and 25. The potential deployments to NATO countries close to Russia - Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary - are most likely on the agenda.