We may be ending the era of “forever wars,” as suggested by President Biden in a televised address on April 15, but that does not mean an end to US involvement in foreign wars. Rather, we are entering a new era of military competition with Russia and China that could easily result in short but very intense and destructive conflicts—call them “hypersonic wars.” Indeed, during the very week that Biden announced the impending US pullout from Afghanistan, the Pentagon disclosed that it had rescinded the Trump administration’s plans to reduce US troop levels in Germany and was sending an additional 500 troops there, members of elite high-tech combat units. “This planned increase in US personnel underscores our commitment to Germany and the entire NATO alliance,” said Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on April 13 during a visit to Berlin.
It would be easy to interpret Austin’s move as simply an attempt by the Biden administration to compensate for the damage inflicted by Donald Trump on transatlantic relations during his four years in office. Repeatedly chastising the Germans for failing to devote 2 percent of their GDP to defense—as called for under NATO guidelines—Trump ordered the removal of up to 12,500 US troops from Germany (out of the approximately 35,000 stationed there) and the relocation of the headquarters of the Pentagon’s European Command (EUCOM) from Stuttgart to Brussels. Those troops, Austin indicated on April 13, will now remain in Germany, as will the EUCOM headquarters.
At the very least, then, the Pentagon’s move is intended to demonstrate that Washington is fully committed to NATO and the defense of its European allies. But much more is going on here than that. Austin’s visit to Berlin coincided with a massive buildup of Russian forces along the Russo-Ukrainian border, suggesting a possible Russian move to expand rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine or even to seize an additional slice of that country. According to Russian sources, Moscow mobilized two field armies and three airborne formations on the border with Ukraine. By announcing the deployment of additional US forces to Germany, Austin was signaling that the United States was prepared to counter future Russian aggression. “These forces will strengthen deterrence and defense in Europe,” he declared on April 13. “They will augment our existing abilities to prevent conflict, and, if necessary, fight and win.”
Despite the harsh rhetoric on both sides, few analysts believe that the current tensions will result in major military action—at least for now. Russian President Vladimir Putin knows that any overt military moves against Ukraine will likely result in cancellation of the Nord Stream II gas pipeline to Germany and other punitive measures, further debilitating the Russian economy and eroding his popularity with the urban middle classes, while NATO lacks both the capacity and the will to fight a war over Ukraine (which, despite its aspirations, has not been admitted to the alliance). Both sides, however, recognize that a future clash in Europe is possible, and so are training and equipping their forces for an all-out engagement.
As Austin indicated, moreover, the 500 additional troops being sent to Germany are not just ordinary GIs, meant to bolster frontline formations, but rather highly trained specialists intended for “multi-domain operations” involving cyber and space combat as well as “long-range fires” employing hypersonic missiles. Any future conflict with Russia, the Pentagon is suggesting, will be fought according to new rules, in which speed of action, information dominance, and a concentration of long-range precision strikes will determine the outcome of battle.
To fully appreciate the significance of this shift, we need to know more about those 500 specialists being sent to Europe and the sort of high-tech warfare they are being trained to fight. According to Pentagon sources cited by military sites such as Military Times and Breaking Defense, the additional troops will be assigned to two new units being created to experiment with new tactics and technologies: the Multi-Domain Task Force-Europe (MDTF-E) and the Army’s first Theater Fires Command.
The MDTF-E will be designed to collect intelligence information from multiple sensors and deliver this data at machine speed to long-range artillery and missile batteries. All of this entails the use of advanced technology, especially artificial intelligence (AI), to sort through incoming data and select targets for long-range missile batteries. These will come under the purview of a “strategic fires” battalion, designed to launch several types of advanced missiles, including the Precision Strike Missile (PrSM), the Mid-Range Capability (MRC) missile, and the Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRWH).
All three of these new weapons are intended to fly at ranges greater than 500 kilometers—a distance prohibited under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty of 1987, from which the United States withdrew at Trump’s insistence in 2019. Once equipped with such missiles, US forces will be able to strike high-value targets—air bases, radar stations, command centers, and so on—deep within Russian territory, threatening Russia’s ability to sustain a major conventional conflict with NATO and so increasing the risk of early nuclear weapons use. (It was precisely this danger that led to the signing of the INF Treaty in the first place.)
PrSM, the most combat-ready of the three systems, is a surface-to-surface guided missile being built by Raytheon that is said to be capable of flying up to 500 kilometers but is widely believed to fly well beyond that range. The MRC system is explicitly intended to operate in INF-prohibited ranges and will use a modified version of the Navy’s Tomahawk missile or its SM-2 missile (both also made by Raytheon). Lastly, the more advanced LRHW will combine a booster rocket and a reentry vehicle capable of flying at hypersonic speeds (more than five times the speed of sound); its intended range is also classified, but will surely surpass 500 kilometers.
These are highly sophisticated weapons, requiring access to vast amounts of sensor data and advanced processors to select and engage optimal targets. As the Army sees things, this will require the deployment of specialized combat units with substantial training in AI and other advanced technologies. This, in fact, is the unique mission of that other specialized unit being deployed to Germany under Austin’s recent order, the Theater Fires Command. Working with the MDTF-E, it will collect targeting information from multiple sources and use it to initiate attacks by PrSM, MRC, and LRHW missile batteries.
The deployment of these units—and eventually of the missiles they are intended to oversee—will have a profound impact on the future combat environment in Europe. Whereas, at present, any military clash (whether intentional or not) would be followed by a gradual increase in the tempo of battle—allowing for crisis talks and de-escalation—future encounters will erupt almost immediately, with intense US air and missile attacks on key enemy assets, aimed at quickly degrading Russia’s fighting ability. The Russians, to the extent they are capable of doing so, will attempt to defend against such attacks and mount similar operations of their own. Any such engagements are likely to result in a rapid victory by one side or another—or, for the losing side, an early decision to employ battlefield nuclear weapons and ignite a nuclear holocaust.
Seen from this perspective, the Pentagon’s decision to deploy the MDTF-E and Theater Fires Command to Europe could prove as significant over the long term as the administration’s decision to wind down the war in Afghanistan. Yet, while many pundits and politicians are weighing in on the pros and cons of the latter move, very little is being said about the former. If we are to avoid a new era of nuclear brinkmanship, however, we must not be so complacent. With the Pentagon’s new strategies and weaponry rapidly closing the “firebreak” between conventional and nuclear warfare, it is essential that we examine these initiatives closely and raise objections where appropriate.