by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
Between 1907 and 1909, 16 U.S. Navy battleships and their escorts—nicknamed the Great White Fleet because of their stunning white hulls—traversed the globe showing off American military might to friends and foes alike.
Now a great green fleet has taken to the roads in Eastern Europe to deliver another strong message to American allies … and Russia.
Earlier in March, soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 3rd Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment finished up months of practice sessions in Eastern Europe and began preparing for a huge road trip. The troopers will travel more than 1,000 miles across six countries, making their way back to their base in Germany.
The soldiers set out on March 22. The trip should take 11 days.
It’s highly visible — and that’s the point.
“This is the first time NATO has demonstrated the ability to move troops freely across its eastern boundary,” a public affairs official at the U.S. Army headquarters in Europe told War Is Boring via email. “[The] Dragoon Ride is an exercise within Operation Atlantic Resolve.”
The exercise’s moniker refers to the brigade-sized 2nd Cavalry Regiment, which is also known as Second Dragoons. Before becoming a synonym for a cavalry soldier, a “dragoon” referred to an infantry soldier who knew how to ride a horse.
The squadron uses troop-carrying Stryker armored vehicles. Unlike horses, these eight-wheeled armored vehicles carry machine guns, grenade launchers, anti-tank missiles or a large 105-millimeter gun.
After Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimea region a year ago, Washington rushed warplanes and troops to nearby NATO countries and dramatically stepped up military maneuvers on the continent. Atlantic Resolve is the Pentagon’s nickname for these war games.
“In a matter of weeks, all 28 NATO allies stepped up to respond,” former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said at a press conference at the NATO headquarters in Belgium on Feb. 5. “The alliance and its members conducted 200 European exercises last year”
When the crisis in Ukraine exploded in the summer of 2014, the Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, as well as Poland, feared that the conflict could easily spread into their territory.
With significant ethnic Russian populations inside their borders, officials in Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius were especially worried the Kremlin could engineer an armed uprising.
As part of the Pentagon’s response, the squadron’s three “troops” — Iron, Killer and Lighting—deployed to Eastern Europe. The squadron is now making its way back to its base in Germany. The three groups will meet up in the Czech Republic for the final leg of the trip.
So on the face of it, the Dragoon Ride is primarily just another training exercise. The journey gives the Stryker groups a chance to test their skills, work with foreign troops and coordinate with local authorities across a wide area.
For instance, American military police are guarding the routes and directing the convoys. UH-60 Black Hawk and CH-47 Chinook helicopters are delivering supplies to the squadron in the field.
As the Strykers roll through the European countryside, A-10 Warthogs and AH-64 Apache gunships cover the soldiers from the sky. “Dragoon Ride is a training event for everyone involved,” the U.S. Army Europe official noted.
However, “community engagements” along the way might actually be more important. American troops are effectively parading around and showing off right in front of Moscow—and that’s sort of the big picture.
Every stop “is an opportunity for … soldiers to interact with local residents alongside their allied counterparts,” the public affairs officer explained. “At some community events, kids have even had the opportunity to ride along with the soldiers in the Stryker vehicles.”
As with the Great White Fleet’s port calls, the Dragoon Ride’s stops have taken on the open-house atmosphere of a family-friendly traveling carnival.
Pictures of smiling children on top of Strykers and Humvees — and American soldiers waving Baltic flags — are already cropping up across the Pentagon’s social media streams.
“The personal interaction that takes place is an important part of the NATO assurance measures and the events are a great cultural experience for the soldiers participating,” the U.S. Army Europe officer added.
All in all, this seems to be a case of “information operations” done right. The Pentagon uses these tools — previously known as psychological operations — to influence friends or deter potential enemies.
Still, while the imagery so far shows mostly jubilant gatherings, official posts on Twitter and Facebook have faced accusations of an American invasion, talk of protests and other more subtle complaints. The Pentagon is responding directly to those detractors.
“Note to those who want to spam our page — you won’t stop us from serving and supporting our NATO friends and allies!” U.S. European Command responded on its Facebook page.
This statement would seem to imply a foreign power — like Russia — might be goading the commenters into action. For nearly a year, there’s been a flood of propaganda coming from Russia about the conflict in Ukraine.
Of course, there doesn’t appear to be anything concrete to suggest that Moscow is directly responsible for any of the anti-American sentiment. During the past year, NATO and European Union members have also been divided over how to respond to the Kremlin’s rhetoric and Kiev’s troubles.
Regardless, the Dragoon Ride has become a demonstration of Washington’s military strength and its ability to be on call when its friends are in need, like the Great White Fleet. The convoy is likewise reminiscent of U.S. Army soldiers driving through East Germany to Berlin in a show of force to the Soviet Union in 1961.
Besides claiming that American military maneuvers are destabilizing the situation, there’s little the Kremlin can really do to spoil the party.
To show its frustration with Washington’s policies, Moscow has had to rely on inflammatory rhetoric and tit-for-tat exercises.
In February, Russian paratroopers showed off their skills near the Estonian border while NATO troops took part in an independence day parade in Narva. The town is an ethnic Russian enclave that sits on the river of the same name, which forms a natural boundary between the two countries.
And while the Dragoon Ride was just getting started, Russia’s ambassador to Denmark took the opportunity to warn the small Scandinavian nation against joining NATO’s ballistic missile defense shield.
“If this happens, Danish warships become targets for Russian nuclear missiles,” ambassador Mikhail Vanin wrote in an op-ed published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. Copenhagen’s top diplomat Martin Lidegaard quickly condemned the remarks.
Then on March 24, with the great green fleet on the move, two Russian Tu-22 Backfire bombers and a pair of Su-27 fighter jets streaked through the sky over the Baltic Sea.
One of the nuclear-capable Backfires was flying at supersonic speed, according to journalist David Cenciotti’s blog The Aviationist.
But none of this is likely to dampen the spirits of the Dragoons or curb local curiosity as the convoys travel from town to town. Additional American troops—along with more M-1 Abrams tanks—have also arrived to train with Baltic and Polish forces.
Maybe when Russia holds its annual May 9 Victory Day celebrations to mark the Soviet victory during World War II, Washington might see a more pointed response to the Dragoon Ride.