On a cold night in early March 2022, I was driving through southeastern Poland with my brigade’s engineer officer. We had just completed a site survey to get showers and tents installed at two different tactical assembly areas (TAAs) and we were driving north, back to our own TAA near the Ukrainian border. We stopped at a local gas station on the way, and as Major Wooten went inside to pay for the fuel, three small SUVs pulled up next to our vehicle. The occupants seemed weary, in a hurry, and distressed. From the passenger seat, I watched as one of them opened the back of the third SUV and saw a small suitcase fall out. The vehicle was overflowing with luggage. After she slammed the tailgate closed and as she moved back toward the driver’s door, she looked at me, in my uniform. For a brief moment, it seemed as if time was stopped for both of us. I saw a small light blue and yellow flag on the vehicles’ license plates and she likely noticed the subdued US flag on my right shoulder—we shared a moment of realization as we each understood why the other was there. The three vehicles left the gas station as quickly as they arrived, continuing their journey west, further from the invasion of their home country that they had just fled.

Several thousand 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers were deployed to Poland in February of last year, amid mounting signs of Russia’s intention to invade Ukraine. We were there “to reassure our NATO allies, deter any potential aggression against NATO’s eastern flank, train with host-nation forces, and contribute to a wide range of contingencies.” Prior to our arrival, it had been over seventy-five years since a paratrooper from the division had set foot on the European continent during a period of such tension. Although their predecessors in the division had jumped into combat or manned their gliders into places such as Sicily, Salerno, Anzio, Normandy, Holland, Belgium, and ultimately Germany, last year’s deployment brought the paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division to a new country to add to its lineage: Poland.

I had the privilege of serving on the brigade staff during this crisis, including a brief period as the brigade S4—the unit’s logistics officer. As a captain with less than a year’s experience, I had my work cut out for me at times. Although challenging, I found motivation and drive seeing young paratroopers in action and knew good staff work would eventually lead to making each paratrooper’s day a little easier. Working on the brigade staff for the planning, deployment, and first few months on the ground, when tensions were extraordinarily high, gave me somewhat of a broad perspective on the deployment. When I assumed company command for the second half of the deployment, which was a challenging transition, I gained an entirely different perspective: I went from planning with division and corps down to the company level, where my paratroopers were now executing those same plans and operations.

The time we spent in Poland is a chapter in the 82nd Airborne Division’s history, and the experience offers lessons not only for future soldiers who will wear the All-American patch but for the entire Army. From my vantage point—first as a staff officer and then as commander of the brigade’s field maintenance company—I had the chance to learn several of these lessons firsthand. Operation European Assure, Deter, and Reinforce was a first in many aspects, and both its successes and failures must be captured. That’s simply how we make our Army better.

Planning, Planning, Planning

Planning, of course, is the necessary first step to successfully executing anything, so it is only appropriate it be discussed first. In the words of General George S. Patton, “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan next week.” My experiences in Europe last year suggest this philosophy remains as true as ever. There are plans officers at every echelon of staff, but it is not their job alone to plan operations. They must gather and receive input from experts in order to create, codify, and bring a successful plan together. Knowledge coupled with experience has the potential to bring some of the greatest operations to fruition. In addition, even at the lowest levels, far below where there are dedicated planners, planning still happens, which I saw firsthand. From the infantry team leader to the division staff, every echelon is planning to own its square and accomplish the mission. It is vital for higher headquarters to give the time necessary for subordinates to plan, and the amount of time given will determine the quality and type of planning done at each of these levels. Not every situation is going to be ideal and you’re never going to have a perfect plan no matter how much time you have available, something General Patton clearly understood in his time. Accepting this is arguably the hardest part of planning and the most important lesson I took away from my time on the brigade staff. Application of this lesson means using your time wisely for planning and building flexibility into your plan so you can adjust to on the ground conditions.

Logistics Matters

Logistics still matters. Army Doctrine describes it as one of four components of the sustainment warfighting function—along with financial management, personnel services, and health service support. The other three components of sustainment are important, but during our time in Poland it was logistics that was the driving factor that allowed us to rapidly deploy and build combat power to succeed in our mission. From the strategic selections, movements, and staging of Army pre-positioned stocks to the fueling and feeding of paratroopers, logistics enabled our readiness should we be called upon to act while in Europe. What seemed most challenging for us was the lack of an established Army supply chain from the supply support activity to the end user. We had to design and stand up the flow of water, food, fuel, and parts to maintain our readiness and support training with our Polish allies. Although bumpy at first, we eventually got into a rhythm of movements that at times utilized aircraft for high-demand items.

To put the challenge we faced in perspective, one infantry battalion deployed with just four tricon containers of equipment—only four containers, each one-third the size of a twenty-foot shipping container, for an entire battalion of over 550 paratroopers. With some analysis, I soon figured out that companies across the brigade had on average a third of their authorized quantity of rolling stock equipment. This made logistics even more critical for the first thirty days since a single truck breaking down could mean possible disaster and essential supplies not delivered. In the end, paratroopers across the brigade went above and beyond to keep things running even with thousands of miles being logged weekly. The success was largely attributable to the brigade’s forward support companies. Even with limited resources available, they made the mission happen every single day. With our limited equipment and the majority of it being from Army pre-positioned stocks, every truck counted when it came to firepower and making the mission happen.

It’s important to note, as well, that forward support companies bring more to the fight than the logistics and other tasks they’re normally associated with. One night while we were in Poland, our brigade commander at the time, Colonel Eugene Ferris, told me he used to call them “fighting support companies.” I had never thought of them in that sense, but he clearly had the utmost respect for the forward support company in his infantry battalion when he was a company commander. They delivered time and again supporting his unit with not only logistics, but firepower when needed.

When it came to life support (billeting, laundry services, etc.), the logistics civil augmentation program, more commonly known as LOGCAP, was where we made our money. For the first three to four weeks paratroopers were on ground, it was difficult with unestablished life support, but after becoming fully operational the life support assets vastly improved the overall quality of life for our paratroopers. Many people are often critical of the Army’s reliance and utilization of the LOGCAP; however, it has become a part of the Army’s doctrine and logisticians have consequently integrated it into their sustainment concepts of support. The LOGCAP coupled with organic capabilities offers a much larger projection of combat power. In our case, time and space to deploy was limited and we knew that life support requirements could be augmented through the LOGCAP assets available in Europe. The Army does have capabilities to meet life support requirements, such as shower and laundry units, but given the constraints we faced, the LOGCAP was able to meet the life support requirements in a timely manner for our deployment to Europe.

On April 28, I took command of the field maintenance company in the brigade support battalion. The company is responsible for pass-back maintenance for the brigade and also has unique capabilities like fabrication, welding, and repair of communications and electronic missile systems. Simply put, forward support companies play man-to-man defense when supporting their respective battalions, whereas the field maintenance company plays zone defense, ready to support any unit that requires assistance across the brigade. This concept is the same in infantry, Stryker, and armored brigade combat teams, although personnel, resources, and equipment available vary between each. When I took command, it was truly impressive to see the company’s paratroopers assist other units and people they had never even met before. In the end, they understood the importance of the zone defense and how as a strong team they could handle any problem thrown their way.

Logistics always has and always will establish—or limit—the momentum for maneuver on the battlefield. This means that logisticians of all ranks must be problem solvers. They must think critically to identify a problem and think creatively to solve it. With a handful of equipment from Army pre-positioned stocks and the single container of tools my company had deployed with, my paratroopers continued to repair and fix anything thrown their way. It was not like a combat training center rotation, where a unit deploys with its equipment and draws the rest before entering the box. As expected, work came our way, much of it challenging, but the team routinely came up with creative solutions. The best example was the repair of three M777 howitzers that were damaged in transport on their way to Ukraine. They arrived with bent lunette rings, but with some tools and a few hours, the paratroopers had all three artillery pieces back on their way east.

The Tyranny of Distance and Challenge of Unfamiliar Environments

The tyranny of distance is real and paratroopers saw it firsthand when Russia crossed the border into Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Many people, including myself, expected that Russia could steam a considerable distance into Ukraine before ever encountering any substantial resistance or difficulties. But whatever Russia’s plan was, it surely didn’t work. Russian forces experienced very little success in the north, and with the exception of the southeastern portion of Ukraine, they were burning through equipment and supplies at an unimaginable rate. Russia’s inability to keep vital supplies moving toward their front lines assured they’d never get to Kyiv even over a few weeks’ time. In mid-March, the world saw this firsthand when global media reported on the massively long military convoy composed of armored vehicles sitting just outside Kyiv. This climactic event highlighted the tyranny of distance the Russians were facing daily, a challenge that would have been equally familiar to armies across history.

The US Army is not immune to this fundamental reality. Almost all American conflicts in history have been fought on foreign soil, but while the concept of the tyranny of distance is not new to us, that is not to say it isn’t painful at times. We have experienced the tyranny of distance, but have evolved our doctrine to aid young leaders and give them a perspective of what they might be walking into when deploying to a foreign country. Russia experienced it well within their first few weeks after crossing into Ukraine. For context, the country of Ukraine is similar to the size of Texas. The monumental challenge of achieving any objective over the entirety of an area of that scale, in the face of resistance from the population, quickly undercut Russia’s military manpower advantage. The tyranny of distance was one of the most insurmountable challenges Russian forces faced before they even started moving into Ukraine.

A related challenge is that of working in an unfamiliar environment. In the Quartermaster Basic Officer Leader Course, we briefly touched on an analytical framework called PMESII-PT, which helps organize information about eight operational variables—political, military, economic, social, information, infrastructure, physical environment, and time. As I deployed in February to Poland, I watched the intelligence personnel in our brigade S2 team utilize the same exact framework. This technique gives context to unfamiliar influences and factors for consideration when operating in a foreign environment. We applied the method to Poland to better understand everything we could about the nation we were going to be deploying to. It gave great context to our understanding of the country—including the Polish people and what their cultural expectations were, which proved especially useful when meeting with Polish military leaders. The variable that stood out to me most as a logistician was infrastructure. I was concerned that our equipment might be so large or heavy that it could cause damage. This led us to plan alternate routes and was a driving consideration for commanders when maneuver planning.

Making Interoperability Work

Much has clearly not gone according to Russia’s plan, but one of the most significant misjudgments was the effect the invasion would have on NATO solidarity. The alliance has been galvanized by a stronger sense of purpose than it has had since the end of the Cold War, with even Sweden and Finland seeking membership after decades of nonalignment.

At the heart of an alliance’s effectiveness is interoperability. This word has sometimes become a buzzword used at briefings and even the subject of memes. NATO defines it as “the ability for Allies to act together coherently, effectively and efficiently to achieve tactical, operational, and strategic objectives.” This sounds about right if you are standing in Brussels and gazing at the flags of NATO nations. Young paratroopers began to ask why senior leaders kept referencing interoperability with just about everything we were doing. When I asked one of my paratroopers what he thought interoperability means, he replied, “It’s being able to fight or accomplish the mission with our teammates even if they speak ‘something else’ or wear a different uniform.” Well said if you ask me. It’s more than just the strategic objectives, but also about the exposure of NATO allies working together. In our case, it was the division working alongside our Polish allies.

Of course, much of interoperability is a function of hardware and other equipment. But it’s also more than that. In early February, while on the brigade staff, I was working to track the marshaling of equipment being flown into Poland on C-17s. Aircraft would land with paratroopers who would then drive off the equipment and move to a staging area. Units then convoyed form the staging area to specific locations to build the brigade’s combat power. One morning, I found myself heading across the street from the division headquarters to the Polish tactical operations center with a major, one of the division planners. There was a meeting and I was filling in for a brigade planner who had not yet made it to Poland. I was there with a general purpose: to see what I could learn from the meeting. The Polish commander greeted us with a large smile and thanked us for coming. I could tell he was truly concerned about the tensions in his eastern neighbor, Ukraine. Ninety minutes later, after we had discussed some specific questions and scheduled another meeting for the following day, he offered us coffee before we left. Little planning was actually accomplished in the meeting, and yet the introductions and next day’s discussion turned out to be a base for our relationship with the Polish military. In the following months, we would conduct numerous training events with the Polish military and have the opportunity to learn about how they fight and train. These relationships are the intangible but essential components at the heart of interoperability.

My last reflection is on the people I had the privilege to meet all along the deployment because they were the one thing that made the difference when it really mattered. The Army states that its number one priority is people and this deployment affirmed to me the significance of that priority. We succeeded and were prepared for the deployment because of our people. Around the end of March, many paratroopers began to lose their sense of purpose, in large part because they realized they would not have the chance to assist with evacuations or conduct other military operations of such apparent significance. As a leader, it was extremely challenging to convey to paratroopers that we had met the expectations set for us. We succeeded even though our mission evolved after arriving. The relationships we built with our Polish allies accomplished a strategic objective and reinforced our commitment to NATO. For me, the deployment also highlighted the type of people we have in our Army. In an event in history as unique as this, I was proud of the paratroopers who were once again at the forefront during a crisis. Most importantly, we learned lessons from the experience—lessons that will improve the Army’s readiness not only to support the ongoing US response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, but also for the next time it is called upon to safeguard American interests abroad.

Daniel (Dan) Kinney is a captain in the US Army currently assigned to 82nd Brigade Support Battalion, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina as a field maintenance company commander. Dan is a logistics officer and has a master’s degree in transportation and logistics management. He has served as a distribution platoon leader, battalion S4 officer-in-charge, and brigade staff officer.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Sgt. Catessa Palone, US Army