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US testing new rapid-deployment strategy in Europe

BERLIN (AP) — More than 300 U.S. soldiers arrived Thursday in Germany from their base in Texas in the first test of a new American strategy to rapidly deploy U.S.-based troops to Europe to bolster the NATO deterrent against possible Russian aggression.

The soldiers, from the 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Armored Division, based in Fort Bliss, were part of a group of 1,500 to arrive this week in Berlin via charter aircraft, and are on their way to Poland for maneuvers with local forces.

They were only given orders to move out about a week ago. The Abrams tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles and other equipment they will be using are being brought in from a pre-positioned location in the Netherlands.

The soldiers were welcomed at Berlin's Tegel airport by U.S. Ambassador Richard Grenell, U.S. Major General John L. Gronski and Major General Carsten Breuer from the German Military Bundeswehr. "The purpose is really all about readiness, building readiness, and also inter-operability with our NATO allies such as Germany and Poland, two very essential allies in the NATO alliance," said Gronski, who is a deputy commanding general for the U.S. Army National Guard.

The 1st Armored Division was based in southern Germany for decades during the Cold War and was the last American division to return back to the U.S. in 2011 as Washington decided to focus on smaller, lighter units meant to be able to react more nimbly to modern threats. Today there are some 34,000 American military personnel stationed in Germany, down from a Cold War high of more than 250,000.

Among the soldiers who arrived Thursday was Staff Sergeant Matthew Scarbrough from Amarillo, Texas. "I was stationed here for five years, so this is kind of like my second home, I love it here," Scarbrough told The Associated Press, adding that however, "the weather is way different from where I am from."

Following the Russian annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014, the U.S. has again been increasing military activity in Europe concert with NATO allies. That includes stationing four multinational battalion-size battlegroups in four eastern nations of the alliance, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, led respectively by Britain, Canada, Germany and the U.S.

In addition, as part of a U.S. proposed "readiness initiative," the alliance is working on plans to be able to deploy 30 battalions, 30 air squadrons and 30 battleships within 30 days as reinforcements in case of conflict. NATO has also announced it is setting up two new military commands — one in Norfolk, Virginia, the other in Ulm, Germany — to better move troops and equipment across the Atlantic and around Europe in times of crisis.

Part of the plan to deploy troops quickly involves having tanks and other vehicles, as well as ammunition and other supplies, pre-positioned in Europe to cut down on any logistical preparations. "Our ability to rapidly surge combat-ready forces into and across the theater is critical in projecting forces at a moment's notice to support the NATO alliance," U.S. Army Europe said in a statement.

Once in Poland, the 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team will conduct live-fire maneuvers over the coming weeks with Polish troops in the Drawsko Pomorskie Training Area in the country's northwest. "I'm excited to be back here. Four years ago as the battalion commander ... I was in a different battalion and we trained in Eastern Europe, actually part of our unit was in Poland," said Colonel Chad Chalfont.

Following the exercises, the U.S. troops will return home and their equipment will be returned to Eygelshoven, Netherlands.

Dorothee Thiesing contributed reporting.

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