Operation Atlantic Resolve

Operation Atlantic Resolve

A case study in effective communication strategy

By Jesse Granger

When Lt. Gen. Donald Campbell, then commanding general of U.S. Army Europe (USAREUR), finished speaking in Tallinn, Estonia, on April 22, 2014, the reaction of the audience was one that neither he, nor anyone in the room, would likely forget.

The charity dinner brought together a mix of elites from Tallinn and the Estonian military to support the children of those killed or seriously injured while serving the Estonian Defense Forces. Campbell’s attendance was requested by Maj. Gen. Riho Terras, Estonian Defense Forces commander, and Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves ahead of a deployment of U.S. paratroopers to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.

The operation had not been announced publicly, so only a few in the room knew of the ongoing work to implement the troop movement over the next 48 hours. Before Campbell rose to deliver his remarks, President Ilves asked him to tell the audience of the U.S. plans to send troops to Estonia. Campbell complied, departing from his script to reveal that American forces were inbound to train with their Estonian counterparts indefinitely. The audience expressed relief as they stood to applaud the general. Some in the crowd openly wept.

When Russian forces seized control of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in late February 2014, it was a reminder to NATO nations on Russia’s border of the benefits of the military alliance. NATO responded in early March by exercising military air and sea options. The U.S. deployed F-16 fighter aircraft and Air Force personnel to Poland for training exercises, stepped up air policing over the Baltic states, and enhanced maneuvers and joint-exercise participation by a U.S. guided-missile destroyer in the Black Sea. For U.S. Air Force Gen. Phillip Breedlove, commander of U.S. European Command (EUCOM) and NATO’s supreme allied commander, Europe, the first few moves were relatively simple. “The tougher piece is, how do we do the assurance piece on the land?” Breedlove told The Associated Press. “Because these are measures which are more costly [and,] if not done correctly, might appear provocative.” The U.S. would have to proceed cautiously to shore up support for its NATO allies without escalating an exceedingly tense situation.

A few weeks later, roughly 600 U.S. paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade, based in Italy, were en route to Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia as part of what would later be dubbed Operation Atlantic Resolve. According to Breedlove, a company-size contingent of airborne infantry in each of the four countries would hardly be an obstacle against the “force of about 40,000” Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s border at the time. But, that was not the point. Operation Atlantic Resolve’s goal was to achieve a tactical objective and, perhaps more important, a communications objective.

USAREUR’s coupling of tactical and information strategy offers a model for applying communication strategy to future operations. The presence of U.S. boots on the ground was the core tactical condition intended to signal U.S. commitment to NATO’s Article 5 obligations and of itself would have no trouble generating headlines. Lacking proper context, though, the move could have resulted in disaster if it was “erroneously perceived as a precursor to violence, a unilateral U.S. effort, or provocative to the Russians,” according to Col. Rumi Nielson-Green, USAREUR public affairs officer at the time. The success or failure of Operation Atlantic Resolve would hinge on aggressive, timely communications. Specifically, this meant facilitating media coverage, ensuring transparency to the American public and combating misinformation.

The emphasis on communication was clear at the highest level of U.S. and partner governments. When announcing the deployment from the Pentagon, Department of Defense spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby spoke not in terms of military maneuver, but of messaging. Furthermore, news of the deployment broke deliberately ahead of the official announcement. Polish Minister of Defense Tomasz Siemoniak walked into the offices of The Washington Post and revealed part of the U.S. plan following a meeting at the Pentagon.

“One of the most important things we did was acknowledge early on that there was going to be a heavy public affairs component to it and get the capabilities we needed on the ground in the Baltics and Poland,” Lt. Gen. Campbell said.

Operation Atlantic Resolve was an opportunity to demonstrate that the principle of pairing military and information in operational planning could work in practice. Subsequently, the USAREUR command and staff mobilized around maximizing media coverage, enabling public affairs operations to get the message out.

Within 48 hours of the order being issued, USAREUR deployed public affairs personnel to Poland before the first deployed U.S. forces arrived. The team would need every minute to coordinate with host-nation defense officials, U.S. embassy country teams and international media; facilitate coverage of the impending disembarkation events; and arrange senior leader engagements with the media.

“Originally, the plan was for our guys to jump in at night. We had to go back to them and tell them, ‘That’s not going to work. Media can’t cover something they can’t see,’ ” said Maj. Mike Weisman, public affairs officer for the 173rd Airborne Brigade. The plan changed to daytime aircraft landings and ceremonies to create conditions that would maximize opportunities for the media to get imagery that reinforced the message: U.S. and host-nation forces standing shoulder to shoulder.

Consequently, when the 173rd’s Company C, 1st Battalion (Airborne), 503rd Infantry Regiment, streamed out of two C-130 Hercules aircraft at Swidwin Air Base in Poland, cameras were waiting. Photographers with Polish national daily publications and regional television outlets jockeyed for the best shots with international wire photographers such as Agence France-Press, Getty Images and Reuters.

The public affairs teams’ efforts to ensure imagery and information were quickly available to tell the story accurately were right on the mark, according to Sean Gallup, chief photographer of Germany News for Getty Images. Gallup, whose photos were some of the first publicly available from the ceremony in Poland, later shared his perspective of the U.S.-Poland military event. “I would say the visual impression the event created was that the U.S. had sent a serious military unit but was not pursuing a confrontation,” Gallup wrote in an email. What Gallup and the rest of the media saw was exactly the message that the Department of Defense, U.S. EUCOM, USAREUR and the 173rd intended to convey. Despite occasional coverage that described the U.S. action as “escalatory” or “provocative to Moscow,” this was a minority view.

Campbell’s reception at the charity dinner in Tallinn illustrated that the mere arrival of U.S. forces was enough to assure a roomful of Estonian spectators of the U.S. commitment to its allies. The general could not visit every venue in Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, though, nor could a company of airborne infantry. But media reports could.  

A longer version of this article was published in the January-February 2015 issue of Military Review.