Obama to Reinforce Europe With More Troops, Tanks and Artillery
New budget quadruples funding for the European Reassurance Initiative
After a week of escalating tensions, Russian tanks and paratroopers, backed by artillery, helicopter gunships and fixed-wing warplanes, flood across the Estonian and Latvian borders. Despite NATO’s best efforts, Russian forces encircle the capitals of both countries in less than three days.
Thankfully this is not reality … at least not yet. It’s the result of a war game researchers at the RAND Corporation cooked up as a wake-up call to leaders in Washington and at the Pentagon. “For more than 40 years, NATO’s member states made enormous investments to deter a potential Soviet attack on Western Europe,” the analysts wrote. “Today, the West confronts a Russia that has violently disrupted the post-Cold War European security order.”
Worried about Russia replicating its invasion of Crimea elsewhere — or starting another proxy war like in Donbass — the United States has spent the past year scrambling to shore up the alliance’s defenses. In 2014, Pres. Barack Obama kicked off the European Reassurance Initiative, or ERI, to conduct military exercises and pre-position tanks and other equipment on the continent.
In the Pentagon’s budget request for the 2017 fiscal year, the U.S. military wants $3.4 billion more to keep this program going. This is more than four times the amount the Pentagon asked for in the previous budget. The money would pay for American troops and sailors to visit and train with NATO members and others, including Ukraine.
In addition, the funds would help stockpile extra gear in Eastern Europe — near a possible future front line.
Above — a U.S. Air Force commando and his Polish counterpart watch an A-10 fly past during a training exercise. Air Force photo. At top — U.S. Army Stryker armored vehicles drive through the Baltic States in 2015. Army photo
Millions of dollars would go into upgrading existing air bases and other facilities. Most importantly, the Pentagon plans to up the number of American forces in Europe at any one time — including a full armored brigade of 3,000 to 5,000 soldiers with tanks and other heavy vehicles.
All told, the project envisages more than 5,000 Americans working in and around Washington’s European allies. This is on top of the more than 70,000 troops the Pentagon already has in the region. The plan “is a reflection of the United States’ strong and balanced approach to Russia in the wake of its aggression in Eastern Europe and elsewhere,” U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, the chief of the Pentagon’s top headquarters in Europe and NATO’s supreme allied commander, said in a press statement on Feb. 8.
Strong and balanced or not, this is a far cry from the massive exercises at the height of the Cold War. In 1988, 125,000 Americans descended on Germany alone as part of an annual war game known as Return of Forces to Germany. But the ERI is still a dramatic change after more than a decade of Pentagon draw downs and cuts in Europe.
“It’s not going to look like it did back in Cold War days, but it will constitute in today’s terms a strong deterrent,” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told reporters as he traveled to Brussels for NATO meetings on Feb. 9.
For a time after the Cold War ended in 1991, it looked as if Europe was headed for an entirely new era without the threat of armed conflict. But Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin took his country in an entirely different direction.
A “revanchist Russia” is “employing a form of warfare that combines conventional, irregular, and asymmetric means — including the persistent manipulation of political and ideological conflicts — to foster instability,” Breedlove wrote in an official strategy document which was publicly released in January. Breedlove said deterring Russian aggression was his number one priority.
If Congress decides to fund it, the expanded ERI would be at the core of this policy. With the third U.S. Army brigade, the Pentagon says it would be able to maintain a constant presence in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, plus “periodic” deployments to Bulgaria and Romania.
And for the second time in as many years, the ground combat branch will show off its ability to rush an entire brigade of paratroopers to the continent — something RAND did not give the “blue” players in its Baltic war game — as part of what looks set to become an annual event. The U.S. Marine Corps will keep working out of bases near the Black Sea, as well.
The U.S. Navy destroyer USS Ross, at top, sails with the Ukrainian navy frigate Hetman Sahaydachniy in the Black Sea in 2015. Navy photo
American commandos would get $25 million to step up training with their Central and Eastern European counterparts. The training would specifically focus on internal defense, surveillance and border security. These plans were no doubt influenced at least in part by the fact that Moscow secretly snuck their own elite troops into Crimea before outright seizing control of the territory.
Off the coasts, the Pentagon would work with NATO members and other countries like Sweden and Finland to practice chasing Russian submarines. In October 2014, Swedish ships combed the Stockholm Archipelago for “foreign underwater activity,” highlighting the continued threat of Moscow’s undersea fleet. The Navy has no intention of stopping annual training exercises in the Black Sea either.
The Air Force will keep 20 F-15C fighter jets on station in the United Kingdom. With money separate from the ERI, the flying branch will continue to send other planes to the region — like deadly A-10 ground attackers, stealthy F-22 fighter jets and iconic B-52 bombers.
Since the Ukraine crisis started, Russian planes have aggressively intercepted NATO planes and skirted the alliances boundaries. In April 2015, a Russian Su-27 Flanker nearly collided with an American RC-135U spy plane over the Baltic Sea. In January, a similar incident again involving an Su-27 and an RC-135U occurred over the Black Sea.
And the Pentagon wants to survey the Baltic region and Eastern Europe for radio frequency issues that could conflict with drone signals. In August 2015, the Texas Air National Guard sent a pair of MQ-1 Predators to Latvia to help keep watch over the country’s borders.
All of these activities would require new or expanded facilities. The Air Force alone would get more than $63 million for new hangers, fuel storage, aircraft parking spots and other buildings at five separate air bases in Estonia, Bulgaria, Romania and Poland. Another $21 million would go to building hangers to shield Navy P-8 sub hunters from the elements during deployments to Keflavik Air Base in Iceland.
On top of that, the Pentagon wants to stash more tanks, vehicles and other gear in warehouses across Europe. More than a third of the ERI’s total budget is allotted to expanding these stockpiles and making sure existing supplies are in working order.
All told, the Army wants to have the equipment required for an armored brigade, an artillery brigade and a support brigade, plus a division headquarters to oversee those units. With everything in place, the Pentagon could just fly in the more than 10,000 troops needed to staff these units during a crisis.
The ground combat branch already has a battalion’s worth of tanks and other supplies positioned and ready to go on short notice in Grafenwoehr, Germany. The new stores will be closer to the new potential front lines in the Baltic States and elsewhere. In the fall of 2014, the Marine Corps had announced similar plans to update its own storehouses, which are hidden inside caves in Norway.
“It’s a substantial addition, necessary one relative to last year,” Carter added. “It moves from a reassurance phase to a more robust deterrence phase, and that’s where the alliance is going to be going in general.”
It still remains to be seen whether this will be enough to ward off Moscow’s ambitions. With the Russian economy shrinking and the price of oil falling, “foreign aggression becomes his only tool to pacify domestic protest,” Russian opposition leader, author and former chess champion Garry Kasparov told Reuters’ opinion editor Jason Fields in an interview originally recorded for the show The Exchange.
That is not to say that Putin is running a superpower equal to the United States or is promoting an overarching ideology like his Soviet predecessors. However, Russia is adept at using the few strengths it does have to challenge the world order.
“Russia today is a pale shadow economically, militarily and even politically … of the Soviet Union,” Kasparov said. But since Moscow still controls a vast and deadly nuclear arsenal and important natural resources, “he can defy the free world, he can defy the United States.”
So, despite sanctions and Western condemnation, Putin doesn’t have to give Crimea back to Ukraine, or move away from backing separatists in the Donbass. In August 2015, the Kremlin rushed jets and troops to save embattled Syrian Pres. Bashar Al Assad and his regime to a largely muted American response. The next month, a delicate spy swap between Russia and Estonia went largely unnoticed.
But with billions of dollars backing an American surge into Europe, the Pentagon is at least hoping it’ll be enough to keep Putin from launching any more invasions.