President Obama holds a meeting with the NATO secretary general (not seen) on March 26 in Brussels. (Saul Loeb / Getty Images)
The US military’s gradual, 20-year drawdown in Europe looks to be abruptly ending as the Russian invasion of Crimea casts a spotlight on US European Command and fuels calls for reshaping the military mission there after decades of post-Cold War calm.
President Obama met with NATO leaders in Brussels on Wednesday and sought to reassure the 28 allied countries in Europe of US military support in the event of further Russian aggression.
“We have to make sure that we have put together very real contingency plans for every one of these members, including those who came in out of Central and Eastern Europe,” Obama said at a news conference in Brussels on Wednesday.
Two weeks after its ground invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, the Russian military shows no signs of leaving. Tens of thousands of ground troops are in Ukraine’s eastern border region, implicitly threatening further incursions into that former Soviet republic.
The top US military commander in Europe, Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, is launching a review of current plans for his command’s infrastructure, which has been shrinking for years. And he has been thinking tactically about how renewed tensions with Russia could affect military operations for US and NATO troops.
“What does that mean for NATO in the future? How do we change our deployment? How do we change our readiness? How do we change our force structure such that we can be ready in the future?” Breedlove said at a defense forum in Brussels on Sunday.
Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said there are no immediate plans to change US force posture in Europe “from a permanent basing perspective or permanent manpower perspective”
However, he said, “We’re certainly looking at other opportunities in Europe ... to reassure our allies and partners and they may be on a more rotational basis than a permanent basis.”
Some modest changes are already underway. Immediately following the Russian ground invasion, EUCOM moved 12 Air Force F-16 fighters, along with 200 US support personnel, to Lask Air Base in Poland. Officials say that move is temporary but have provided no end date.
EUCOM also moved six more F-16s to support the “air policing mission” in the Baltic region, which includes three former Soviet states that are now NATO partner counties.
But within the command today, broader military options are limited. About 67,000 US troops are in Europe, a fraction of the massive Cold War-era force of more than 350,000 personnel.
Many experts say a renewed focus on EUCOM should prompt the Pentagon to slow or halt the Army’s plans for a continued drawdown there. And on Capitol Hill, calls are emerging for a new commitment to the command.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel should be directed to “increase and enhance alert posture and readiness of US forces in Europe without delay,” House Armed Services Committee chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., wrote in a letter to the White House.
That should include “maintaining forward-deployed US quick reaction forces,” McKeon said.
McKeon’s letter sounded an alarming note by arguing that the US and NATO should be ready for an “Article V response,” a reference to the NATO treaty’s clause that commits each member state to consider an armed attack against one to be tantamount to an armed attack against all.
Article V has been invoked only once since World War II, in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks, which led to the 13-year-old war in Afghanistan.
The White House has signaled firmly that the US will not go to war with Russia over Ukraine, which is not a NATO member and has millions of Russian speakers and centuries-old ties to Moscow.
But military experts say further changes are in store for EUCOM as recent events appear to bookend the post-Cold War era of confidence in European peace and stability.
“I would put a couple of cavalry squadrons in Poland,” said Tom Donnelly, a defense expert with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “In the grand strategic sense, Poland is the most important.”
Enhanced intelligence and reconnaissance assets also are needed in the Baltic region and EUCOM commanders could set up temporary US troop rotations in southeastern Europe, specifically Bulgaria and Romania, Donnelly said.
Plans to put a military footprint in southeastern Europe were widely discussed in the 1990s but faded as US focus shifted away from the continent.
The Navy could do more exercises along the Black Sea coast with Bulgaria and Romania without a major investment in infrastructure, Donnelly said. US Navy assets in the Black Sea could closely monitor Russian troop movements and threaten missile strikes more than 1,000 miles into Russian territory.
For US troops, another impact will likely be a renewed commitment to participating in joint NATO training exercises. That has not been at the top of the Pentagon’s priority list in recent years as the wars in the Middle East have drained manpower and the so-called strategic “pivot” toward the Asia-Pacific region has drawn attention away from Europe.
For example, in November, NATO held a large-scale military exercise in northeastern Europe, implicitly training to respond to hypothetical Russian aggression, but the US military sent only 200 troops to the exercise.
Critics said EUCOM failed to show a strong commitment to NATO at a time when the U.S military footprint in Europe is shrinking.
“There were a lot of complaints of ‘Wait, where was the US in all this?’” said Mark Jacobson, a defense expert with the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a think tank focused on trans-Atlantic cooperation.
“We need to give greater priority to US participation in NATO exercises,” Jacobson said.
Just weeks before the crisis in Ukraine ignited, Hagel signaled that the Pentagon would continue to shrink US infrastructure in Europe, in part because it would save money and does not require the same congressional approval as the closure of domestic military bases.
If Washington decides to instead ratchet up readiness in EUCOM, that would put pressure on Congress to authorize closure of some bases inside the US, a politically difficult move that inevitably affects the local economies in some individual lawmakers’ districts.
“If you want to start talking about the need to adjust base structures in Europe, then it may mean that we should be closing some [domestic] bases to pay for those bases in Europe,” Jacobson said.
Meanwhile, new questions may arise about the role of EUCOM troops. For years, the command has been a force provider more than a theater of operations. EUCOM-based units often deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and EUCOM provides forces when needed for US Africa Command, which essentially has no operational forces of its own.
Breedlove will arrive in Washington in early April for previously scheduled testimony on Capitol Hill about the annual budget process.
Typically, the EUCOM commander’s testimony is an unremarkable event, but this year, the four-star Air Force general will face more pointed questions about whether he has enough troops and military assets to counter Russian threats and reassure NATO allies.
If tensions with Russia continue to rise, and defense of the NATO alliance becomes a more urgent mission, the EUCOM commander’s role may fundamentally change.
“Breedlove might need to start acting more like war fighter than a supporting command,” Jacobson said.