WASHINGTON -- National Guard Bureau Chief Gen. Frank Grass said he is looking into how the National Guard's role in Europe might grow as tensions between Russia and Eastern Europe heat up.

Discussions are ongoing about how some European Reassurance Initiative dollars could fund Guard activities in Europe, Grass said Thursday at the National Commission on the Future of the Army's open meeting in Arlington, Virginia.

Grass noted that most of the funding available to the Guard is "very episodic," particularly Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) fund money, and the ERI funding is one possible way for the Guard to plan to mobilize forces in advance to do missions in Europe.

The European Reassurance Initiative Fund is backed by up to $1 billion and was put in place to ensure European allies, who feel threatened by Russia. The money pays for training and military exercises, as well as for positioning US forces in the region under Operation Atlantic Resolve.

National Guard assistance in Europe is something Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the commander of US Army Europe (USAREUR), would welcome.

Earlier this month at the Association of the US Army's annual meeting in Washington, the USAREUR chief said that capabilities are stretched "paper thin," and the Army has to make 30,000 troops feel like 300,000, which means it has to be "creative."

Hodges specifically said that, if the Atlantic Resolve effort was redesignated as a named operation, the National Guard and the Army Reserve could be called into help, "but we haven't been able to get there yet." He warned that, without help from the reserves and rotational forces, the current tempo in Europe could not be sustained.

Grass said Hodges has come to talk to him and the adjutants general, and that the Guard has spent some time looking into how "we can bring our state partners together" to bolster efforts in Europe.

Early on, when Crimea first fell under Russian control, the Guard had a number of requests from Eastern European countries — particularly Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland — to come over and assist, Grass noted.

For example, Grass said, the Guard took some Strykers out of Pennsylvania, put them on a West Virginia aircraft within a few weeks and transported them to Europe for an exercise. Grass added that the Guard could do this on a larger scale in the future.

Now that the Army is looking into adding more equipment packages — or activity sets — to its European stockpile, as Defense News reported earlier this month, the Guard could have an increased role in helping to grow that structure in both equipment and in people.

Grass said that the Guard could help particularly in countries like Romania and Bulgaria.

"We think we could help put in an equipment package similar to what we did years ago," he said. "We could preposition some equipment there, engineering equipment, other types of supporting equipment . . . and then rotate forces on them."

Grass explained that he singled out Romania and Bulgaria because the Alabama Guard has partnered for exercises for many years with Romania, and the Tennessee Guard has done the same thing in Bulgaria.

The Bureau Chief also warned the commission, tasked by Congress to study the force structure of the active, Guard and Reserve components of the Army, that Guard troop reductions beyond fiscal 2016 levels could cause the Guard to "slowly drift back to what was built for a strategic reserve at a time we need an operational Guard."

The Army has said it wants to reduce the Guard's numbers from 354,000 troops to 335,000 -- and possibly to as little as 315,000 if sequestration is not overturned.

Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.

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