WASHINGTON — As the U.S. Defense Department expands its presence in Europe, the Air Force has quietly ramped up investments that would enable it to deploy to allied bases in Eastern Europe and operate close to Russia’s western flank.

The Trump administration wants to spend $828 million in 2019 to build up military infrastructure in Europe as part of an ongoing initiative to deter Russian aggression and reinforce allies. Almost half of that construction funding would go toward U.S. Air Force projects.

The request would more than double military construction funding under the European Deterrence Initiative, or EDI, from the 2018 request — when not so long ago, the U.S. military was shrinking its Cold War-era footprint in Europe.

As the EDI request grew to $6.5 billion from $4.8 billion in 2018, military construction in the EDI request leaped from $338 million in 2018, while pre-positioning funds jumped from $2.2 billion to $3.2 billion.

Of that, the Air Force would spend $368.6 million to pre-position equipment and $363.8 million for military construction. While that’s roughly on par with what was spent in fiscal 2018, it’s a huge jump from FY17, when the Air Force got only $31.2 million in pre-positioning funds and $85.4 million for military construction.

The idea is that if Russia invaded a European nation — for example, Latvia — the U.S. Air Force would be able to quickly respond, supported by basic airfields to reload, refuel and repair damage.

Senior Airman Bradley Asbury, an F-16 Fighting Falcon mechanic assigned to the 180th Fighter Wing of the Ohio Air National Guard, launches an aircraft for a training mission at Kecskemet Air Base, Hungary. (Senior Master Sgt. Beth Holliker/Air National Guard)
Senior Airman Bradley Asbury, an F-16 Fighting Falcon mechanic assigned to the 180th Fighter Wing of the Ohio Air National Guard, launches an aircraft for a training mission at Kecskemet Air Base, Hungary. (Senior Master Sgt. Beth Holliker/Air National Guard)

To do this, the U.S. is placing pre-positioned Air Force basing assets in original NATO nations, like Germany and the United Kingdom, and making significant airfield improvements in Eastern Bloc countries and beyond.

To be clear, the U.S. is not looking at building up new major bases in former Soviet bloc countries, but it’s making improvements to existing infrastructure to ensure it supports U.S.-specific requirements.

“It makes it easier to reinforce [allies] in a crisis,” said Mark Cancian, a retired Marine Corps officer and senior international security adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The munitions, the taxiways and refueling points makes it much easier to move in there in an emergency.”

U.S. European Command chief Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti acknowledged as much in congressional testimony in March. The FY18 and FY19 budget requests, he said, would “enable the rapid reception of fourth- and fifth-generation fighters, close-air support, bombers and air mobility aircraft in a contingency.”

On Russia’s doorstep, the 2018 budget funded refueling infrastructure and a tactical fighter aircraft parking apron and taxiway at Amari Air Base, in Estonia, so it can support the A-10, F-15, F-16, F-22 and F-35 aircraft. The 2019 budget request asks for $16 million more for U.S. Special Operations Command training and operations facilities at Amari.

At Kecskemet Air Base, in Hungary, $56 million in 2018 dollars is paying for fuel storage, taxiway construction and other improvements to accommodate the F-15, A-10 and C-5 transport aircraft.

The 2019 request would build a munitions storage facility at Malacky Air Base, in Slovakia, where 2018 dollars are expanding the tactical fighter aircraft parking apron to accommodate the A-10 and F-15.

The Air Force also wants $13.8 million in FY19 for taxiway construction at Rygge, Norway.

NATO trains in Baltics as Russia watches

NATO forces are conducting military drills along Europe's eastern flank. (Andrew Jarocki/Staff)

“Across the board, I think there’s a recognition that we took our eye off the ball, and now that we want to increase our deterrence capabilities, we’re seeing deficiencies, and we’re correcting them,” said retired Gen. Frank Gorenc, who commanded U.S. Air Forces in Europe from 2013 to 2016.

And while those airfield improvements may appear mundane, the ability to operate in such a distributed fashion across Europe gives the U.S. Air Force real capability, both as a deterrent and in a potential conflict, he told Defense News.

“That’s not sexy stuff, but for an airman, there’s nothing more exciting than an airfield that is actually capable of generating high-volume combat operations with fuel and weapons and those kinds of things,” Gorenc said. “And I can assure you there’s so much work to be done in those areas, that have to be done, that have been facilitated by that extra funding. It’s really exciting.”

The 2019 EDI request for pre-positioned equipment also focuses on two of the largest U.S. Air Force bases in Europe: Ramstein, Germany, and Royal Air Force Fairford, U.K.

Under the European Contingency Air Operation Sets (ECAOS) Deployable Air Base System (DABS) concept, the Air Force is bundling together equipment like billeting, fuel-support equipment, water, vehicles, security gear and aerospace ground equipment — in effect creating an expeditionary base in a box. It is also propositioning other systems throughout Europe, to include micro-weather sensors, communications network gear and cyber equipment.

“These pre-positioned kits allow the Air Force to be very flexible in terms of what airfield infrastructure it can put in play across the theater,” according to U.S. Army Col. Todd Bertulis, U.S. European Command’s deputy director for logistics.

From Ramstein and Fairford, Bertulis said the command intends to put the ECAOS sets in play elsewhere.

While the Air Force gains ground, U.S. European Command has a number of pre-positioning and military construction projects meant to enable logistics across all domains and provide a visible symbol of America’s alliances in Europe. The 2019 EDI budget request includes ammunition storage, staging areas, rail improvements, bulk fuel facilities, and airfield and port improvements.

The U.S. Army continues to dominate America’s military efforts in Europe. Some $2.5 billion would continue to buy pre-positioned equipment for an Army division to fall in on, while $921 million would pay for European rotations of American armored troops, coupled with assigned light and Stryker forces. And $100 million would support a combat aviation brigade rotation.

Meanwhile, the Air Force investment comes as the service’s footprint in Europe is at a low point, down to some 34,000 personnel, six main operating bases and 204 aircraft ― from 72,000 personnel, 25 main operating bases and 805 aircraft during the 1990s.

In the event of military action against Russia, the U.S. Air Force would likely be employed to hold Russian air forces back, provide close-air support to American and allied forces, and establish dominance over the militarized Russian enclave Kaliningrad.

“What you see is a realization that you can’t defend Eastern Europe from Western Europe,” Cancian said. “If all your forces are in Germany and in an emergency, you try to rush them east, it’s just going to take too long. Just doing the paperwork [from Germany to Poland] takes a week. It’s clearly better to have your forces in Eastern Europe to start with.”

One catch is that Russia has created overlapping bubbles of anti-access/area denial capabilities — including long-, short- and medium-range surface-to-air missiles — that are meant to deny NATO forces from freely operating. It’s unclear how the U.S. and its allies would counter these.

By improving various partner airfields “outside of the dragon’s teeth,” but close enough to stay relevant, the U.S. gains options, said one congressional aide. Moscow would have the dilemma of having to strike several Eastern European countries if it wanted to weaken U.S. air power.

“How many different NATO partners do you want to hit?” the aide said.