By Andrew Tilghman
If tensions between Russia and the West continue to mount, the Pentagon this fall may launch a far-reaching review of the U.S. military’s footprint in Europe, the Defense Department’s number two official said.
Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work said current efforts to ramp up readiness in Europe — which include deployments of some small U.S. units closer to the Russian border and requesting more money for NATO programs — is a temporary solution to what may be a long-term crisis.
A “program review” could come this fall as DoD prepares its annual budget request for submission early next year. Military leaders may consider fundamental questions about how many U.S. troops should be in Europe and how they should be positioned across the continent.
“As this crisis continues and depending on how it plays out, we would take a look in the [fiscal 2016 budget] and say … ‘Do we have to make any other decisions?’ And these decisions can be, ‘Do we have to have more rotational forces in Europe than we have otherwise figured we were going to have? Should we station different types of forces in Europe?’ All of those things would be on the table,” Work told Military Times in an interview Monday.
Work’s comments came shortly before Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel traveled to Germany this week. On Wednesday, Hagel said the renewed buildup of Russian troops along Ukraine’s eastern border is increasing the risk of a full-scale invasion of eastern Ukraine.
“When you see the buildup of these [Russian] troops, the sophistication and training of these troops, the heavy military equipment that’s being put on the border, of course it’s a reality and it’s a possibility,” Hagel said during a visit to U.S. European Command headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany.
Since the Russian army’s ground invasion of Ukraine’s Crimea region in February, Pentagon officials have sought to balance the need to reassure European allies about the U.S. commitment to NATO while not signaling a major shift in resources and attention away from the Middle East or the Pacific.
EUCOM has shifted about 600 soldiers in company-sized units into Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. At the same time, several Air Force detachments have been temporarily based in Poland. Those deployments will continue through at least the end of this year, officials say.
Meanwhile, President Obama has asked Congress for about $1 billion to fund a European Reassurance Initiative, or ERI.
In the interview Monday, Work said that funding “would allow us to do more training exercises, it would allow us to improve the infrastructure for reinforcement locations.”
“We’d be able to build up tarmacs; we’d be able to do things like that. We might be able to maintain some forces that we were going to pull out of Europe, maintain them there for a little while longer. And we might be able to send more naval vessels over,” he said.
Work said the ERI “buys us time so that we can do an appraisal.”
He called the initiative “a very prudent device where we say, ‘Whoa, what’s happening in the Ukraine and Crimea is something that we need to consider carefully.’ I think the president has said over and over, ‘We don’t think this is a restart of the Cold War,’ but it certainly is causing us to question our assumptions and figure out how this might play out over the longer term. So the ERI is just the first step.”
EUCOM now has about 68,000 U.S. troops, down from a Cold War-era peak of more than 350,000 in the 1980s. Most of the U.S. troops are in Germany and Italy, yet NATO’s newest partners in Eastern Europe, including Poland and the three Baltic states, feel more threatened by Russia and are eager to host more U.S. forces.
Work said new insight into potential changes in EUCOM may emerge at the NATO summit in September, when Obama and top leaders from across Europe will meet in Wales. U.S. officials are pressuring their European allies to step up defense spending and reduce their dependence on U.S. funding.
“The United States believes very strongly in strong alliances and strong partnerships,” Work said. “NATO will come up with some responses to the crisis and the United States would be part of the NATO response.”