The Cable

SitRep: Thousands of U.S. Troops, Tanks Shipping to Eastern Europe

European surge. A year from now, there will be thousands more U.S. soldiers stationed in Eastern Europe. And they’re bringing their tanks, howitzers, and armored Bradley infantry carriers with them. Pentagon officials have long talked about their plan to rotate a third Army brigade in and out of Europe to bolster the two brigades already ...

US troops with Abrams tanks exercise at the taining range in Drawsko Pomorskie on May 7, 2015. AFP PHOTO / JANEK SKARZYNSKI        (Photo credit should read JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
US troops with Abrams tanks exercise at the taining range in Drawsko Pomorskie on May 7, 2015. AFP PHOTO / JANEK SKARZYNSKI (Photo credit should read JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

European surge. A year from now, there will be thousands more U.S. soldiers stationed in Eastern Europe. And they’re bringing their tanks, howitzers, and armored Bradley infantry carriers with them.

Pentagon officials have long talked about their plan to rotate a third Army brigade in and out of Europe to bolster the two brigades already there. The plan was for the third brigade to move around Eastern Europe conducting training exercises with local allies nervously watching their borders for the next potential Russian provocation. On Wednesday, the U.S. European Command added a new wrinkle to the plan, announcing that this new armored brigade will bring its own tanks and other equipment along, instead of falling in on a prepositioned set of combat-ready equipment already on the continent. The move will add hundreds of the Army’s most advanced tanks, cannons, and other ground vehicles to the force. It will also free up an entire brigade’s worth of weapons currently being used by American forces training on the continent, which will be stored in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany in the event that more U.S. troops need to be rushed to the continent on short notice.

The Pentagon currently has about 65,000 troops assigned to the U.S. European Command, down from about 200,000 during the height of the Cold war in the 1980s. Then new deployments will be paid for using the European Reassurance Initiative, for which the White House requested $3.4 billion in its 2017 budget submission to Congress. The plan’s 2016 budget was $800 million.

Americans evacuated. On NATO’s southern flank, the Defense Department has ordered the evacuation of the families of U.S. servicemembers stationed at the U.S. Airbase in Incirlik, Turkey, meaning almost 700 people will need to find a new place to live on short notice. U.S. officials wouldn’t point to any specific threat to the base that prompted the move, but a series of lockdowns in recent months have shown just how nervous officials are given the base’s proximity to the Syrian border, and the increasing threat of Kurdish militias fighting the government.

In July, the Pentagon locked down the base and prohibited the roughly 5,000 American troops, civilians and dependents from venturing even to a small commercial area outside the gates frequented by Americans. Then in September, the Defense Department called for voluntary evacuations of family members at Incirlik, but only a handful took them up on the offer. The base is playing a major part in the U.S.-led air war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

Toll in Syria. As Russian bombs continue to fall in Syria, an independent monitoring group has estimated that between the start of the bombing in September until the end of 2015, between 1,098 and 1,450 Syrian civilians were killed in Russian airstrikes. The tally, compiled by the London-based Airwars, also reports that just over 1,000 civilians have been killed in Iraq and Syria by coalition airstrikes since the anti-ISIS bombing campaign began in August 2014. The U.S.-led coalition has admitted to 21 civilian deaths in that time period.

Sea legs. So, what does an average day look like for a U.S. Navy ship in the South China Sea? Cruising around, being tailed by Chinese warships, and having awkward radio conversations about the weather and how pleasant sea life is with their Chinese counterparts, apparently.

Thanks for clicking on through this morning as we work through another week of SitRep. As always, if you have any thoughts, announcements, tips, or national  security-related events to share, please pass them along to SitRep HQ. Best way is to send them to: paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

Syria

Russia appears to be shipping more equipment to Syria after President Vladimir Putin announced a partial withdrawal from the conflict earlier this month, according to a new analysis by Reuters. The wire service tracked Russian naval traffic by pouring over shipping databases and examining photographs of Russian vessels as they transited to and from Syria past the Bosphorus. Pictures of the ships heading back and forth between Russia and Syria show the vessels sitting low on the way to Syria and with higher load lines heading back to Russia. While Russia appears to have removed about half of its estimated 36 aircraft from Hmeymim air base in Syria, it now has about 12 warships in the Mediterranean, likely to protect its supply route back and forth to Syria.

Russia is opening up a bit about the role its special operations troops are playing in Syria now that the focus of its fighting has shifted from taking on rebel groups opposed to the Assad regime to fighting the Islamic State, the Washington Post reports. A number of different Russian special operations units are now active in the country, including Spetsnaz, Zaslon, and KSO, and experts say they’ve played an important role in guiding Russian airstrikes and holding together Syria’s remaining ground forces by acting as advisors. They’ve also been participating more directly in frontline combat, with Russian officials citing their role in the recapture of Palmyra from the Islamic State.

Iraq

The early days of Iraqi forces’ much-hyped push on Mosul has hit some major snags in the face of low morale and bad weather, according to USA Today. Last week, Iraqi troops advanced along the Tigris on a handful of villages held by the Islamic State south of Mosul, but heavy rains slowed their progress and inhibited U.S. air support, as stiff resistance from Islamic State fighters led to some desertions. In sum, Iraqi forces’ campaign towards Mosul has gotten off to an inauspicious start, but U.S. officials say that they’re in no particular hurry to move on the city, which ISIS has held for almost two years.

Iran

The U.S., Britain, France, and Spain have sent a joint letter to the United Nations alleging that Iran’s recent ballistic missile tests are in violation of U.N. Security Council resolution 2331, arguing that Iran’s tested missiles are “inherently capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” The U.S. and its allies contend that 2331 banned Tehran from conducting ballistic missile tests. Nonetheless, the phrasing of the resolution, part of a last minute concession made by the U.S, has given an opening to opponents of further sanctions to argue that the text doesn’t explicitly prohibit missile activities.

Afghanistan

A U.S. F-16 fighter jet from the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing crashed after taking off from Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, Air Force Times reports. The pilot ejected safely and received medical care at Craig Joint Theater Hospital. There’s no word yet on the cause of the crash, but an investigation of the incident is underway.

Somalia

France has intercepted a boat carrying an epic haul of weapons apparently bound for Somalia, Sky News reports. The boat was spotted by a French navy helicopter and stopped by French Marines from the nearby frigate FS Provence. On board, troops found a large stash of Kalashnikov assault rifles and anti-tank weapons.

Russia

Russia says its air war in Syria has proved to be great marketing for its latest and greatest fighter bomber, the Su-34. TASS reports that customer interest in the jet, especially in the Middle East, is way up since the world has seen it carrying out sorties against Syria’s opposition from Hmeymim air base in Latakia and that “dozens of Rosoboronexport delegations are on foreign trips weekly,” according to Sergey Goreslavsky, deputy CEO of Russia’s weapons export arm. Goreslavsky also said that Russia has been working on an export version of the Su-34 over the past year.

Koreas

South Korea is gearing up to develop precision-guided weapons to take on North Korea’s recently-tested 300mm multiple launch rocket system, Yonhap News reports. The system, announced as part of the South Korean Ministry of National Defense’s five year plan, and will have a 120 km range. North Korea tested its 300mm rocket system this month, showing off pictures of the system alongside North leader Kim Jong Un, who was in attendance for an inspection. South Korea is particularly worried about the range of the North’s rockets, which can stretch halfway across the country.

Nuke summit
The U.S. will be hosting world leaders for a nuclear security summit kicking off on Thursday, and the prospect of terrorists with nuclear weapons is a hot topic for the event in light of revelations about the Islamic State terrorists who attacked Belgium this month. The attackers who carried out the Brussels bombing stalked and surveilled a Belgian nuclear official, leading to fears that the cell may have been plotting a nuclear-related plot, possibly involving a radiological “dirty bomb.” And there are other issues. President Vladimir Putin of Russia has decided to boycott the confab, while “Pakistan, China, India and Japan are all planning new factories to obtain plutonium that will add to the world’s stockpiles of bomb fuel.”

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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