Exclusive: U.S. Weighs More Troops, Hi-Tech Weapons in Europe to Counter Russia
Top U.S. military officer says a buildup launched last year is vital to reassure NATO allies and deter Moscow's 'aggression.’
STUTTGART, Germany — Seeking to stare down any future Russian aggression, the United States is looking to deploy more troops and sophisticated weapons to Europe, the U.S. military’s top officer told Foreign Policy.
Already, the Pentagon has been gearing up to send a third U.S. Army brigade to Eastern Europe, a move prompted by Russia’s 2014 armed intervention in Ukraine. The new deployment will ship a different armored brigade — with about 4,500 troops — to Eastern Europe on nine-month rotations. The rotational brigade will join two other Army brigades permanently stationed in Europe.
Now, as American commanders draw up a budget request for fiscal year 2018, military leaders are looking at deploying even more troops and hardware to Eastern Europe. The funding request also will include investments in space systems, cyber weapons, and ballistic missile defense designed to check a resurgent Russia, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Foreign Policy in an interview.
Asked if the U.S. military presence in Eastern Europe would be expanded beyond the measures already taken over the past year, Dunford said, “I don’t think we’re done in that regard.”
He added, “We’ll have some other recommendations about how to go forward.”
The Marine general spoke to FP before a ceremony Tuesday in the German city of Stuttgart, where Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti took over as the new commander of U.S. forces in Europe.
Only a few years ago, the Obama administration was pursuing a swift reduction of U.S. forces in Europe despite objections from some Pentagon commanders. The drawdown was driven by intense budget pressures and a focus on threats in the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region.
But since Russia’s incursion in Ukraine, including the unilateral annexation of the Crimean peninsula, the United States has reversed course and invested $3.4 billion in exercises and other activities as part of what it calls a European Reassurance Initiative.
Another U.S. defense official recently told FP that the Pentagon believes Russia still has 7,000 troops in Ukraine, and can continue to fund and equip simultaneous operations there and in Syria for at least two more years.
Within NATO, meanwhile, some alliance members are considering sending ground troops to Eastern Europe as well. Dunford, however, said addressing Russia’s threat required more than boots on the ground.
“It’s the 21st century, so it’s about a lot more than numbers of brigades. You have to look at the investments we’re making in a full range of capabilities,” he said.
The four-star general cited efforts to bolster space systems, cyber weapons, long-range bombers, ballistic missile defenses, and other measures to reassure allies while deterring Russia. Moscow’s tactics in Ukraine have relied in part on electronic jamming, special forces, and cyber and information warfare.
Dunford said moves in years past to scale back the U.S. footprint in Europe were understandable at the time, particularly as a number of diplomatic initiatives had been expected to improve ties with Moscow.
“Then we saw what happened in Crimea, what happened in Georgia, what happened in eastern Ukraine, and so some of the assumptions about the path Russia was on didn’t necessarily obtain,” he said. “So we’re making adjustments again to our force posture.”
The upcoming deployment of the American armored brigade to NATO’s eastern flank has been billed as a confidence-building measure for the alliance’s Baltic allies. There are also plans to send a brigade’s worth of armor and equipment to Eastern Europe as well.
Russia’s ramped-up submarine activity in the North Atlantic also has prompted U.S. efforts to build up maritime surveillance flights stretching from Greenland and Iceland to Norway.
Over the past several weeks, Russian military aircraft have intercepted a U.S. RC-135 reconnaissance plane and flown perilously close to an American destroyer sailing in the Baltic Sea. Two Russian Su-24 fighter jets last month buzzed the USS Donald Cook 11 times at close range, coming within 30 feet of the vessel at one point.
Some senior Pentagon officials have tried to play down the aggressive Russian moves, however.
Speaking with reporters on Monday, Adm. John Richardson, chief of naval operations, said he didn’t think the Russians “are trying to provoke an incident. I think they’re trying to send a signal. I think it’s pretty clear that they are wanting to let us know that they see that we are up there in the Baltic.”
At Tuesday’s ceremony in Stuttgart, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter alluded to the flyovers, saying Russia has been challenging international norms with provocative actions in the air, at sea, and in cyberspace.
The Pentagon chief also accused Moscow of employing dangerous rhetoric when it comes to nuclear weapons.
“Moscow’s nuclear saber-rattling raises troubling questions about Russia’s leaders’ commitment to strategic stability, their respect for norms against the use of nuclear weapons, and whether they respect the profound caution that nuclear-age leaders showed with regard to brandishing nuclear weapons,” Carter said.
The United States did not seek to make Russia an enemy or to revive the Cold War, he said. “But make no mistake, we will defend our allies, the rules-based international order, and the positive future it affords us,” he said.
Next month, 13,000 U.S. troops will take part in a massive NATO exercise in Poland, joining 12,000 troops from 24 other allied nations in one of the largest alliance exercises in recent memory. U.S. officials have said the 11-day event will include live fire exercises, air assault maneuvers, air defense drills, and tank exercises.
FP senior reporter Paul McLeary contributed to this article.
Photo credit: U.S. Army Europe