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Pentagon Readies More Robust U.S. Military Presence in Eastern Europe

The Pentagon has drawn up plans to position American troops, tanks and other armored vehicles full time along NATO’s eastern borders to deter Russian aggression, in what would be the first such deployment since the end of the Cold War.

The Pentagon intends the plans as an escalation of a proposal it announced last year, when it said it was looking at ways to increase U.S. military deterrence in Eastern Europe, such as prepositioning older materiel in the region.

Some countries on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s eastern flank have expressed concern about the depth of the U.S. commitment to their defense—especially in the wake of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intervention in Ukraine.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work said the new plan should allay such worries because it would position more of the U.S. Army’s best and most-modern equipment in the area, while rotating in a brigade’s worth of U.S. Army troops.

The new gear includes 250 tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles and Paladin self-propelled howitzers as well as more than 1,700 additional wheeled vehicles and trucks.

Combined with equipment already in Europe, “there will be a division’s worth of stuff to fight if something happens,” Mr. Work told The Wall Street Journal. “If push came to shove, they’d be able to come together as a cohesive unit that has trained together, with all their organic equipment, and fight. That’s a lot better than what we have right now.”

The White House approved the broad contours of the plan, designed to start in February 2017, when it signed off on the $3.4 billion European Reassurance Initiative budget last month, leaving the specifics to the Pentagon.

Congress still has to sign off on the request, however.

While boosting military spending to counter Russia has bipartisan support, the overall budget is proving contentious in an election year. The money would quadruple the amount of U.S. funding for European defense projects, including troop deployments and exercises.

The U.S. has been intermittently rotating about 4,200 troops in and out of Europe since 2014, on top of the roughly 62,000 U.S. military personnel assigned permanently on the continent.

The Pentagon now aims to rotate in an Army armored brigade each year and divide the rotational force of 4,200 among six eastern members—Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria.

Like the new equipment, the rotational troops would be concentrated on the eastern flank but would move around as needed among other NATO members for exercises and other training.

Still, it would go beyond the current approach, where U.S. forces rotate into Europe for training and other exercises and rely on older military equipment that is stored in the six countries.

Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the commander of U.S. Army Europe, said the plan would create a constant presence of U.S. forces along NATO’s eastern border.

He said the forces in each country would exercise with host-nation forces and periodically come together to train as a larger force.

“There will be American equipment and people in each of these countries,” Gen. Hodges said. “We will have the flexibility to converge the entire brigade for exercises and that is an important part of the deterrence, to show a warfighting capability.”

A Russian official said Tuesday that Moscow would look carefully at the U.S. plan as well as decisions by NATO to have troops constantly in Eastern Europe. But the official reiterated Russia’s position that the U.S. and its allies were using false pretexts to continue a military buildup on Russia’s border.

Russian officials argue the decision violates the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, a document that says the alliance won’t position substantial, permanent combat forces on Russia’s borders.

While substantial hasn’t been defined, alliance officials say the size of the forces being considered is in keeping with the agreement.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal last month, Alexander Grushko, the Russian ambassador to NATO, denounced the American plan to build up forces in Eastern Europe.

“Russia is not moving,” he said. “This is NATO that is moving its territory, as a result of enlargement, closer to Russia. And now it is using this territory to project military power in the direction of Russia.”

In recent weeks, allies were leaked a preliminary version of the plan that suggested there might be fewer U.S. troops, if any, stationed in Eastern Europe for a period of up to six months, starting in September. That raised anxiety levels among some nations that the American commitment in Europe was shaky. In fact, under the new plan, there will be no gap of U.S. forces in Europe, Mr. Work said.

U.S. officials in Europe say they hope the plan will spur allies to make their own substantial contributions to a new deterrence force approved by NATO in February. The NATO military command is currently working out the overall size of that force, expected to be approved in June.

Under the new plan, the older gear that was going to be pre-positioned in Eastern Europe will instead be moved to a U.S. depot in Germany for refurbishing, then be spread around bases in Germany, Netherlands and Belgium.

As a result, officials in Poland and the Baltic states are concerned the U.S. is providing a full brigade to Germany while there is only a small amount of equipment headed to the eastern allies, according to U.S. and European officials.

“It only cements the two-tier alliance, old Europe and new Europe,” said one Eastern European diplomat. “Forces are going back to old Europe and there is nothing new for new Europe and we are the ones who are most exposed.”

U.S. officials said that under this new plan, some nations might have more or less equipment at any one time because the U.S. military forces rotating there will be constantly moving it across Europe. Defense officials note, however, that in the end Europe will have a brigade’s worth more of America’s best and most-modern military equipment on hand.

/The Wall Street Journal


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