Pentagon Seeks to Boost Defense in Europe to Counter Russia

WASHINGTON (Tribune Washington Bureau/TNS) -

The Obama administration wants to boost military spending in Europe next year to stockpile heavy weapons, armored vehicles and other military equipment in eastern and central Europe, a substantial expansion of efforts to counter a resurgent Russia.

The proposed $3.4 billion initiative will permit the Pentagon to keep the equivalent of a 4,000-soldier armored brigade in the region at all times on rotational deployments, though no troops will be formally based there, officials said.

“We asked for the amount we think we’ll need” to counter “the Russian challenge in Europe,” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told reporters Wednesday during a visit to a naval weapons research facility in China Lake, north of Los Angeles.

The proposal, part of the Pentagon’s $583 billion budget request, must be approved by Congress. The administration is expected to unveil the budget next week.

The administration also plans to double spending for the battle against Islamic State. American aircraft have conducted so many airstrikes in Iraq and Syria since mid-2014 that the Pentagon is running out of smart bombs and missiles; it will seek $1.8 billion next year to buy 45,000 more.

But in a speech Tuesday, Carter listed Russia as the primary threat to U.S. interests, citing President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and military operations in eastern Ukraine that potentially threaten the Baltic nations.

“We’re reinforcing our posture in Europe to support our NATO allies in the face of Russia’s aggression,” Carter told the Economic Club of Washington. “We haven’t had to worry about this for 35 years, and while I wish it were otherwise, now we do.”

The Pentagon plans to construct or refurbish maintenance facilities, airfields and training ranges in seven European countries: Bulgaria, Estonia, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania. All are members of the NATO alliance.

Except for Germany, all were under Soviet domination during the Cold War. Germany was divided into two countries, one pro-West and the other aligned with Moscow.

Many of the seven have pressed NATO and the U.S. for a greater presence since Russian forces seized Crimea in 2014 and began backing pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine with weapons and troops.

Russia has boosted defense spending dramatically over the last decade to modernize its military. It has used some of the new weapons, including ship-launched cruise missiles, to support its intervention in Syria on behalf of the country’s embattled president, Bashar Assad.

Pentagon officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss parts of the plan that have not been made public, conceded that several thousand U.S. troops spread across seven countries could not hold back the Russian Army should it decide to invade.

The expanded U.S. presence is meant to signal Moscow that the U.S. would come to the aid of its allies with additional forces in case of war and to reassure allies of American backing, the officials said.

It would take at least seven NATO brigades, including three with tanks and other armored vehicles, backed by artillery and combat aircraft, to prevent Russian forces from “the rapid overrun” of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, according to a study released this week by RAND Corp., a policy analysis organization.

Russian forces could reach Estonia and Latvia’s capital cities in less than 60 hours, the study estimated.

“Such a rapid defeat would leave NATO with limited options, all bad, “the study said, noting that putting seven brigades in the region “while not enough to mount a sustained defense … would fundamentally change the strategic picture as seen from Moscow.”

Estonia is the only NATO member other than the United States that last year spent at least 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense, NATO said last month.