Top left: An F-15 lands in Lithuania in preparation for the NATO Baltic air policing mission. Top right: The destroyer Donald Cook arrives at Naval Station Rota, Spain, in February. Bottom left: A U.S. airman signals to the pilot during pre-flight checks at Lask Air Base, Poland. Bottom right: MV-22B Ospreys assigned to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 365 in Spain in support of Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force, Crisis Response (SP-MAGTF CR). (Defense Department)
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The footprint of U.S forces in Europe is poised for major change, with two decades of peace and calm seemingly headed toward a jarring end as NATO’s perspective on Russia transforms from partner to adversary.
Amid reports of gunfire and Russian troops seizing numerous towns in eastern Ukraine, the NATO alliance announced that the U.S. and its allies will be putting “more planes in the air, more ships on the water, and more readiness on the land.”
“There has been a dynamic change in Europe,” Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, the four-star Supreme Allied Commander Europe and chief of U.S. European Command, said April 16 in Brussels.
“We have had a nation that crossed an internationally recognized border and imposed its will on another sovereign nation in a military manner. That changes the way we have to think about Europe in the future,” Breedlove said.
The aim of additional forces is to shore up NATO’s vast eastern flank and reassure the easternmost allies of full U.S. and NATO military support in the event of further Russian aggression, which began in late February with the invasion of Crimea.
Specifically, the U.S. and NATO will fly more aircraft on patrol over the Baltic Sea — which shares a border with Russia — as well as send more ships to ports in both the Baltic and Black seas.
The new forces will reinforce the “north, center and south” along NATO’s eastern border, Breedlove said. The NATO leadership is reviewing Breedlove’s recommendation for “specific movements, the specific units and locations and exercises,” which will be disclosed publicly after final NATO approval.
For U.S. troops in Europe, the heightened state of readiness will help to redraw the EUCOM map and make troops far more likely to find themselves operating in unfamiliar places like Powidz Air Base in central Poland, Šiauliai Air Base in Lithuania and Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base in Romania.
“The center of gravity is shifting toward the east,” said Thomas Maulucci Jr., a history professor at American International College and editor of a book on the history of the U.S. military presence in Europe.
“The question is to what extent there is going to be a significant shift in basing,” Maulucci said.
Underpinning the crisis in Ukraine is long-standing concern among Europeans about the U.S. commitment there. The number of American troops in Europe has steadily declined since the end of the Cold War, from more than 350,000 in the 1980s to less than 67,000 today.
The Pentagon brass would prefer to see the Europeans handle the crisis on their own, in light of the budget crunch in Washington and the U.S. military’s effort to put more U.S. focus on Asia. Yet pressure is mounting on the Obama administration from both European allies and some hawks on Capitol Hill.
In one example of that pressure, Poland’s Defense Minister Tomasz Siemoniak traveled to Washington and explicitly stated his government wants a permanent U.S. Army base in Poland, which now comprises a huge chunk of NATO’s eastern frontier.
After meeting with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel at the Pentagon on April 17, Siemoniak bluntly told reporters: “We are talking about the presence of American troops in Poland.”
Hagel said only that EUCOM will extend the mission of 200 airmen and 12 F-16 Fighting Falcons at Poland’s Lask Air Base until at least the end of the year. Hagel sought to downplay the suggestion of a U.S. Army brigade stationed permanently in Poland, saying that “an entire range of measures” is under discussion, and some U.S. ground troops may go to Poland on a “rotational basis.”
More broadly, the White House has signaled a deep reluctance to get involved in the widening conflict in Ukraine, which is not a NATO partner. But that is growing more difficult by the day.
On April 12, about 48 hours after the U.S. Navy sent the destroyer Donald Cook into the Black Sea, a Russian fighter jet taunted the ship with repeated close-range, low-altitude passes that went on for 90 minutes.
The fighter jet did not appear to be carrying missiles under its wings, a U.S. defense official said, but the Pentagon still called the incident “provocative and unprofessional.” The Donald Cook later pulled into Constanta, Romania, for a port call near Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base.
Also, on April 17, Hagel announced that the Defense Department will send “non-lethal” support to the Ukrainian military, including helmets, electrical generators, medical supplies, sleeping mats and water purification kits.
Meanwhile, debate is heating up on Capitol Hill about basic national security priorities and the level of resources being given to EUCOM.
“For Korea, we have a ‘fight tonight’ mentality. We don’t necessarily have that same mentality in Europe,” said a House Armed Service Committee staffer. “We need to take a real serious look at the downsizing and streamlining that the [European] command is going through.”
The Pentagon’s so-called “pivot” toward Asia “was very much seen as a loss for Europe, and I think [EUCOM] began to see themselves in a supportive role,” the staffer said. “But the events of the last couple of weeks have demonstrated that they are still a war-fighting command. The question is: Are the forces there ready to transition to that mentality?”
Life in the 'New Europe'
As greater numbers of U.S. troops pull duty in Eastern Europe, they will find service there to be unique in subtle but significant ways.
Starting around the mid-1980s, currency exchange rates made Western Europe far more expensive for troops paid in U.S. dollars. As a result, many troops were less likely to live off post and generally were more inward-looking toward their installations in their daily lives.
Also, relations with the Germans, whose country has long played host to the bulk of U.S. forces in Europe, had occasional periods of strain, from factors as disparate as a bout of bad morale and misconduct in the 1970s to larger political issues, such as German leftist opposition to U.S. deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.
Analysts said the view of American troops in Eastern Europe is likely to be largely positive.
“The pro-American sentiment is going to be even stronger, so that certainly will be a positive for the troops moving in,” Maulucci said. “And the cost of living is going to be less. So they are probably going to find it more affordable to go off base.”
Moreover, the mix of forces moving east could look very different from the Cold War-era force. “The bases in Germany were home to a lot of traditional assets like armored division and ground forces. But now there has been a military revolution where special operations and high-tech assets like drones have become very important,” Maulucci said.
At this point, Pentagon officials maintain that any increase in U.S. troop levels will be on a “rotational” rather than permanent basis, suggesting that deployments to new Eastern European posts will be temporary missions lasting for several weeks or months, and will come from units already based in EUCOM’s traditional garrison posts rather than from the U.S. itself.
One initial stumbling block may be infrastructure. Many of the Eastern European military facilities are in need of considerable modernization after falling into disrepair when the spigot of Soviet defense funding was shut off more than 20 years ago.
For example, Šiauliai Air Base in Lithuania, once a major outpost for the Soviet air force during the Cold War, decayed for a decade before it was selected in 2004 as the ground base for NATO’s Baltic air policing mission, which monitors and protects the airspace above the three Baltic nations that have almost no tactical air capabilities themselves.
Since then, NATO has spent millions upgrading the base, repairing the runway, building new hangars and a headquarters facility that opened last year.
The past several weeks have offered a window on the EUCOM’s immediate future as U.S. forces have spread out across the region for rotational missions.
For example, 10 U.S. Air Force F-15 fighter jets are now running sorties out of Lithuania, patrolling the northern skies over the Baltic nations where the NATO border abuts Russia.
At Powidz Air Base in central Poland, U.S. Army paratroopers from Kaiserslautern, Germany, recently conducted a training mission, jumping out of U.S. Air Force C-130s alongside Polish troops. U.S. Air Force KC-135 tankers also are temporarily flying daily missions out of Powidz to refuel NATO-owned surveillance aircraft tracking Russian military movements along the eastern frontiers of Poland and Romania.
And nearby in central Poland, at Lask Air Base, the small permanent aviation detachment of F-16s and C-130s has been expanded.
Allan Millett, a military history professor at the University of New Orleans, said the U.S. is trying to walk a fine line between provoking the Russians and reassuring NATO allies, making clear to both that any incursion across NATO’s border will be greeted very differently from Russian actions to date in Ukraine.
“I think they are just drawing a line in the swamp,” Millett said, referring to the low-lying topography that stretches across NATO’s border along western Belarus and Ukraine.
“To some degree it’s unfortunate because it ... sends a sign to the Russians to go ahead and take [Ukraine], we aren’t going to do anything about it. But Putin has figured that out anyway,” Millett said.
The White House’s desire not to rush into Eastern Europe is driven in part by NATO politics. The Pentagon for years has been frustrated by the assumption of its European partners that the U.S. will, in the end, provide most of whatever money and manpower are needed for regional security.
U.S. officials would like the Europeans to assume a larger share of that responsibility.
But Millet was skeptical about the Europeans’ ability to mount a credible military threat on their own.
“Who is going to do that? The French aren’t going to do it. And the Germans scare the hell out of everybody still — I don’t think the eastern European countries are going to be eager to welcome the Wehrmacht back. Who can legitimize a European military response to Russian expansionism?”