NATO's top commander, Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, says the armed Russian-speaking forces in eastern Ukraine exhibit military training and equipment consistent with professional troops, not local militias. (Yves Logghe/The Associated Press)
A U.S. airman signals to the pilot during pre-flight checks March 20 at Lask Air Base, Poland. (Defense Department)
U.S. troops in Europe likely will ramp up operations and continue a historic shift eastward after the NATO alliance this week agreed to vastly expand its military readiness in response to Russian aggression.
“We will have more planes in the air, more ships on the water, and more readiness on the land,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in Brussels on Wednesday.
“For example, air policing aircraft will fly more sorties over the Baltic region. Allied ships will deploy to the Baltic Sea, the eastern Mediterranean and elsewhere, as required. Military staff from allied nations will deploy to enhance our preparedness, training and exercises. Our defense plans will be reviewed and reinforced,” he said.
The announcement came after an urgent review led by the four-star Supreme Allied Commander Europe and chief of the U.S. European Command, Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove. The aim is to reassure NATO’s easternmost allies of full military support in the event of further Russian aggression.
Rasmussen would not divulge “operational details,” making it unclear which U.S. units, or how many U.S. troops, might be deployed to such countries as Poland, Lithuania and Romania. Yet he said the new deployments would begin “within days.”
In an email to Military Times, EUCOM spokesman Navy Capt. Gregory Hicks said “it really is too early to tell what it would mean, given the lack of transparency from Russia on what their intent and purpose is.”
The news signals the return of a Cold War-era mentality for EUCOM and solidifies a jarring change from just a few months ago, when Europe was thought of as permanently at peace and the U.S. troops in EUCOM essentially were becoming a supporting command for operations in the Middle East and Africa.
Questions about the extent of U.S. troops involvement in the expanded NATO operations will be decided in Washington, where debate is heating up about basic national security priorities.
“For Korea, we have a ‘fight tonight’ mentality. We don’t necessary have that same mentality in Europe,” said a House Armed Service Committee staffer in an interview this week. “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 warfighting command. The question is: Are the forces there ready to transition to that mentality?”
Expanded NATO operations likely will accelerate the shift eastward for U.S. troops in EUCOM, which began several weeks ago as Germany-based units begun putting boots on the ground in NATO’s newest partner countries.
Ten U.S. Air Force F-15 fighter jets are now running sorties from an old Soviet air base in 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, last week temporarily conducted a training mission, jumping out of U.S. Air Force C-130s alongside Polish troops.
Also from Powidz Air Base, U.S. Air Force KC-135 tankers temporarily are flying daily missions to refuel NATO-owned aircraft that are doing surveillance along Poland and Romania’s eastern borders, tracking Russian military movements.
And nearby in central Poland, at Lask Air Base, several hundred airmen were working on a flight line with 12 F-16 Fighting Falcons that are usually based in Germany.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy destroyer Donald Cook is making a port call in Constanta, Romania, after steaming in the Black Sea on Saturday, when a Russian fighter jet conducted “provocative” close-range, low-altitude passes, a defense official said.
Allan Millett, a military history professor at the University of New Orleans, 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?”