The Pentagon plans to send several thousand additional troops to Europe next year to boost the region's defense against Russia, a new recognition that the former Cold War foe is once again a major global rival, defense officials said.
The troops, most of them soldiers coming from the continental United States, will move into Eastern Europe on a rotational basis, providing for the first time an essentially permanent presence of American forces in places like Poland and the Baltics, according to defense officials familiar with the plan.
The plan will likely involve a brigade-size force — or between 3,000 and 5,000 soldiers — and will also include placing stocks of well-maintained gear and ammunition in forward locations across NATO's eastern flank, defense officials said.
"We're going to have to help countries to harden themselves against Russian influence … and also mount — as we did in decades past — staunch defense of our NATO allies," Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Tuesday in Washington.
"This is an unwelcome development in European history," Carter said.
Details of the new European deployments came as Carter spoke about the Pentagon’s budget request for fiscal 2017, which begins in October. That budget request will be officially released next Tuesday. Monday on Feb. 9.
The new Pentagon budget aims to boost spending on operations in Eastern Europe, specifically known as the European Reassurance Initiative, or ERI, from about $800 million this year to $3.4 billion in 2017, Carter said.
"That will fund a lot of things: more rotational U.S. forces in Europe, more training and exercising with our allies, more pre-position and war-fighting gear and infrastructure improvements to support all this," Carter said.
"All of this together by the end of 2017 will let us rapidly form a highly capable combined arms ground force that can respond across that theater, if necessary," he said.
A statement from the White House on Tuesday said expanded European operations will provide "continuous U.S. armored brigade rotations" and "enable a quicker and more robust response in support of NATO's common defense."
The Pentagon has about 65,000 U.S. troops assigned to U.S. European Command, down from a peak of more than 200,000 in the 1980s. The rotational forces in Eastern Europe would amount to an increase in EUCOM force levels, the first in decades.
The new troops would come in addition to the Army's current force in Europe, which includes two brigades of about 3,500 soldiers each. The Army also has designated another brigade based at Fort Stewart in Georgia to serve as a regionally aligned force that will rotate into and out of Europe, yet that unit would not be able to handle the year-round demands of the new mission.
The Pentagon began pushing some rotational forces into Eastern Europe in 2014 shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine's Crimea peninsula. Last year U.S. commanders in Europe began moving training equipment into some allied military installations in Eastern Europe.
This effort will expand that with the new plans to keep American forces forward-deployed in Eastern Europe on a year-round basis. The pre-positioned war stocks will be modern, well-maintained combat vehicles and other gear prepared for full-scale operations, according to defense officials.
The forward-deployed gear is "intended to reduce force deployment times and enable a rapid response to potential contingencies," according to the White House.
Carter said he's optimistic that tension in Eastern Europe will wane. The intensity of Ukraine's civil war, in part fueled by Russian support and intervention, has slowed somewhat since the agreement known as the Minsk Accords in February 2015.
"The level of violence is lower than it has been. I certainly hope it stays that way," Carter said.