The Army is drawing up plans to expand its footprint in Europe to include a division headquarters and a new artillery brigade, a top Pentagon official said.
The expansion would aim to deter Russian aggression in Eastern along Europe’s eastern flank and could come within the next five years if the Defense Department continues to receive funding for expanded European operations.
Thomas Tyra, the Army's chief of global force planning, outlined the potential expansion at a hearing on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.
"If supported, we intend to build a 'fires' brigade," Tyra said, referring to a unit of about 4,500 soldiers who operate tube and rocket artillery systems.
"We intend to build a division headquarters battalion," he said, referring to a unit of about 500 soldiers. A division headquarters would include satellite and communications equipment and small vehicles, supporting a top general overseeing more than 10,000 war fighters "to conduct mission command throughout the region," Tyra said in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee.
Army officials say the additional units would be heel-to-toe rotational forces from the United States, resulting in a constant presence on the ground but not necessarily an increase in the permanent force level for EUCOM. Sending soldiers from the U.S. to EUCOM on back-to-back rotational deployments will reduce the need to have addition infrastructure typically associated with permanent duty assignments, such as family housing, child care centers and schools.
The Army and Air Force eliminated a lot of infrastructure in Europe during the post-Cold War drawdown, which reduced total U.S. force levels from a peak of more than 200,000 in the 1980s to a current force of about 65,000.
The expansion hinges on continued funding through the European Reassurance Initiative, or ERI, the 2-year-old effort to send more money and manpower to Europe. The Pentagon expects a four-fold increase in the ERI funding, to $3.4 billion, in the fiscal year that starts in October.
"If the program continues," Tyra said, "I think you would expect to see engineering battalions moved over there. Possibly the ground elements of an army aviation brigade. I think we would want to see more satellite communications, more logistics, and whatever is required to speed the delivery of a fighting force."
The outline of an expansion for U.S. European Command comes amid high-level discussions at the Pentagon about boosting the U.S force level to counter Russian military provocations along NATO's eastern border, including the 2014 invasion of Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula.
There is growing worry that U.S. and NATO forces would be quickly overwhelmed in a fight against the far larger Russian force aligned along that border.
The Russian military maintains a force of about 22 maneuver warfare battalions in its "Western Military District" along NATO's border, according to a report released earlier this year from the Rand Corp.
For now, EUCOM's contingency plan for a conflict with Russia relies the two garrisoned light infantry brigades — the 173rd Airborne out of Vicenza, Italy, and the 2nd Cavalry Regiment in Vilseck, Germany.
The Pentagon has approved a near-term expansion that will add an armor brigade to Europe by early 2017. That will include about 80 tanks, 140 Bradley fighting vehicles and 18 large artillery systems along with a rotational force of about 4,2500 soldiers.
An identical set of equipment will also be placed in storage across Eastern Europe, allowing thousands of U.S. troops to move in overnight and begin training or combat operations.
The brigade equipment set "enables the Army in future times to come over and fall in on that and be able to exercise that as deterrent" against Russia, Air Force Maj. Gen. David Allvin, EUCOM's director for strategy and policy, said at the hearing Wednesday.
Pentagon officials say the U.S. military posture in Europe is shifting from one designed for "assurance" of NATO allies to one intended for "deterrence" of Russian aggression. President Obama recently announced plans to station 1,000 troops and put an armored brigade headquarters in Poland.
The U.S. plans to begin conducting more than 100 annual training exercises with NATO partners, Allvin said.
"We understand that U.S. European Command will not be the sole entity that will have to defend against Russian aggression. We will be fighting with our allies and partners in the region," Allvin said.
"These broader exercises, these higher-level exercises really enhance that confidence to be able to fight and maneuver to do combined armed warfare."
The expanding force in Europe may reassure NATO allies but it also increases tension with Russia and raises the risk of conflict with the Cold War-era rival.
"As we bring more U.S. forces into this region and as the Russians respond in kind, I think we increase the opportunity for miscalculation," said Rep. Beto O'Rourke, a Democrat from Texas.
"I want to make sure we're thinking through adding $3.4 billion to the fire, bringing more forces in and potentially setting us on a trajectory where we will be obligated, as things continue to escalate, to bring more force and more dollars into play, thereby provoking additional responses that may not be wise," O'Rourke said.
"I would view continued escalation as a failure."