The U.S. military should prepare to “puncture” Russia’s regional defenses and “rapidly reinforce” troops moving eastward in the event of a conflict, the top military commander in Europe told lawmakers Tuesday.
Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, the supreme allied commander in Europe, offered some details about his plans to push more American troops into Eastern Europe. And he made the case for why his command needs a four-fold budget increase for the “European Reassurance Initiative” that aims to counter the “long-term existential threat to the United States” posed by Russia.
“We need to be able to rapidly reinforce. That sounds very straightforward. It is not,” Breedlove told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“Russia has created a very dense pattern of ‘A2-AD,’ or anti-access and area denial. We need to be investing in those capabilities and capacities that allow us to enter into an A2-AD environment and to be able to reinforce,” he said.
The Pentagon’s latest budget request for $3.5 billion for Eastern Europe would go toward investments “on the ground such as improving rail heads, railroads, improving our ports and airfields, again, so that once we puncture the A2-AD [defenses] we can rapidly address our issues,” Breedlove said.
The expanded budget would also allow for a permanent presence of American troops forward-deployed closer to the Russian border in countries such as Poland, the Baltics and Romania. That would involve “rotational” troops at locally owned military installations. Those troops would swap out “heel to toe,” Breedlove said, meaning there would be no permanent garrison of U.S. forces like those in Germany and Italy but troops would retain a constant presence on the ground in the East.
The extra money will also pay for the U.S. military to “pre-position war stocks, ready to be used if needed.” That will include spreading across Eastern Europe enough well-maintained gear to outfit a heavy combat brigade, allowing troops to begin forward operations on short notice.
90-second explainer: What Russia’s intervention in Syria and Ukraine means for the American military. Video by Andrew deGrandpre/Staff
For years Breedlove has warned about the shrinking U.S. force in Europe, which today numbers about 65,000 troops, down from a Cold War-era peak of more than 200,000 in the 1980s.
Breedlove said he believes Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, are coordinating military operations from the Arctic to Eastern Europe and Syria in an effort to crack U.S. and European alliances like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
“I think all of these things are connected,” he said. “I think that one of the major goals of Mr. Putin is to bring disillusion to either NATO or the European Union or preferably both. If Mr. Putin can find a way to fracture either one of those organizations, it makes it much easier for him to accomplish his goals.”
Russia has erected several robust A2-AD zones that can limit movement of U.S. aircraft, ships and personnel. Those include Kalingrad on the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea, the “most recently in the eastern Mediterranean Sea and western Syria, sharply constraining our access,” he said.
Breedlove specifically warned about the expansion of Russian submarine activity. He showed lawmakers a map of Europe and pointed to the north Atlantic’s naval chokepoint known as the “GIUK gap” between Iceland and the United Kingdom. Most of Russia’s submarines flow through there.
“We are challenged to be able to watch all this activity. And the Russians understand the utility of those submarines and have invested heavily in those submarines and it does challenge our abilities,” he said.
That’s prompted new discussion of renewing the U.S. military’s presence at the former Naval Air Station Keflavik in Iceland, a key Cold War-era outpost that was closed in 2006.
“Our ability to project intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and other capabilities from places like Keflavik are very important to us and we are already renewing some of these conversations,” Breedlove said.
EUCOM does not have enough intelligence assets — neither in hardware nor manpower — to give the U.S. a full picture of what the Russian military is doing. Russia mounts unannounced “snap exercises to mask real deployments and to desensitize us to that possibility,” Breedlove said.
Some of those exercises are catching the U.S. by surprise due to lack of intelligence.
“We need to understand what is normal so that we can see the spike out of normal that says, ‘Wait a minute, we need to deploy the very high-readiness joint task force.’ … We need to first establish a solid base of understanding. And that will take more allocation of intel and ISR than we currently have,” Breedlove said.