Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove spoke to reporters at the Pentagon on Monday after a spate of tense confrontations involving Russian military aircraft flying in unusually large formations in the airspace of America’s European allies.
“What you saw this past week was a larger, more complex formation of [Russian] aircraft carrying out a little deeper, and I would say a little bit more provocative, flight path,” said Breedlove, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe and chief of the U.S. European Command.
More than two dozen Russian fighter jets and bombers recently have veered into the airspace of NATO nations from all directions, including the Black Sea to the southwest, the Baltic Sea to the northeast, over Great Britain to the northwest and also over NATO’s southwestern flank along Portugal’s Atlantic coast. In each case, NATO aircraft intercepted the Russian planes and the incident was resolved “professionally,” Breedlove said.
“My opinion is that they’re messaging us. They’re messaging us, you know, that they are a great power and that they have the ability to exert these kinds of influences in our thinking,” Breedlove said.
The Russian air incursions are the latest in a series of aggressive moves that began earlier this year with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine’s Crimea region. In response, the U.S. and its NATO partners have launched a series of exercises and security procedures to reassure the alliance’s newest partners in Eastern Europe.
In October, the U.S. Army deployed 600 U.S. soldiers from the 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, Texas, on a 90-day mission to Eastern Europe. The soldiers are training with M-1 Abrams tanks and Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles in Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, which Breedlove described as “a first for many of these countries.”
About 68,000 U.S. troops are now in Europe, down from a Cold War-era peak of more than 350,000 in the 1980s.
Breedlove said the current size of the permanent U.S force in Europe is “just right,” but he added that EUCOM will need to supplement that with “an increase in rotational presence” of forces from garrisons back home, including possibly reserve forces.
“Because of the increased pressure that we feel in Eastern Europe now, and because of the assurance measures that we are taking in the Baltics in Poland and Romania, we require additional rotational presence,” he said.
“I believe there is a requirement for rotational forces in the future until we see the current situation begins to normalize,” he said. “What we're looking to do is work with the Army and other services to use their regionally aligned forces — to get them forward, to get their experience forward, to bring that capability to interact with our partners and allies.”
Breedlove also suggested that more reservists may be deploying to Europe. He is working with the National Guard Bureau “to keep a strong pressure on our state partnership programs, which are absolutely key and essential to what we do in Europe,” he said.
The details of any future troop commitments are under discussion inside the Pentagon now as the top officials finalize the fiscal 2016 budget request that will be sent to Capitol Hill early next year.
In addition to potentially more people, Breedlove said he wants to deploy more heavy military weaponry and equipment that would improve EUCOM’s ability to respond to a crisis and surge combat power if needed.
“I am having discussions with the service chiefs about the possibility of forward-based equipment and supplies, as the Army calls them, ‘activity sets’ … in order to give us a more responsive capability if we were to need it in the future,” Breedlove said.
The first “activity set” arrived in Europe in January when the Army returned a battalion-sized fleet of Abrams tanks to Germany’s Grafenwoehr Training Area. The Army deactivated its last armor brigades in Europe in 2012.
Additional Army “activity sets” could be paid for through the European Reassurance Initiative that President Obama announced earlier this year, but Congress has not yet approved a defense budget for this year so that money is not yet available.
Breedlove is eager to draw the U.S. military’s resources back to Europe after years of cutbacks, but that is a challenge at a time when Islamic extremists are advancing across the Middle East and many top military officials want to focus attention on the Pacific and the rapid increase in China’s military spending.
In this year’s annual internal Pentagon budget battle, Breedlove is trying to stave off further cuts to the shrinking U.S. force in Europe under plans that were drawn up before Russia’s recent wave of military aggression began unexpectedly earlier this year.