US Military in Europe: from Forces Rotation to Permanent Presence

Andrei AKULOV | 28.06.2014

Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Roivas urged NATO on June 20 to establish a permanent presence in his country responding to Russia’s Ukraine policy that his government sees as a threat. He said the allies were to «open your eyes and stay awake». Asked if he would like to see a permanent mission in Estonia, Roivas told Reuters, «Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania are the border states, and it is only logical that air policing and air defence for example are present on the borders». According to him, «NATO has to be a visible presence at all of its areas including the Baltic states, including Poland, because those are the frontline states now, and just like Germany remembers what this means, I think now the frontline has simply moved eastwards».

Last month Supreme Allied Commander Europe, who heads the U.S. European Command and NATO Allied Command Operations, said that NATO would have to consider permanently stationing forces in Eastern Europe. Speaking to reporters in Ottawa, he was tasked to set up «reassurance measures» for air, land and sea that will continue until Dec. 31. A mission extending beyond that would be possible but would be left to the discretion of NATO leaders and ministers of defence.

Until now NATO has implemented the policy of short-term army, air force and naval rotations in Eastern Europe to finish at the end of this year. Long-term plans include training drills that will consistently keep about 100 U.S. elite troops on the ground at any one time in NATO states close to Russia with teams working in several countries. During the recent trip to Europe President Obama presented a $1 billion program of new military exercises on land, at sea and in the air. But the so-called European Reassurance Initiative failed to meet the aspirations of US Eastern European allies. Polish officials, for instance, immediately labeled it insufficient. They said that instead of bringing forces in and out of Europe the United States should have permanent bases in Central and Eastern Europe.

It should be noted that they don’t say the full truth. Recently NATO has already tripled the number of fighter jets based in the Baltics as part of measures to beef up its defenses in Eastern Europe since Crimea changed its status. The US does station permanently aviation units in Poland. Since March four US F-15 fighter jets have been flying the air patrols and the Pentagon is reported to send six additional F-15s and one KC-135 aerial refueling tanker to the mission. The U.S. has also sent aircraft with AWACS early warning and control systems to Romania and Poland. About 100 instructors are set to train special operations teams in post-Soviet states since the Ukraine’s was sparked. Though American commandos have always been present at alternating military trainings in Eastern Europe, now they plan to take up quarters there.

Estonian Prime Minister and his Polish colleagues omitted some points from their appeals for changing the NATO posture.

Permanent basing of large numbers of troops in the east is too expensive. It will take several years, not months, for the full military effect to be felt. The move is provocative to Moscow.

It would contradict a 1997 accord called the NATO-Russia Founding Act where NATO pledged no «additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces» in the East. So before taking a decision to station troops in the Baltics or Poland President Obama should take on the responsibility for the consequences and declare the basing provision of the 1997 accord null and void. In practical terms, creating a system of permanent basing in Eastern Europe will inevitably involve less enthusiastic members of alliance, like: Slovakia, Hungary, and Bulgaria. It’ll be a difficult political problem. Russia would likely respond with its own military deployments in the European part of the country and would seek to create a new comparable threat to the United States.

One of the options that would be the deployment of the Iskander-M surface-to-surface tactical missile on the territory of the Kaliningrad Region. With a range of 298 miles and could reach the NATO BMD launch site in Redzikovo among other targets. Moreover, it is a precision weapon that cannot be intercepted by missile defense as it highly maneuverable and follows an unpredictable trajectory. Russia could deploy the system if NATO decides to strengthen its military presence in Eastern Europe, Lt. Gen. Yevgeny Buzhinsky told RIA Novosti on May 7. «Russia is a nuclear power», he said. «If NATO becomes more active, we will deploy a division of Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad Region», added Buzhinsky, who previously headed the department of international agreements in the Russian Defense Ministry. «It is known that in military affairs potentials, not intentions – which, as the latest events have shown, can change – and are taken into account. That is why if we see that new NATO arrangements regarding Russia are implemented in relevant actions of military construction and are manifested in shifting NATO’s military potential towards the ‘eastern wing,’ we will take measures necessary so that Russia’s security is not affected by this», Russian NATO ambassador Grushko said in an interview ahead of NATO-Russia Council meeting.

The statements make believe the decision on NATO permanent basing near Russia must envision thorough study of all the consequences it would entail.

[Strategic Culture Foundation]