In order for the U.S. military to do its primary job in Europe — deter Russian aggression — America will need to send more troops there in the coming years, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said today.
Big moves would depend upon decisions made in the forthcoming National Defense Strategy, he said, but a more immediate “slight increase in the size of the force” would help reduce risk and reassure allies on the other side of the Atlantic.
“We, the Army, think that additional capability is probably needed, in combination with our NATO allies, to ensure deterrence of further Russian territorial aggression,” Milley told a group of defense reporters Wednesday morning.
In 2016, the U.S. had more than 62,000 troops in Europe, according to calculations by the Pew Research Center — down from a quarter-million in the 1970s. This year, the U.S. sent 1,000 troops to Poland to lead the multinational battle group there as part of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence, which was launched in response to the Russian annexation of Crimea. There are mixed views about how much EFP contributes to NATO’s deterrent posture.
“Our assessment to date is we believe we are on track with the size of the force,” Milley said. “In combination with NATO forces, we think that and the disposition of the exercises have been successful so far.”
A rotational group of 300 U.S. Marines also arrived in Norway at the start of the year.
But the Army’s top uniformed official — and the U.S. Congress — think more are needed. This year’s defense authorization bill, the conference version of which just passed the House, boosts spending on the European Deterrence Initiative to $4.6 billion. It also moves that funding from war-related accounts into the base budget, which is typically seen as more stable. The bill also requires the defense secretary to send Congress an updated military plan for Europe within 120 days of the bill’s signing, and, 60 days after that, a “comprehensive strategy to counter threats by the Russian Federation.”
Implementing the strategy will require “enhancing United States military capability and capacity in Europe, including strong consideration of investments in increased permanently-stationed and continued rotational forces,” the bill states.
Growing in the right directions
But there’s a number of different ways of doing so. Right now, the bulk of the EDI funding goes to the Army.
“The air [and] maritime capabilities are very important, but I would submit that ground forces play an outsize role in conventional deterrence and conventional assurance of allies. Because your physical presence on the ground speaks volumes,” Milley said.
That funding to keep the Army brigades deployed and exercising with the EFP “needs to keep coming,” but as the Pentagon drafts a new plan for the European theater, there’s an opportunity to look at a wider array of capabilities, said Magnus Nordenman, an expert on transatlantic security with the Atlantic Council.
“There's a growing recognition that the air and maritime domains need some attention too, whether it's in the Baltic Sea or the north Atlantic or what have you,” he said. “I think there's a bit of a better balance between the domains; it’s something future iterations of the EDI should take into account.”
On the Army side, Milley already has a list of capabilities he says the U.S. should consider adding: “A slight increase in some ground maneuver — heavy, armored forces, because they’re best used in that physical environment. And bridging, some long-range artillery and some additional aviation and perhaps some additional ballistic missile defense.”
But the list could be much longer than that if the other domains are considered. EDI funding can help with a number of them, said Jim Staviridis, a former Supreme Allied Commander at NATO,
“In order to best deter further Russian adventurism in Europe, we need a balanced mix of all military capabilities including increased Army heavy units, increased maritime deployments to the Baltic and Black Seas, joint NATO air patrols over NATO borders, and more attention to the Arctic, where Russian military activity is increasing dramatically,” Staviridis said. “EDI can help with all of that.”