The top U.S. commander in Europe said he will probably need more troops to counter the renewed military threat from Russia that is roiling the far eastern region of Europe.
But first he has to persuade the Pentagon to officially halt the U.S. military drawdown that has been underway in his command since the Cold War ended.
Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, Supreme Allied Commander Europe and chief of the U.S. European Command, said new missions to keep U.S. ground troops and aircraft in Eastern Europe, including Poland, the Baltics and Romania, are putting a strain on his current force of about 67,000 troops.
"We may need to add additional rotational forces to cover the sustained and persistent presence that we are now envisioning," Breedlove told reporters during a visit to Washington on June 30.
He pointed to the example of rotational forces arriving in October, when soldiers from the Texas-based 1st Cavalry Division and assigned to the NATO Response Force will deploy to EUCOM for six months to support expanded operations.
But EUCOM's long-term needs remain unclear because the Pentagon has not officially canceled longstanding plans for troop reductions in Europe that started more than a decade ago following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Halting force cuts?
"I think that first and foremost, we should now pause and determine: Should we continue with any of the program reductions that are in the plan for Europe?" Breedlove said. "As a result of budget and sequester, there are already some reductions that are still on the books. So I think the first step in this process is that we develop a mechanism by which we stop [and] re-look those planned actions for Europe."
Military officials in EUCOM and the Pentagon were unable to provide information at press time about current plans for force reductions or to say whether the "pause" that Breedlove recommends will be approved.
For his part, Breedlove said he supports ongoing plans to reduce EUCOM's physical infrastructure and facilities, "but as far as force structure, I do not think we can take any more reductions."
The U.S. military footprint in Europe has withered from its Cold War-era peak of more than 250,000 troops who were on high alert for a ground invasion from the Soviet Army. The last U.S. Army tank brigade left the continent last year.
EUCOM's current force includes two Army brigade combat teams and six fighter squadrons of F-15 Eagles and F-16 Fighting Falcons, which are stationed in Germany, Italy and England.
Breedlove said he expects new reductions in F-15 fighters to be announced soon.
EUCOM agreed to move some forces eastward earlier this year after Russian forces invaded Ukraine's Crimea region and began amassing a force of about 40,000 troops along Ukraine's eastern border. It was Russia's most aggressive military action in more than 20 years and fueled anxiety in many Eastern European nations that are now NATO partner countries.
President Obama and other U.S. officials sought to reassure those allies of the U.S. commitment to Article V of the NATO treaty, which requires members to consider an attack on one to be an attack on all.
The U.S. in April announced it will keep a rotational presence of 600 soldiers spread in company-sized units across Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Also in Poland, the Air Force has deployed a detachment of F-16 fighters and C-130 cargo planes. Those deployments will continue until at least the end of this year, officials said.
Initially, those new missions in Eastern Europe were fulfilled by EUCOM troops stationed in Italy and Germany, but U.S.-based units will begin supporting them later this year.
In May, Russian troops withdrew from the Ukrainian border and tensions with the West appeared to ease. But in early June, U.S. military officials said several thousand troops had returned to the border region, and pro-Russian militants inside Ukraine continue to foster unrest.
Breedlove said his assessment of the military threat facing Europe has changed insignificantly
"For the last 12 to 14 years, we've been looking at Russia as a partner ... making decisions about force structure, basing investments, etcetera, etcetera, looking to Russia as a partner," he said. "Now what we see is a very different situation."