FPI Bulletin: Secretary of Defense Emphasizes New Funding to Deter Russia

February 9, 2016

In his preview of the new defense budget released today, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter emphasized two efforts to deal with immediate threats to the United States and its allies. The first is a 50 percent increase in the funding requested for operations targeting the Islamic State. The second is a fourfold increase in the budget of the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI), whose purpose is to deter a Russian attack on NATO allies in Eastern Europe.  Even so, the American presence in Eastern Europe will remain primarily symbolic, rather than becoming a force capable of true deterrence. More importantly, the spending limits associated with sequestration have cut the size of the Army down to a point where there are simply not enough soldiers to sustain a serious deterrent force in Eastern Europe while conducting other necessary operations.

The Russian Threat

At his confirmation hearing last July, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, described Russia as “the greatest threat to our national security.” General Mark Milley, the Army Chief of Staff, recently concurred with Dunford’s assessment. Last month, Air Force General Philip Breedlove, the top NATO officer and commander of American forces in Europe, issued an updated strategy whose foremost priority is to “deter Russian aggression.” In his budget preview, the Secretary of Defense was more restrained, lamenting “the return to great power competition” while observing that “Russia and China are our most stressing competitors.”

Whereas China’s growing strength has long preoccupied military planners, the Russian threat demands more rapid adjustment since the administration has acknowledged it only recently. In his budget preview, Carter said that “we haven’t had to worry about [Russian aggression] for 25 years.” In truth, many have had serious concerns dating back at least to the invasion of Georgia in 2008. The White House first unveiled ERI almost two years ago, at which time it requested $1 billion for the initiative in Fiscal Year (FY) 2015. Then, despite persistent indications of the seriousness of the threat, it requested 20 percent less funding—only $800 million—for ERI in FY 2016. Carter did not explain why the administration has finally decided to pursue the initiative more seriously. Regardless, the scale of the response remains deficient, even if the new funding will facilitate improvements.

Defending the Baltic States

Among NATO member states, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are the most exposed to Russian aggression. Their combined population is less than 7 million and their total size comparable to the state of Illinois. They are geographically isolated from the rest of NATO, yet share substantial borders with Russia. Once part of the Soviet Union, the Baltic States are attractive targets for a Russian president who seeks to restore his country’s superpower status.

Despite the Russian threat, the Baltics are far from indefensible. While the Russian armed forces have made impressive strides in recent years, they remain a pale shadow of their Soviet predecessors. Their size is much diminished although their technology is once again becoming competitive. Furthermore, as Vladimir Putin demonstrated in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, he prefers to initiate wars behind the smokescreen of political instability instigated by so-called “Little Green Men.” This approach seeks to create uncertainty about whether an attack is taking place, thereby delaying the defender’s response. In a Baltic scenario, NATO member states may fail to agree that an invasion has taken place until it is too late to respond effectively. On the other hand, the threat will not consist of rapidly advancing columns of Russian tanks and armored vehicles. Thus, if NATO recognizes what is happening, the likelihood of a successful defense is much higher.

An effective response to the Russian style of hybrid warfare will depend as much on political coordination as it does on having sufficient forces. Nonetheless, the presence of troops on the ground will remain indispensable. Due to their small size, the Baltic states are unlikely to field more than several battalions, so a U.S.-led NATO force would be necessary to deter conflict. A lack of size also reduces the time available for reinforcements to arrive, since the Russian offensive may succeed rapidly. Therefore, an effective defense will require forces in place when the conflict starts. Although defusing the instability created by “Little Green Men” is likely to require some special operations forces and paramilitary units, a decisive conventional force would still be needed to reassert control and deter Russian reinforcements. A recent report from the Center for European Policy Analysis recommended the deployment of one U.S. brigade to each of the Baltic nations as well as Poland. The Baltics themselves could enhance the deterrent effect by preparing to flood main transit routes and pre-targeting their artillery there.

ERI and the European Activity Set

ERI should not be confused with the full range of U.S. military activities and presence in Europe. It is a program that encompasses military exercises, the improvement of infrastructure, and the rotational deployment of troops, mainly in Eastern Europe. Thus, Reuters was in error when it described “U.S. plans for a four-fold increase in military spending in Europe.” The full U.S. military presence in Europe comprises 64,479 troops according to the Pentagon’s most recent quarterly report. However, this force includes only two Army combat brigades, since its structure reflects the premise that land-based threats to NATO are negligible. Furthermore, there are few American troops in Eastern Europe. The Pentagon says there are 55 in Poland and 10 in the Baltics. Thus, the commitment of U.S. forces to Europe will not change substantially as a result of ERI.

Last June, Secretary Carter announced the deployment to Eastern Europe of one brigade’s worth of armored vehicles and associated equipment. Known as the “European activity set”, this equipment would facilitate the rotation of American forces into Eastern Europe, since incoming brigades would not have to bring their equipment with them. The comments Carter made during his budget preview suggest that most of the new funding for ERI will cover the costs of maintaining the European activity set and supporting the troops who will use it. In that sense, it does not represent an additional commitment to Europe, but an affirmation of the commitment made eight months ago.

While the presence of an additional combat brigade is welcome, it does not meet the requirements for defending the Baltics, especially since the equipment will be spread across the Baltic states as well as Poland, Bulgaria, and Romania. Nor does the return of a combat brigade reverse the substantial decline of American forces Europe since 2001. In the year that the Berlin Wall came down, there were 341,000 U.S. troops in Europe. That fell to 118,000 in 2001, a figure that included six Army combat brigades. The Bush administration reduced that number to four combat brigades, and the Obama administration further reduced it two, with the 170th and 172nd Brigade Combat Teams completing their deactivation in 2012 and 2013 respectively.

All in all, ERI and the European activity set don’t even return the U.S. presence in Europe to what it was when President Obama took office.

An Army Too Small

The U.S. Army is in the midst of cutting 40,000 troops, bringing its projected size down to 450,000 active duty soldiers. If the spending caps known as sequestration remain in effect, that number will likely fall to just 420,000 soldiers. That is down from a peak of 566,600 at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the closing days of the Cold War, the Army’s soldiers numbered more than three-quarters of a million.

A recent study by the RAND Corporation sought to assess whether a smaller force is sufficient. It observes that about one-third of the Army consists of new recruits and those responsible for their training and equipment, as well support roles such as medical care. A slightly larger number is stationed abroad or required to support current missions, such as operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan. This leaves about 90,000 soldiers for what RAND calls the Global Response Force. 

The authors of the RAND report observe that a core tenet of U.S. defense strategy is the ability to fight two conflicts at once. With a dwindling Global Response Force, it may even be difficult to provide enough soldiers for a single major conflict, such as the defense of South Korea from a Northern assault. If Vladimir Putin chose such a moment to launch a war in the Baltics, the U.S. might be completely incapable of meeting the challenge. To reduce the odds of such an opportunistic move by Putin, the U.S. should deploy a deterrent force to Eastern Europe, yet even that would prove extremely taxing to the Army we have now. Likewise, an intensification of the campaign against the Islamic State or an effort to reverse recent setbacks in Afghanistan could push the Army closer to the brink of strategic insolvency.

The augmentation of ERI and deployment of the European activity set are certainly welcome, yet their symbolic nature becomes clear when set against the backdrop of deep cuts to the Army as a whole as well as the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Europe. A robust response to the new Russian threat will require not just a stronger force in Eastern Europe, but an Army and a defense budget capable of sustaining such a force while meeting its global commitments.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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