RUKLA TRAINING AREA, Lithuania — The commander of U.S. Army Europe said Tuesday that he wants to add helicopters and other combat tools to the mix to bolster training with the Baltics and Poland, where the U.S. has sent some 600 paratroops to train and reassure allies wary of a newly aggressive Russia.
A company of American soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team that arrived in Lithuania over the weekend began its first full day of training with Lithuanian ground forces Tuesday, conducting live-fire exercises on various light weapons systems at a former Soviet military base.
U.S. and Lithuanian forces have deployed together over the last two decades to conflicts in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the deployment of U.S. forces to Lithuania “shows that we can rely on our ally” to help in the Baltics as well, Maj. Gen. Almantas Leika, Lithuania’s land forces commander, said. “This is a very clear signal, and we read the signal very clearly.”
The three Baltic countries, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, as well as Poland, have sought a greater presence of U.S. and NATO forces on their territory since Russia’s annexing of the Crimea Peninsula from Ukraine. All four countries border Russia, and the Baltic nations were annexed by the Soviet Union during World War II.
Estonia’s defense minister, Sven Mikser, was in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, meeting with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. Estonia is being considered as a host for aircraft for NATO’s Baltic Air Policing mission, and a company of U.S. troops from the 173rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team arrived in Estonia on Monday for bilateral exercises. During the meeting, Hagel expressed an interest in beefing up two annual multinational exercises that will take place in the Baltics in June — BALTOPS and Saber Strike — by potentially adding additional U.S. aircraft or ships that are already in Europe, Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters. The exercises were long-scheduled, and no final decisions have been made about adding additional assets to the exercises, Kirby said.
Lithuania’s active military numbers just 4,000 active land forces — roughly the size of an American brigade combat team. The country has another 4,000 soldiers in reserve.
Leika described NATO, which the Baltic states joined in 2004, as the “most powerful defense alliance in the world today.”
Lithuania’s membership in the alliance is “a two-way street,” he said. “We cannot be free riders. We need to contribute with something. And our contribution was and is in all of the NATO operations.”
In a briefing Tuesday at the Lithuanian training area, Lt. Gen. Donald M. Campbell Jr., commander of U.S. Army Europe, told Leika that he wants to include more USAREUR assets in the training, including aircraft from the 12th Combat Aviation Brigade and possibly vehicles from other units.
Whatever the U.S. sends, Lithuanian Capt. Gediminas Alisauskas said, he and his men are eager to take advantage of the opportunity to train with the Americans.
Russia’s actions in Ukraine, he said, “demands from us more training, more cooperation, more understanding and more readiness to be much stronger, ready and prepared.”
The crisis has focused his men, he said, to train hard “with no shortcuts.”
Sgt. James Day, a 173rd squad leader from Ocala, Fla., said the Lithuanians seemed eager to train, as were his men. Russia, though, is not on his mind, he said, and it hasn’t come up with the Lithuanians either.
“We’re just here to train,” he said. “We train all over Europe, and this is no different.”
Stars and Stripes reporter Jon Harper contributed to this report.