WASHINGTON — The top U.S. general in Europe said Monday that he’s been reaching out to the service chiefs and the head of the National Guard in an effort to ensure troop levels in Europe remain high enough to handle a host of new security challenges.
Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, head of U.S. European Command and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, told reporters at the Pentagon that additional rotational forces are needed as Europe comes to terms with a revanchist Russia and Islamic State insurgents in Syria.
“Because of the increased pressure that we feel in Eastern Europe now, and because of the assurance measures that we are taking in the Baltics, in Poland and in Romania, we require additional rotational presence,” he said. “What we are doing is working with the Army and other services to use their regionally aligned forces to get them forward, to get their experience forward, to bring that capability to interact with our partners and allies.”
Breedlove did not specify how new rotational forces would be tasked.
Last month, members of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division based at Fort Hood, Texas, deployed to Eastern Europe to help reassure European allies in the face of Russian operations in Ukraine.
Russian troop presence on Ukraine’s border appears to have fallen from a high of 18 battalions to seven in recent weeks, with an unknown number of soldiers, he said. But they remain active, and some units apparently moved toward the border in the run-up to separatist elections in breakaway regions of Ukraine, Breedlove said.
The official Ukrainian border is porous in breakaway areas, while the newly established internal borders around breakaway regions are hardening, he said.
Breedlove said he’s looking at moves to enhance logistics for potential operations in Eastern Europe.
“Additionally I’m having discussions with the service chiefs about the possibility of forward-based equipment and supplies — as the Army calls, them “activity sets” — in order to give us a more responsive capability if we were to need it in the future.”
Breedlove said the U.S. military continues to study ways to cut unneeded bases in Europe under the European Infrastructure Consolidation process, but said troop levels, now hovering around 67,000 troops, should not be cut further. Two brigade combat teams based in Germany were inactivated last year.
In July, Breedlove called for a “pause” in the force structure cuts planned before the outbreak of hostilities in Ukraine, and defense officials say that has essentially happened.
But Breedlove said that if automatic budget cuts known as sequestration return in 2016 after the expiration of a bipartisan budget deal in Congress, big cuts will be back on the table.
“My first budgetary priority is to not further decrease forces in Europe, because I believe we’re sized just right,” Breedlove said. “As I said before, I think we have infrastructure that can be divested but not force structure.”