A U.S. Air Force F-15 from RAF Lakenheath flies skies above Europe after refueling from a KC-135R Stratotanker.

A U.S. Air Force F-15 from RAF Lakenheath flies skies above Europe after refueling from a KC-135R Stratotanker. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — Planned cuts to the U.S. military presence in Europe may be postponed because of concerns about Russian aggression, according to top defense officials.

The commander of U.S. Forces in Europe, Gen. Philip Breedlove, told reporters Tuesday at the Pentagon that plans to scale down the Air Force presence in Europe were made before Russian moves against Ukraine. He said he had talked to Pentagon leaders about the issue and “I see this building now moving towards a review of those decisions.”

Defense Department leaders have been pulling troops out of Europe in recent years in the face of fiscal pressures and force requirements in other parts of the world.

In March, the Air Force announced it intended to retire 21 F-15C fighter jets based overseas in fiscal 2015 due to budget constraints. There are 21 F-15Cs assigned RAF Lakenheath, England, and the cuts were expected to come from there.

But on Tuesday, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said she hopes to keep the aircraft in the region, at least for a while, in light of the new security environment.

President Barack Obama requested $1 billion from Congress for a European Reassurance Initiative to calm America’s Eastern European allies who fear a resurgent Russia, and the Air Force knows how it wants to spend some of it.

“We would propose monies in order to keep those F-15s … in Europe for an additional year,” James told reporters on the sidelines of an Air Force Association conference in National Harbor, Md.

But she suggested that the aircraft could remain there longer.

“This is another year coming and another [budget] proposal which could be made. So … we could see where we are a year from now,” she told reporters.

Moscow annexed the Crimea region of Ukraine earlier this year, and has been supporting pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine with troops, weapons and other forms of assistance.

Breedlove said there are four Russian battalion task groups inside Ukraine, despite a declared cease-fire between the Ukrainian military and the rebels. The EUCOM chief described the cease-fire as “tenuous.”

The Russians have been removing forces to the east of the Ukrainian border back into Russia, he said, “but make no mistake — those forces are close enough to be quickly brought back to bear if required.”

When asked if he would like to see more forces sent to Europe on a permanent basis, Breedlove dismissed the idea.

“I’m a realist. We are in an age where our budgets are going down, not up. I do not expect and would not spend a lot of energy asking for force structure to move back to Europe.”

Breedlove hopes that temporary troop rotations on the Continent can enable EUCOM to meet the growing demand for U.S. forces.

In recent months, the U.S. has deployed air and ground assets to Poland and the Baltic states for bilateral and multilateral training exercises. More troop rotations are scheduled this fall. Twitter: @JHarperStripes

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