Congress uneager for more troops in Europe despite Russian buildup

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There is little support on Capitol Hill for beefing up the U.S. military presence in Europe, despite Russia’s buildup of troops along Ukraine’s border.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill say automatic spending cuts known as sequestration make it difficult to send more troops to Europe.

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And the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee argues that the move could provoke a full-fledged invasion of Ukraine by Russia.

“I’d be careful we’re not giving the Russians an excuse to move. They could use any excuse, such as adding troops, as an excuse to move into Ukraine if that was their intent,” said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the panel’s chairman. “I wouldn’t want to give them any excuse for doing that.” 

Some conservatives argue it makes little sense to not bulk up U.S. forces in Europe for fear of what Russia might do, given the fact that the Kremlin has already taken over the former Ukrainian region of Crimea.

“Defending the territorial integrity of NATO allies is not provocative,” said Luke Coffey, the Margaret Thatcher fellow at conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation. 

“Having these forces in Europe provides reassurance and is a visible show of support and commitment for transatlantic security,” he said.

Other lawmakers say the U.S. simply doesn’t have the ability to do much more in Europe given the budget cuts already being made at the Pentagon.

“Yeah, I would [call for more forces], but here’s the problem — where are you going to take them from?” said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who has fiercely criticized the president for downsizing defense spending. 

“We are so depleted right now in terms of resources — our human resources, as well as military resources, that we don’t have the latitude that we’ve always had historically to meet this crisis,” he told The Hill.

On the House side, Republican members of the Armed Services Committee have called for the president to “increase and enhance the alert posture and readiness of U.S. forces in Europe,” but they have not called for an increase in troop numbers either.

There are currently 67,000 active-duty U.S. forces in Europe, according to a spokesman for U.S. European Command.

Over the last six years, however, the Army had closed six garrisons and more than 100 sites across Europe.

As recently as 2012, the Pentagon has 78,000 active-duty forces in Europe, but that was before a series of planned cuts and the sequester.

Those reductions included phasing out an Army headquarters, cutting two combat brigades, inactivating three air squadrons, and reducing an additional 2,500 soldiers through 2017. 

These recent cuts continue a long-term reduction since the end of the Cold War. In 1953, the U.S. had more than 450,000 troops in Europe across 1,200 sites, and as recently as 1993, there were more than 100,000 troops in West Germany alone.

The Pentagon has modestly increased its presence in Europe in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which had been a part of Ukraine, in March.

It sent about 200 airmen and 12 F-16 fighter jets to augment a training detachment in Poland, and sent six F-15s and a KC-135 refueling plane for a long-running NATO air policing mission over the Baltic States. 

Military leaders have acknowledged the need to discuss bulking up U.S. forces.

The U.S. commander of NATO forces in Europe has said the alliance must reconsider the readiness and positioning of its forces given the Russian aggression.

Coffey said addressing U.S. needs in Europe goes beyond that continent, because European-based forces could also be used in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as the Arctic

“It’s about giving our policymakers options to react in a timely manner to unforeseen crisis,” he said. “The U.S. doesn’t have a single tank there it can use in combat operations for the first time in more than 70 years.” 

For now, defense hawks on both sides of the aisle say they are focused on the bigger picture of reversing deep defense cuts.

Inhofe wants to cut domestic spending and add to the Pentagon’s budget.

“Big picture, we need to provide a budget that lifts as much of sequester as possible,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), whose state is home to several aircraft carriers and a large military industrial base. 

“If it’s just more reallocating and moving around more sequester cuts, we’re not going to be happy with what we have,” he said. 

The two-year budget deal approved by Congress gave the Pentagon some relief from budget cuts, but more are in store beginning in 2016 without additional action. The Pentagon has discussed inactivating an aircraft carrier and reducing the Army’s size by 30,000 to meet the cuts.