Armed Services chair weighs permanent troop presence in Eastern Europe

Armed Services chair weighs permanent troop presence in Eastern Europe
© Greg Nash

The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee has asked the Pentagon to price out how much it would cost to permanently station U.S. troops in Eastern Europe, he said Monday.

“I’ve asked for just a study the costs,” Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) told reporters after a Brookings Institution speech. “What are the estimates of what it would take to have a permanent unit there versus the cost of rotations? We ought to know that information.”

U.S. troops have been in Eastern European countries such as Poland and the Baltic states on a rotating basis as part of the European Reassurance Initiative established to assuage allies worried about a resurgent Russia. The presence is effectively permanent since the rotations are continuous.

But opponents say that's not an aggressive enough approach to confront Russia and that a permanent stationing would send a stronger message.

Proponents of the continuous rotation approach argue it is cheaper than permanent stationing since the United States doesn’t have to maintain its own base. They also say it effectively threads the needle between confronting Moscow and following the letter of a Russia-NATO agreement that prohibits the stationing of substantial combat forces on the Russia's borders with NATO countries.

On Monday, Thornberry didn’t address the latter concern, but he did say he’s not convinced the rotational forces are any cheaper than permanent forces.

"I don't know what the cost data will show," he said during the speech. "I'm not convinced that it is tremendously cheaper to rotate a bunch of units through rather than have that permanent presence."

Looking at a permanent presence also shows commitment to allies, he said. And it could reduce the strain on the force, he added.

Still, he said there could benefits in the rotational approach, such as three units getting experience in Eastern Europe instead of just one.

Asked whether this year’s annual defense policy bill will address the issue of a permanent presence, Thornberry said he didn’t know yet.

“I doubt it, but I don’t know,” he told reporters. “There is a variety of interests and different options for a more permanent presence for us.”