The U.S. military footprint in Europe has vastly expanded in the two months since Russia invaded Ukraine, with more than 100,000 troops now on the ground on a continent where the talk until recently was on how and where to cut back.
The looming question for Pentagon planners now is how many troops should stay and for how long.
Russia’s assault on Ukraine has sparked a high-stakes debate about how best to use American boots on the ground in Europe as a show of solidarity with Kyiv and as a deterrent against any Russian move against NATO’s eastern flank, such as an attack on Baltic nations or a strike on Poland.
Inside the Pentagon and in national security circles, the questions center on whether the U.S. should dramatically increase the number of troops permanently stationed across Europe, with all the attendant costs and commitments, or ramp up rotational deployments of service members on missions typically lasting less than a year.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley recently told Congress that he favors the construction of permanent U.S. bases in Eastern Europe but wants to staff those facilities primarily with rotational troops. Such an approach carries a host of benefits, most notably on the financial front. Rotational deployments are less costly, mainly because the troops’ spouses and children usually remain in the U.S. Troops on multiyear deployments stay with their families on American military bases.
That approach has critics, especially given the security climate in Europe.
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Proponents of more permanent deployments say that increasing the number of U.S. troops on rotation through Europe isn’t a strong enough show of force to change Russian President Vladimir Putin’s cost-benefit analysis. They say a more permanent American presence would carry tangible benefits in the worst-case scenarios of an all-out NATO showdown with Russia.
“We can’t have forces slated to reinforce Europe waiting in garrisons in the U.S. They need to be ready, and they need to be permanently deployed to the front lines in Europe,” said Jim Townsend, who was deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy during the Obama administration.
“We’ve got to lean toward deployed forces in Europe. There’s a role for rotational forces, but forces are vulnerable when they transit the Atlantic,” he told The Washington Times in an interview. “We need to have full-time forces there. I know the Pentagon doesn’t like to hear that for various reasons, but I think it’s a mistake to just do more of what we’re already doing. We need to have more armor permanently deployed in Europe.
“To rotate an armored brigade combat team to Europe, their equipment has to go over on ships. If we are in a conflict with Russia, we won’t have time to wait for ships, and they may be intercepted in the Atlantic before they even reach Europe. We need to have more armor permanently deployed to Europe, not just rotating in,” he said.
The Pentagon is reimagining its approach to troop deployments against the backdrop of Europe’s biggest ground war since World War II and longer-term strategic hopes of reorienting U.S. power to face China, not Russia.
Russia’s unprovoked assault on Ukraine continued Monday with strikes on Ukrainian rail and fuel depots. The Russian military is working to cripple Ukrainian supply lines and prevent equipment from reaching the eastern front.
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Russian forces have massed in eastern Ukraine in a major offensive on the disputed Donbas region, which has become the epicenter of the war. Russian troops also are seeking to capture the devastated port city of Mariupol, which would create a land bridge between the Donbas and the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia forcibly annexed in 2014.
To help beat back that Russian offensive, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Kyiv over the weekend and announced another American military assistance package to Ukraine. Underscoring the high stakes of the conflict, Ukrainian officials said such aid is crucial but the Western world must do more to stop Russian aggression, which they said will surely not stop in Ukraine.
“As long as Russian soldiers put a foot on Ukrainian soil, nothing is enough,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told The Associated Press on Monday. He said the U.S. and NATO must do more to “stop Putin in Ukraine and not to allow him to go further, deeper into Europe.”
Russia was complaining about the growing number of U.S. troops near its borders weeks before Mr. Putin authorized the invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said at a Feb. 3 briefing that the U.S. was fueling tensions in the region by sending more troops to Poland and Romania in response to the Russian military buildup on the Ukrainian border.
“Clearly, Russian concerns are justified and understandable,” Mr. Peskov told reporters. “All measures to ensure Russia’s security and interests are also understandable.”
Ironically in light of the debate, the Biden administration defended the troop deployments in part because they were temporary and could be reversed if Russia stepped back.
“These are not permanent moves. They are precisely in response to the current security environment in light of this increasing threatening behavior by the Russian Federation,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said.
A major buildup
The Biden administration has vowed to defend every inch of NATO territory from Russia, essentially guaranteeing a world war scenario if Russian troops press beyond Ukraine. A central part of the U.S. deterrence strategy has been to send tens of thousands more troops to Europe at a pace not seen since the Cold War.
Such major increases in U.S. troop deployments seemed unthinkable a few years ago. President Trump and his national security team, skeptical of many NATO allies, looked to shrink the overall number of U.S. troops in Europe and reposition more than 10,000 forces from Germany.
President Biden and Mr. Austin quickly stopped that plan after taking office in January 2021.
Fifteen months later, The U.S. footprint has expanded to its highest level in years. In January, as the world watched to see whether Mr. Putin would attack Ukraine, about 80,000 U.S. troops were stationed across Europe.
Now, about 102,000 American forces are in Europe, military officials told The Times on Monday. Of those, about 65,000 are on a permanent deployment and remain there for several years. The remaining troops are in Europe on a rotational basis, officials said.
Such an approach has become common in Europe, the Korean Peninsula and other theaters with significant U.S. troop presences. Troops often arrive on short-term deployments to take part in military exercises or could be sent temporarily to hot spots such as Eastern Europe to demonstrate American resolve in the face of a potential attack.
In Eastern Europe in particular, Gen. Milley said, the U.S. can essentially have the best of both worlds.
“My advice would be to create permanent bases but don’t permanently station. So you get the effect of permanence by rotational forces cycling through permanent bases,” Gen. Milley told House lawmakers during a recent hearing. “And what you don’t have to do is incur the cost of family moves, PXs, schools, housing and that sort of thing. So you cycle through expeditionary forces through forward deployed permanent bases.
“You get the effect of permanent presence of forces, but the actual individual soldier, sailor, airman and Marine is not permanently stationed there for two or three years,” he said.
That approach clearly has supporters inside the Pentagon, but strong arguments could be made for more permanent deployments. Some evidence shows that rotations don’t always generate as much cost savings as anticipated.
Perhaps more important, permanent troop deployments may send stronger signals to allies and enemies. During the Trump administration, Poland lobbied for more American troops on its soil and even offered to build a $2 billion “Fort Trump” to house them.
“In terms of diplomatic or political-military factors, forward stationing is preferred by American allies overseas over rotational deployments. Allies perceive forward-stationed forces as a sign of a stronger, more enduring commitment from the United States,” U.S. Army War College researcher John R. Deni said in a 2017 report examining Army deployments around the world.