The European Reassurance Initiative
The president’s FY 2017 budget proposes to quadruple funding for the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI) to $3.4 billion, up from $789 million in FY 2016. The request represents a significant reinvestment in the U.S. military presence in Europe after decades of gradual withdrawal. More fundamentally, it indicates the administration’s acknowledgement of the growing threat Russia poses to long-term U.S. national security interests in Europe and beyond.
Q1: What is ERI?
A1: Announced by the president in June 2014, ERI was established in the FY 2015 budget as a one-year, $1 billion emergency response to Russian aggression. At that time Russia had seized Crimea and was conducting cross-border military operations in eastern Ukraine. ERI was intended to “reassure allies of the U.S. commitment to their security and territorial integrity as members of the NATO Alliance.” It supported increased U.S. investment across five categories: (1) presence; (2) training and exercises; (3) infrastructure; (4) prepositioned equipment; and (5) building partner capacity.
To expand presence across the region, the U.S. Army began periodic rotations of armored and airborne brigades to Poland and the Baltic states; the Air Force added additional F-15s to NATO’s Baltic Air Policing mission; and the Navy continuously cycled ships through the Black Sea. The United States spent $250 million to improve bases in Europe. The Army enhanced existing equipment sets in Europe and began adding sets of training equipment (technically called a European Activity Set) in the Baltic states. The State Department also received some funding to increase security assistance to non-NATO partners, including Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova.
ERI was included in war funding (Overseas Contingency Operations or OCO) because those funds are not restricted by the budget caps. Therefore creating ERI did not require offsets from elsewhere in the defense budget. Although ERI did not meet the administration’s technical criteria for what should go into OCO, the president proposed it nonetheless, and Congress did not object.
ERI was stated to be a one-year effort, but the president’s budget for FY 2016 requested $789 million for ERI, also in war funding. This ERI funding continued the forward deployments and exercises begun in the previous year. Funding in both years was approved with strong bipartisan support, which recognized the need to counter increasing Russian aggressiveness. ERI activities have since come under the heading of Operation Atlantic Resolve and represent the U.S. contribution to NATO’s assurance efforts.
Q2: What has the administration requested in FY 2017, and how is this different from previous years?
A2: The president’s budget requests $3.4 billion. Most is for the Army, but there are pieces for the other services as well. The request is broken down across the same five categories as previous years, though with greater emphasis on equipment:
· Presence ($1,050 million): Continuing and expanding the program of deployments and exercises begun in 2015. The addition of another armored brigade combat team (BCT) in the rotation means there will be an armored brigade on the ground continuously. With the two existing brigades in Europe, there will thus be a total of three U.S. BCTs on the continent at all times, and four during times of handover. A BCT is the Army’s basic deployable maneuver unit consisting of 4,000 to 5,000 troops.
· Exercises and training ($163 million): ERI increased the number and size of exercises and partnership engagements in 2015, and this will continue.
· Prepositioned Equipment ($1,904 million): The largest amount of the ERI request funds the maintenance and expansion of prepositioned sets of war-fighting equipment (known as Army Prepositioned Stock). The United States has long had a program in Europe whereby it stores equipment in warehouses ashore to allow rapid reinforcement of the forces already in theater. In an emergency, the United States need only fly the personnel from wherever they are to Europe, which is relatively easy, and link up with the prepositioned equipment. The extensive prepositioned sets of the Cold War in Europe have been reduced over the years, greatly slowing U.S. reinforcement capacity in an emergency. To shorten this timeline, the United States will add additional equipment sets, including tanks, heavy artillery, weapons, ammunition, and other gear, in Western Europe, as well as maintaining the training set already spread across the Baltic states and elsewhere in the east.
· Infrastructure ($217 million): The ERI requests funds for improving air fields and bases in Europe, especially in Eastern Europe. Improvements, such as for training ranges, make the bases more useful for training of U.S. and allied forces. Improvements to airfields make them more capable of not just training, but also of receiving reinforcements during an emergency.
· Building Partner Capacity (86 million): A small portion of the ERI request will be allocated to increasing the resilience of allies and partners through institutional development and training. In addition to the Defense Department’s ERI request, the State Department cites $953 million in its budget for “critical support for Ukraine and surrounding countries in Europe, Eurasia and Central Asia to counter Russian aggression.”
Q3: Does this now represent a long-term commitment?
A3: Yes, ERI now represents a long-term commitment and is no longer conceived of as a one-year or short-term effort, despite residing in OCO. The FY 2017 request is the first year of a multiyear plan.
The fact that ERI is funded in OCO represents an obstacle, but a minor one. In theory, OCO as a funding stream could go away as the United States winds down its overseas wars. OCO does not, therefore, have the same permanence that funding in the base budget would. However, with an expanding war in Iraq against ISIL and longer-term commitments recently made in Afghanistan, OCO appears to have a long future. Further, ERI has strong bipartisan support, so it is unlikely that there will be an effort to eliminate or reduce it within the foreseeable future.
Q4: Does this represent a change in U.S. strategy, in Europe and globally?
A4: Although not a change in strategy, it does represent a shift in emphasis, recognizing that the threat from Russia is not going away anytime soon and, in fact, may be getting worse. It also shows that Russia is now ranking higher in the administration’s overall prioritization of global challenges. Defense Secretary Ash Carter highlighted Russia, along with China, Iran, North Korea, and ISIL, when previewing the department’s budget last Tuesday.
While the first and second years of ERI were focused on reassuring allies, this year’s ERI emphasizes U.S. readiness and deterrence. The increase in prepositioned equipment in Western Europe, far from Russia’s reach, increases the Army’s war-fighting capabilities. Together with the new rotational brigade, the equipment will reduce Moscow’s “time and space” advantage, a by-product of Russia’s proximity to the Baltic states and ability to rapidly mobilize its forces. Prepositioning this equipment indicates that the department chose to sacrifice some of its strategic flexibility—or ability to deploy globally by keeping the equipment at home—in favor of heightened readiness to respond to a crisis in the European theater. All of this indicates that the Defense Department is more serious about the defense of Europe and settling in for what they see as an enduring new reality vis-à-vis Russia.
So, while the strategy for dealing with Russia has not changed (it still relies on a combination of defense, deterrence, reassurance, and building resilience among allies and partners), the ability to credibly implement it just got a whole lot better.
Q5: Is it too much, not enough, or just right?
A5: The FY 2017 request is a very good start, but ultimately not enough. After decades of divestment and withdrawal during a period of peace and stability on the continent, the U.S. presence in Europe had been gutted of most of its war-fighting capabilities and had not kept up with the evolving requirements for countering Russia’s improving military forces.
As noted in a recent CSIS report entitled Evaluating Future U.S. Army Force Posture in Europe, the Army’s presence in Europe has steadily declined from roughly 200,000 during the 1980s to approximately 33,000 in 2015. The United States has also “closed a significant amount of its ground forces infrastructure (over 100 sites since 2006); removed much of its heavy equipment from the continent; and concentrated its remaining forces in several locations in western Germany and Italy,” hundreds of miles from NATO’s post-enlargement borders. It is, therefore, infeasible for a few years of increased investment to undo what has been done over decades.
This is not to suggest that the United States should aspire to return to a Cold War posture in Europe. However, the United States does need to rebuild its capabilities to contend with Russia’s employment of advanced military capabilities—especially anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD), electronic warfare (EW), and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)—and a sophisticated mix of deception and coercion in the political, economic, and information spaces.
Q6: Are allies doing their part?
A6: Some yes; most no. Fair burden sharing between the United States and its European allies is a perennial challenge within NATO. The simultaneity of crises in Europe—including Russia, migration, foreign fighters and terrorism, and the rise of anti-EU populism—is taking its toll on Europe’s budgets and attention. Though all 28 NATO allies have contributed to NATO’s assurance and deterrence efforts, the scope and scale of individual states’ contributions varies greatly. Some allies in Central and Eastern Europe are predictably more invested than their southern and western counterparts, many of whom consider terrorism or migration emanating from an unstable Middle East and North Africa to be more pressing issues.
It is, therefore, unlikely that the United States’ ERI announcement will immediately elicit similarly impressive commitments from major powers at this week’s Defense Ministerial in Brussels, where the alliance will review progress in implementing the Readiness Action Plan (RAP)—adopted at the September 2014 Wales Summit to enhance NATO’s deterrence and defense. In general, progress on the RAP has been steady, though much work remains, as is the case with NATO efforts to stabilize and increase the military spending of European nations and Canada after years of decline. To win commitments from the Europeans, the United States must make clear its expectation that allies be ready with some high-profile announcements of their own by the time of the Warsaw Summit in July.
Q7: The Russians have complained about this initiative. Is it provocative?
A7: No, it is not provocative in a military sense. The new measures being undertaken are defensive in nature and demonstrate U.S. preparedness to respond, not invade. The United States is not moving forward any deep strike weapons that could attack the Russian homeland. The U.S. fighters being retained in Europe are F-15Cs, which have only counter-air capabilities, not F-15Es, which also have air-to-ground capability. No new U.S. troops are being permanently stationed in Eastern Europe.
The Russians have established a pattern of crying foul on any moves to enhance deterrence, particularly any steps that bring NATO forces closer to their borders, as part of their long-term effort to constrain NATO actions and undermine Europe’s cohesion. By portraying the U.S. actions as aggressive and provocative, they hope in Russia to stoke fears of encirclement and in Europe to reduce ERI’s impact and discourage allies from participating.
Mark Cancian is a senior adviser, and Lisa Samp a fellow, with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
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