It has now been two years since Russia illegally seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine and began a low-level, destabilizing “hybrid war” in Ukraine’s east.
Russia’s attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty came after Russia had previously battled with and occupied territory belonging to Georgia and allegedly sponsored severe cyber attacks targeting NATO member Estonia.
The message Vladimir Putin sends his neighbors is clear: Toe Russia’s line or pay the price.
These Russian attacks and provocations have had many nations in Central and Eastern Europe on edge. In February, as part of the Defense Department’s Fiscal 2017 budget request, US leaders announced a quadrupling of funding for the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI), a US program designed to reassure, bolster, and defend the European nations most threatened by Russia.
This is an extraordinary uptick in funding: a more than $2.5 billion increase in a single year to enhance what was already a high-profile defense and engagement program. ERI includes Operation Atlantic Resolve, a series of US-led measures to expand Allied training exercises, make infrastructure improvements, and create a larger rotational presence in Europe.
“We share a commitment to promoting a Europe that is whole, free, and at peace,” read an end-of-2015 US European Command release. Atlantic Resolve is a response to “Russian intervention in Ukraine specifically.”
Many of the nations with the most to fear are NATO members, and the Alliance—led as always by the United States—continues to increase its support of their freedom and security. Make no mistake: “We will defend every inch of our NATO territories,” Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, EUCOM commander, said in February, Stars and Stripes reported.
This past year saw several notable US deployments and military engagements. To cite just a few of 2015’s air-centric operations, there was:
- A six-month A-10 theater security package that saw a dozen Warthogs and 300 airmen from Moody AFB, Ga., operate out of bases in Estonia, Hungary, and Romania.
- A three-week, five C-130 detachment deployed to Powidz AB, Poland, to train with the Poles for skills including night vision goggle operations and fighter intercept training.
- An Oregon Air National Guard deployment of a dozen F-15Cs to Campia Turzii Air Base in Romania to train with allies and “strengthen interoperability.”
- A deployment of eight New Jersey ANG F-16s to Graf Ignatievo AB, Bulgaria, for the two-week Thracian Star combined air operation exercise.
And in the highest-profile European deployment of the year, four F-22 Raptors, a C-17 airlifter, and 60 airmen deployed to Spangdahlem AB, Germany, for the F-22’s first deployment to Europe. From Germany, the Raptors branched out to fly from bases in Poland and Estonia, “demonstrating our commitment to NATO Allies and the security of Europe,” stated EUCOM.
With these visible airpower commitments as the baseline, DOD is really ramping things up now. “2017 ERI funding strengthens deterrence through measures that provide a quick joint response against any threats made by aggressive actors in the region,” budget justification documents explain.
More than a half-billion dollars would be committed to establishing an Army armored brigade combat team in Europe.
Planned air initiatives include new pre-positioned equipment to support forward flight operations. DOD seeks to put aircraft maintenance vehicles, forklifts, crash recovery vehicles and fire trucks, and runway snow removal equipment at numerous forward locations to allow for quick and dispersed flight operations.
It’s not just logistics. The plan also calls for “deferring previously planned force reductions” at RAF Lakenheath, UK. The base will keep a full complement of 20 air superiority F-15C fighters “ready for operational patrols and joint exercises” through 2017.
These defense measures send a powerful message to America’s allies that the US stands with them against aggression and intimidation. In a reflection of the tension on the continent, Russian, NATO, and US officials repeatedly exchanged blunt words during last month’s Munich Security Conference in Germany.
“We have to take these threats from Moscow seriously,” said Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski. “We have to be wise before the event, not wise after the event.”
Criticism angered prominent Russians in Munich. “NATO’s policy with regard to Russia has remained unfriendly and opaque,” Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev complained, adding, “One could go as far as to say that we have slid back to a new Cold War. Almost on an everyday basis we are called one of the most terrible threats either to NATO as a whole or to Europe, or to the United States.”
But Russia is still illegally occupying Crimea and covertly supporting a separatist war in Eastern Ukraine. These facts were not lost on Breedlove, who said, “Our actions are defensive, and they are proportionate in size and capability.”
NATO is bolstering its reassurance efforts because it spent 20 years trying to build a partnership with Russia, a nation that “does not want to be a partner,” Breedlove said.
And so, to demonstrate commitment to those threatened by Russia, USAF will vigorously bolster its European capabilities. Airpower is fast, flexible, and highly visible when needed.
One final example: As part of the 2017 budget request, USAF seeks infrastructure improvements at Spangdahlem to support fifth generation fighter operations with hardened aircraft shelters, a low observable/ composite repair facility, and other upgrades to facilitate F-22 (and eventually F-35) deployments to Europe.
As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in Munich, “Deterrence starts with resolve. It’s not enough to feel it. You also have to show it.”