On Feb. 2, the White House announced its budget for 2016. If Congress approves it, the administration will hand over almost a trillion dollars to the Pentagon and a slew of other national security agencies.
The budget includes nearly $800 million for military exercises, infrastructure development, and training meant to contain Russia. The European Reassurance Initiative "support[s] European allies in their efforts to counter Russia's aggressive acts," according to the military.
But the $800-million reassurance fund for 2016 actually represents a reduction compared to 2015. Congress approved $985 million for the current year's program.
The Pentagon hopes that it can stretch the smaller budget by pulling cash from construction and weapons-storage — both important but undramatic efforts — and instead spending it on high-payoff military training.
On Jan. 30, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work previewed the then-upcoming budget proposal — and identified Ebola, Islamic State, and Russia the three top threats to the U.S.
Work said the situation in Ukraine and Crimea dramatically changed the landscape in Europe. "It shocked everyone," he said. "And it may herald a period of prolonged and heightened tension with Russia."
"A bigger nation cannot bully a small one," Work continued. "And we are opposing Russian aggression, supporting Ukraine's democracy, and reassuring our NATO allies."
The recent budget proposal outlines the details of that plan. "We're looking at increased troop rotations, more joint training, more exercises," Work said. "We're working to improve NATO's ability to deploy faster in times of crisis, including enhancing [its] rapid response force."
The ERI has five components — increased presence, military exercises, infrastructure, equipment prepositioning, and efforts to build up allies. The Pentagon cut funds to both infrastructure and prepositioning, down $100 million and $80 million, respectively.
Alongside these reductions, the 2016 budget proposal doesn't include the $175 million that the Pentagon allotted in 2015 for "support to Ukraine and the Baltic States."
That said, in 2016 the military wants to invest more in European training exercises. The bulk of the ERI's budget — more than $470 million, a $60-million boost relative to 2015 — would pay for rotating American troops and their equipment from the U.S. to Europe and back for the various war games.
More than $250 million of this "presence" part of the budget would fund trips to Europe by the Army's U.S.-based armor brigades. America recently sent tanks back to Europe and stored them at the Army's garrison in Grafenwoehr, Germany.
It's no surprise the Pentagon wants to maintain this stockpile.
One of the most important European exercises is Swift Response, a war game specifically for the Army's Global Response Force, a 5,000-soldier task force that can deploy anywhere in the world in 96 hours.
Drills like Swift Response are important. They build camaraderie between allied nations and help keep troops combat-ready. There's also the added effect of sending a not-so-subtle signal to Russia.
The Army is also getting the biggest chunk of the assurance fund's somewhat-reduced infrastructure budget — around $70 million. The Pentagon wants to spend the money upgrading training sites, essentially adding space for the Army and its heavy equipment.
The Pentagon allocates a couple of million to support the Air Force and the Navy in Europe, and adds funds to send Marines to the Baltic region for training. The budget proposal would spend almost $20 million to improve airfields in Bulgaria, Romania, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — all Eastern European countries.
But the overwhelming majority of the ERI's cash would go to the Army and its tanks. Which makes sense … in a conventional war.
The purpose of the initiative is to assure NATO allies in the region that America is ready to fight, should Russia violate a member nation's sovereignty.
But the Kremlin's tactics in Crimea and Ukraine have been anything but standard warfare. Russia deployed secret agents, undertook subtle political destabilization efforts, and orchestrated a sophisticated propaganda campaign in its campaigns to seize Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
More tanks and troops are great, but they might not help NATO members if Russia again applies its "asymmetric" strategy. Estonia and Latvia are both dealing with political movements with Kremlin ties. A sign some see as a precursor to overt aggression on Moscow's part.
This makes the current reassurance plan a largely reactionary one. So much hinges on Moscow making the first move.
"It depends upon Russian actions," Work said in his January speech. "It is something that continues to evolve from day to day and week to week, depending on how Russia reacts."
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