Wanted: Affordable and Sustainable Deterrence in Europe

July 6, 2016

At this week’s NATO Summit in Warsaw, President Obama and the other 27 allied heads of state and government are expected to approve a number of measures to shore up NATO defenses along its eastern flank — what Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg calls the biggest reinforcement of collective defense since the end of the Cold War, anchored by a 3 percent growth in 2016 defense spending by the United States’ NATO allies. The anticipated headline achievement will be the deployment of four NATO battalions to Poland and the Baltic States; with three of those battalions provided by the UK, Germany, and Canada, this shows that Washington’s allies are doing more to share the burden within NATO.   Since 2014, the Obama administration has spent approximately $1.8 billion on similar assurance efforts meant to comfort nervous allies and bolster NATO’s deterrence against Russia, with a further $3.4 billion in the pipeline for 2017.  As a result of this investment, the downward trend in the size of U.S. forces in Europe has been reversed for the first time in a quarter century. The summit will likewise celebrate last year’s modest but hard-won reversal of NATO’s years-long downward trend in defense spending. Things are looking up. However, the real test will be sustaining this positive momentum in a Europe that faces not only threats from Russia but the centrifugal forces of Brexit, a persistent migration crisis, and an unresolved Eurozone debt challenge.

The realities of an increasingly aggressive Russia combined with U.S. security interests in Europe speak to the need for additional U.S. troops forward stationed on the continent for the foreseeable future. Accordingly, the United States should begin to shift from the surge mentality that has characterized its response since Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. In its place, Washington and its allies should construct a more affordable and sustainable model for contributing to credible deterrence in Central and Eastern Europe. To put U.S. forward presence on a cost-effective and solid long-term footing, Washington should optimize how it works with allied forces, provide increased support to U.S. forces, and station American troops in places where they can do their job most efficiently. A recent CSIS study evaluating U.S. Army force posture in Europe offers almost 40 recommendations to this effect. These include  the permanent assignment of an armored brigade and combat aviation brigade in Europe and the stationing of three U.S. Army battalions along NATO’s eastern flank. At the core of these debates sit two issues: cost and sustainability.

The relatively modest increase in U.S. forces in Europe has, thus far, relied almost entirely upon costly rotations of forces based in the United States for months at a time. Next year’s proposed budget and implementation plan will vastly expand the cost of these rotations by requiring that these U.S.-based forces, which currently rely upon equipment prepositioned in Eastern Europe, begin bringing their own heavy equipment with them from the United States. This will entail an expensive and time-consuming process of shuttling thousands of pieces of heavy equipment, including a brigade’s-worth of tanks and armored vehicles, back and forth across the Atlantic every nine months. The rotational model was sensible in the immediate wake of the Ukraine crisis, and it brought readiness benefits through exercising the full deployment of an armored brigade to Europe.  But the United States needs to rethink how it sources its forward troop presence in Europe to gain back the efficiencies lost through rotations. Permanently stationing an armored brigade back in Europe, perhaps in Germany, would entail higher upfront costs but would be more economical over the long term. Such a change would partially reverse the Defense Department’s 2012 decision to deactivate the last two armored brigades in Europe which ended a long simmering debate over the size of the U.S. Army presence on the continent that began when the Bush administration first announced the two brigades would withdraw in 2004..  The rotational forces could then be sourced from a lighter U.S.-based infantry brigade for a total of four combat brigades (three permanent and one rotational) on the continent at any given time.

Costs aside, the volume and pace of training events and continuous deployments to NATO’s eastern flank are beginning to strain U.S. and some Baltic forces beyond sustainable limits.  The Estonian and Latvian militaries, combined, total about 11,000 troops — equivalent to less than half the daily population of the Pentagon. Their small size makes it difficult for host-nation militaries to keep up with the fresh U.S. and other allied troops persistently cycling through, and to comfortably absorb them on existing military bases and training ranges when they arrive. The operational trade-offs for host nation forces — who must also undertake contingency planning and internal defense exercises, while maintaining contributions to international peacekeeping missions — are significant.  The United States and its allies should better utilize NATO to de-conflict and rationalize their training and exercise offerings in the east so that they build the combat capability and resilience of host nation forces through more varied, complex, and perhaps less frequent events.

Likewise, U.S. soldiers in Europe charged with executing the assurance mission are extremely stretched, and Washington needs to address multiple sustainability issues. During the course of our research and field interviews, we learned that extended rotations to the eastern flank have replaced the one- to two-week security cooperation engagements that were more common to the Ukraine crisis. Unlike other extended operations, these troops do not yet receive deployment benefits for rotations that will soon last up to nine months. U.S. troops transiting through the Baltic States also do not enjoy the supplementary legal protections that the United States has negotiated with several Western European allies on issues like criminal and civil jurisdiction. This is a concern now that upwards of 5,000 U.S. troops are passing through the region per year, and an unnecessary (and easily mitigated) risk. More broadly, the lack of adequate capabilities to combat Russia’s growing regional advantages in anti-access/area denial (A2/AD), combined arms, and non-kinetic specialties such as cyber and electronic warfare, is another risk that undermines the ability of allied forces to reinforce forward-stationed troops in a crisis.  These challenges highlight areas where the United States will need greater investment over time, not just on land but in the air, maritime, and cyber domains.

As the Warsaw Summit marks a shift in NATO’s overall approach from assurance to longer-term deterrence, affordability, and sustainment challenges  will only become more acute over time if left unaddressed. Executing the shift smartly should be a priority for the next U.S. administration, building on the good work done at the 2014 Wales Summit and, soon, in Warsaw.


Lisa Sawyer Samp is a Senior Fellow in CSIS’s International Security Program, and formerly the Director for NATO and European Strategic Affairs at the National Security Council. Jeff Rathke is a Senior Fellow and Deputy Director of CSIS’s Europe program, and formally a Foreign Service Officer at the State Department.  

Image: U.S. Army photo, Staff Sgt. Steven M. Colvin