The Pentagon may delay the planned withdrawal of U.S. Air Force F-15C fighter jets from Europe, and possibly increase aircraft rotations to the continent, as part of an effort to reassure allies and boost assistance to the region in the wake of Russia's recent aggression in Ukraine, officials told members of Congress Wednesday.
In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, Pentagon leaders were pressed to provide more details about the White House's "Europe Reassurance Initiative," a $1 billion funding plan announced by the White House in June. The subject of Wednesday's hearing was the Pentagon's fiscal 2015 overseas contingency operations budget request for $58.6 billion. Money for the new European mission is part of that request.
Indications that the Defense Department may reconsider removing some of its F-15C aircraft from Europe come less than a month after Gen. Philip Breedlove, commander of U.S. European Command and North Atlantic Treaty Organization Supreme Allied Command, told reporters at the Pentagon that he expected to see reductions to the F-15 force in Europe.
Breedlove's statement followed an Air Force announcement in March that it wants to retire 51 F-15C Eagles, including 21 based overseas, starting in fiscal 2015. In Europe, there are 21 F-15Cs assigned to RAF Lakenheath, England, serving with the 493rd Fighter Squadron.
But the recent flare-up of tensions in eastern Europe, fanned by the Russian takeover of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula, has set U.S. allies in the region on edge and forced the United States to rethink and reprioritize its defense strategy in Europe.
Part of that may involve keeping F-15Cs in Europe for longer. The aircraft in May concluded a four-month Baltic air-policing mission while deployed to Lithuania. The mission was augmented in March after the crisis between Russia and Ukraine broke out.
Adm. James Winnefeld, Jr., the Joint Chiefs of Staff vice chairman, told the committee Wednesday that the DOD's primary budget "was submitted before any of this happened," referring to the crisis in eastern Europe. "So this is essentially trying to recover from that, quite honestly. There are initiatives we need to do to support particularly our eastern European partners, who are not quite as strong as our western European partners from a defense perspective."
Of the $1 billion being sought for Europe, $925 million would be set aside for the Defense Department and would be available for two years.
The Pentagon would use about $440 million to rotate elements of an Army armored brigade combat team into Europe; provide additional funds for expanded naval deployments in the Black and Baltic Seas; continue with NATO air policing in the Baltic region, and either temporarily delay withdrawal of Air Force F-15C aircraft from Europe or increase aircraft rotations to Europe, according to a prepared statement Secretary of Defense Bob Work submitted to the committee.
About $75 million would go toward conducting more NATO exercises and training with allies and partners; $250 million for infrastructure upgrades in central and eastern Europe, and $125 million for prepositioning of U.S. equipment, according to Work's statement.
Winnefeld described some of these initiatives in more detail, saying the Pentagon would like to increase training sites in Bulgaria and would look to upgrade weapons storage at Camp Darby, Italy, among other activities.
About $35 million would be used to help build partner capacity in some of the newer NATO allies and with non-NATO partners such as Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.
Part of that would include deploying forces to train with Georgia and Moldova, Winnefeld said.
The plan elicited some skepticism from lawmakers, who questioned the need to back up the U.S. commitment to Europe with more money.
"My first question is about the name," said Rep. Mac Thornberry, a Texas Republican. "We are part of a NATO treaty alliance, where we pledge to defend each other when attacked. So why does Europe need to be reassured with money?"