Wall Street Journal – by JULIAN E. BARNES And GORDON LUBOLD
SIMI VALLEY, Calif.—Senior U.S. military leaders have proposed sending more forces into Europe on a rotating basis to build up the American presence and are stepping up training exercises to counter potential Russian interference with troop transfers in the event of a crisis with Moscow.
The new steps would allow for the presence of multiple U.S. brigades in Europe at any given time, increasing that number above current limits.
They were outlined at a forum here over the weekend by military and defense leaders, who condemned military aggression and threats from Russian President Vladimir Putinand warned that the U.S. must not let Moscow’s cooperation with the West in Syria distract from the conflict in Ukraine.
Russia has been involved in diplomatic talks over the war in Syria and the future of the regime of its ally President Bashar al-Assad. In late September, it launched a campaign of airstrikes in support of Mr. Assad’s government.
Gen. Philip Breedlove, the supreme allied commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, said he would like to see more brigades committed to Europe as rotational forces. Decisions on the proposal, he said, will be made “in the next couple of months.”
Gen. Mark Milley, the chief of staff of the U.S. Army, said the Army is refining its training to ensure the U.S. military is able to face threats posed by Russian forces, learning to counter hybrid war, which blends regular and irregular forces, propaganda and unconventional tactics to sow confusion. He also said he was in favor of sending more troops to deploy—on a temporary basis—to Europe.
Such moves, Gen. Milley said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, are critical to ensure that no new conflict erupts in Europe.
“Aggression left unanswered is likely to lead to more aggression,” he said.
The generals’ comments came over the weekend at the Reagan National Defense Forum here, an annual gathering of U.S. defense and national security leaders.
The proposal for more rotating forces must be formally developed by Pentagon planners and then approved by the Obama administration and funded by Congress. The military will push for the inclusion of funding in a budget request to be sent to Capitol Hill early next year, officials said.
At the same forum, Defense Secretary Ash Carter also issued a warning against Russian aggression. He said in an address Saturday that Moscow seems “intent to play spoiler” by “throwing gasoline” on the fire of Syria and criticized Russian “nuclear saber-rattling.”
Russian officials declined to comment on Sunday. Senior Russian officials have repeatedly said there is little difference between rotational forces and a permanent buildup. They have also repeatedly accused the U.S. and NATO of being the aggressor in Europe.
NATO countries are discussing increasing the number of troops stationed in members bordering Russia and putting them under formal alliance command. The next talks on that idea are likely to come in early December, when foreign ministers gather and begin discussing proposals to be formalized at a Warsaw summit in July.
U.S. defense leaders have been more hawkish in their comments than either White House or European officials as they focus on the U.S.-Russian military landscape.
Both the Obama administration and German leaders have criticized Russia as well, but they also have emphasized the importance of including Moscow in discussions over the future of Syria.
While officials have said the White House in recent weeks has asked some military leaders to temper some comments, the administration is pursuing a strategy that allows Pentagon officials the latitude to talk about bolstering defenses, while State Department diplomats try to engage with Moscow.
An administration official said it was reasonable for the Pentagon and State Department “to pursue different tracks.” The Pentagon, the official said, is focused on enhancing European readiness, while the State Department was pursuing “diplomacy where we can and where it is in our interest.”
Gen. Breedlove warned that by cooperating with Russia on Syria, the West will come to accept Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in Ukraine’s Donbas region.
“I fear that as we are dealing with Russia in Syria, the eyes are off the Donbas,” Gen. Breedlove said in an interview. “Why would we want our first negotiations on how we cooperate to be in Syria and then possibly allow the eyes of the world to accept what happened in Crimea?”
Mr. Carter defended what he called a balanced approach to Russia, saying Moscow may play a constructive role in resolving the Syrian civil war.
But signaling his wariness over Russian intentions, he said NATO needs a “new playbook” to deter Russia.
Defense officials said NATO would avoid massive troop buildups and instead rely on ways to get smaller numbers of troops forward from the U.S. both during a crisis and to prevent tensions from growing into a conflict.
The Army currently has two brigades—of about 3,500 soldiers each—based in Europe. It has assigned one additional brigade in the U.S. to serve as a regionally aligned force that will rotate into and out of Europe. Gen. Milley said he would like to add more brigades to those rotating to Europe, and add attack helicopter units, engineering teams and artillery brigades.
Russia has been building up and modernizing its military to make U.S. steps to reinforce European defenses more difficult. Russian submarine patrols and exercises have increased dramatically, Navy officials have noted.
Russia also has been increasing what military leaders call anti-access, area denial forces—air defense systems, surface-to-surface missiles, antiship weaponry—that can be used to keep opposing military equipment at arm’s length.
Other military officials have warned about such missile systems being moved into Kaliningrad—the Russian exclave located between Poland and Lithuania—and Crimea. Officials said Russia now seems intent on putting new weaponry at a base in Belarus.
In the event of a conflict, Gen. Breedlove said the U.S. will face a problem both with flying troops from the U.S. to Europe, as well as moving forces and equipment from airports and seaports to front-line conflict zones.
“The Russian navy is not going to stand by and watch us reinforce Europe,” in the event of a confrontation, said Gen. Breedlove. “For two decades we haven’t thought about the fact that we are going to have to fight our way across the Atlantic.”
Mr. Carter said the U.S. is investing in technologies meant to counter these Russian investments, including in lasers, a new bomber and upgraded drones. He also said the U.S. was “updating and advancing” operational defense plans against the Russian military, “given Russia’s changed behavior.”
Military officials noted that any new deployments must be carefully calibrated.
“The challenge here is to deter further aggression without triggering that which you are trying to deter,” Gen. Milley said. “It is a very difficult proposition.”
Throughout the later years of the Cold War, the U.S. military conducted a massive exercise called Reforger, that practiced moving tens of thousands of troops from the U.S. to Europe quickly. While there is no need to revive the exercise on that same scale, a new kind of drill that echoed the old Reforger operation would be helpful, Gen. Milley said.
“Nobody wants to go back to the days of the Cold War,” Gen. Milley said. “We don’t need exercises as big as Reforger anymore. But the concept of Reforger, where you exercise contingency forces … that is exactly what we should be doing.”