A new and challenging security environment with significant, lasting implications for U.S. national security interests has plagued Europe in the last year, with Russian aggression the top concern, the commander of U.S. European Command said on Capitol Hill today.
Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, who also serves as NATO’s supreme allied commander for Europe, testified at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Eucom’s responsibilities as part of the president’s fiscal year 2016 defense budget request.
Calling Russia a revanchist nation that blatantly challenges rules and principles that have been the European security bedrock for decades, the nation is a global, enduring concern, the general warned.
“Russian aggression is clearly visible in its illegal occupation of Crimea and its continued operations in eastern Ukraine,” he said. “In Ukraine, Russia has supplied their proxies with heavy weapons, training and mentoring, command and control, artillery, fire support, tactical and operational-level air defenses,” Breedlove noted, adding that the situation on the ground also is volatile and fragile.
Potential Russian Offensive
Russian forces repositioned during a recent lull in fighting, Breedlove noted. “Many [Russian] actions are consistent with preparations for another offensive,” he added.
Russia is aggressive in all elements of national power -- diplomatic, informational, economic, and its military, the general said.
“It would not make sense to unnecessarily take any of our own tools off the table,” he said about the U.S. possibility of supplying defensive weapons to Ukraine.
Russia’s aggression also is destabilizing neighboring states and the region, and its illegal actions are pushing instability closer to NATO’s boundaries, Breedlove told the senators.
“We cannot be fully certain what Russia will do next, and we cannot fully grasp [Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s] intent,” Breedlove he said. “What we can do is learn from his actions, and what we see suggests growing Russian capabilities, significant military modernization and an ambitious strategic intent.”
The United States must strengthen its deterrence to manage Putin’s opportunist confidence, the general said, “because [Putin] responds to strength and seeks opportunities in weakness.”
Violent Extremism in Europe
Europe faces a challenging surge of violent extremism, and its nations are “rightly worried” about foreign fighters returning home to Europe from the fight in Syria and Iraq with new skills and with bad intent, he noted.
Foreign fighters show a large pattern of insecurity in southern Europe, the commander said. And transit routes are shared with violent extremists, organized criminal networks and migrant populations fleeing difficult conditions in Libya, he added.
“The spread of instability into Europe and the transnational terrorism … could have a direct bearing on the national security of the U.S. homeland,” Breedlove said.
Eucom works with European nations bilaterally and supported NATO initiatives to confront and counter the new, more complex security environment, Breedlove told the panel, in addition to working with other U.S. combatant commands and international organizations.
“U.S. efforts in Europe remain essential. Our leadership is perhaps more important now than at any time in recent history,” he said, adding a “key and sustained” U.S. military role is critical.
Eucom also draws heavily from a new Defense Department program, the Defensive Innovation Initiative, which uses cutting-edge approaches to tough challenges such as anti-access area denial, Breedlove said.
Continued Assets from Congress Needed
With the strong threat posed by Russia and the growing challenge in southern Europe, Breedlove said, Eucom needs help from Congress in three areas.
The first, he said, is a persistent U.S. forward presence in Europe, which he called the bedrock of the United States’ ability to assure allies, deter adversaries and be postured to act timely if deterrence fails.
Second, he said, is for Congress to provide for sufficient intelligence support, after Russia’s operations in Ukraine the past year underscored critical gaps in intelligence collection and analysis.
“Russian military exercises have caught us by surprise, and our textured feel for Russian involvement on the ground in Ukraine has been quite limited,” Breedlove emphasized.
Earlier warning also will assist with counterterrorism and operations in the European theater against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, he said. “A small investment in this capability could lead to a large return and our understanding of the complex challenges we face,” he added.
Co0ngress also must provide sufficient future resourcing with European Reassurance Initiative funding support in fiscal year 2016. ERI support in fiscal 2015 showed the U.S. commitment to its allies, helped to shape the European theater and allowed Eucom to build and sustain partner capacity, Breedlove said.
“Key components of ERI in fiscal ’16 include maintaining air superiority presence, participating in NATO exercises, supporting rotational presence of an armored brigade combat team, prepositioning equipment [and] funding the Global Response Force exercises, in addition to other needs,” he added.
Budgetary Constraints Risky
Previous constraints put Eucom in a position of assuming greater risk, the general said, citing longer deployments, less-robust preparations, and a “less sure” ability to deter and defeat an enemy than existed a decade ago.
“As [Defense Secretary Ash Carter] testified recently, further reductions would damage our national security and have a direct and lasting impact on our ability to protect and defend the nation in and from the European theater,” Breedlove said. “[And] the security challenges in and around Europe are growing sharper and more complicated.”
(Follow Terri Moon Cronk on Twitter: @MoonCronkDod)