The billions being spent on expanding U.S. military presence in Europe to keep Russia at bay is only a first step to rebuilding a force that has atrophied over the past 20 years, according to the top U.S. commander on the continent.

For the past two decades, the U.S. military has treated Russia as a productive and cooperative member of the international community, focusing on engagement rather than deterrence, Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, chief of U.S. European Command (EUCOM), told the House Armed Service Committee on Feb. 25.

“We have downsized our forces, downsized our headquarters capabilities…to become a command that was focused on engaging Russia as a partner and building partnership capacity in Europe,” he said. “What we now have is clearly not a partner in Russia…That 20 years of change will not be overcome in one or two steps. ERI (European Reassurance Initiative) is one of the steps along the way to reposition us, I think…to get to where we need to be to deter.”

Air Force Genereal Philip Breedlove at Air Force Association Conference Photo: U.S. Air Force
Air Force Genereal Philip Breedlove at Air Force Association Conference
Photo: U.S. Air Force

Breedlove, who is set to retire after a 40-year career in uniform, told HASC that his legacy as EUCOM commander would be planting the seeds for a resurgent U.S. force in Europe that will provide a credible barrier to Russian aggression against NATO’s eastern flank. Russia has chosen to become and adversary to NATO, he said, and views it and the United States as “as threats to its objectives and constraints to its aspirations.”

EUCOM is currently undermanned and ill equipped to stand up to Russia, Breedlove said. The massive infusion of overseas contingency operations (OCO) funding funneled to Europe in the Defense Department’s 2017 budget submission seeks to correct that situation.

“This year’s budget request reflects our solemn commitment to the security of our allies and partners and to protecting our homeland forward,” he said. “EUCOM does not yet have the personnel, equipment and resources necessary to carry out this growing initiative.”

The Pentagon earmarked $3.4 billion to pay for an expansion of the ERI. Nearly all of that–$2.8 billion–-will be deposited in the Army’s OCO account for use in Europe. The Army’s OCO request for fiscal 2017 rose to $23 billion from $21 billion in the current fiscal year, almost entirely because of planned activities to counter Russia on the continent.

“That would let us deepen our investment in Europe ,” Breedlove said.

ERI funding is focused on five main points, he said: providing more rotational forces, increasing training with allies and partner nations, increasing prepositioned equipment stocks, increasing allied capacity and improving supporting infrastructure.

“We are looking in this ERI to bring across our second heavy force to put into prepositioned status,” Breedlove said. “This one would be used not for practice but for war fighting. We are using ERI to rotationally increase our forward force structure…There is no real substitute for permanently forward stationed forces, but a second best…is to have heal-to-toe rotational forces fully funded to increase our presence.”

In fiscal 2017, ERI will enter its third year as a funded endeavor, but will likely require outlays of contingency funding for years to come, he said.

“ERI does both assure our allies and I believe ERI begins the movement or the changes we need to make to fully deter Russia,” Breedlove said. “But it is a step along that path…Those five elements are going to need to be sustained for some number of years to get us to that position where we believe we are now in the position where we can deter, as well as ensure.”

Besides bringing a second brigade’s worth of equipment and vehicles over from the United States, EUCOM also needs to restructure its headquarters to put it on a potential-war footing, Breedlove said. The command has cut headquarters staff consistently for a number of years and precipitously since the Budget Control Act of 2011.

“We have to be able now to be a war fighting headquarters and a war fighting force, as opposed to an engagement and building partnership capacity force,” Breedlove said. “We will still do those functions, but we have to rethink if we have the capability and capacity to be a war fighting force and we do not.”