As the U.S. Defense Department expands its presence in Europe, the Air Force has quietly increased investments that will enable it to deploy to allied bases in Eastern Europe and operate near to Russia’s western flank.
The Trump administration desires to spend $828 million in 2019 to develop military infrastructure in Europe as part of a continuous initiative to deter Russian aggression and reinforce allies. Almost half of these construction funding would go toward U.S. Air Force projects.
The request would greater than double military construction funding within the European Deterrence Initiative, or EDI, in the 2018 request, if not so long ago, the U.S. military was shrinking its Cold War-era footprint in Europe.
As the EDI request grew to $6.5 billion from $4.8 billion in 2018, military construction in the EDI request leaped from $338 million in 2018, while pre-positioning funds jumped from $2.2 billion to $3.2 billion.
Of that, the Air Force would spend $368.six million to pre-position equipment and $363.8 million for military construction. While that’s roughly on par with what was spent in fiscal 2018, it’s a huge jump from FY17, when the Air Force got only $31.2 million in pre-positioning funds and $85.4 million for military construction.
The idea is that if Russia invaded a European nation, by way of example, Latvia, the U.S. Air Force would be able to quickly respond, supported by basic airfields to reload, refuel and repair damage.
To do this, the U.S. is placing pre-positioned Air Force basing assets in original NATO nations, like Germany as well as the United Kingdom, and making significant airfield improvements in Eastern Bloc countries and beyond.
To be clear, the U.S. is not taking a look at gathering new major bases in former Soviet bloc countries, but it’s making improvements to existing infrastructure to be sure it supports U.S. specific requirements.
“It helps it be easier to strengthen allies in the crisis,” said Mark Cancian, a retired Marine Corps officer and senior international security adviser while using Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The munitions, the taxiways and refueling points can make it less difficult to maneuver inside in an emergency.”
U.S. European Command chief Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti called much in congressional testimony in March. The FY18 and FY19 budget requests, he was quoted saying, would “enable the rapid reception of fourth- and fifth-generation fighters, close-air support, bombers and air mobility aircraft in the contingency.”
On Russia’s doorstep, the 2018 budget funded refueling infrastructure as well as a tactical fighter aircraft parking apron and taxiway at Amari Air Base, in Estonia, so it can support the A-10, F-15, F-16, F-22 and F-35 aircraft. The 2019 budget request wants $16 million more for U.S. Special Operations Command training and operations facilities at Amari.
At Kecskemet Air Base, in Hungary, $56 million in 2018 dollars is purchasing fuel storage, taxiway construction as well as other improvements to accommodate the F-15, A-10 and C-5 transport aircraft.
The 2019 request would develop a munitions storage facility at Malacky Air Base, in Slovakia, where 2018 dollars are expanding the tactical fighter aircraft parking apron to accommodate the A-10 and F-15.
The Air Force also wants $13.8 million in FY19 for taxiway construction at Rygge, Norway.
“Across the board, I think there’s a recognition that people took our eye over ball, and now that individuals want to increase our deterrence capabilities, we’re seeing deficiencies, and we’re correcting them,” said retired Gen. Frank Gorenc, who commanded U.S. Air Forces in Europe from 2013 to 2016.
And while those airfield improvements may appear mundane, the opportunity to work with this kind of distributed fashion across Europe gives the U.S. Air Force real capability, both as being a deterrent and in the potential conflict, he told us.
“That’s not sexy stuff, nevertheless for an airman, there’s anything exciting than an airfield which is actually competent at generating high-volume combat operations with fuel and weapons the ones types of things,” Gorenc said. “And I can assure you there’s a lot work to be accomplished in those areas, that have to be achieved, that were facilitated by that extra funding. It’s really exciting.”
The 2019 EDI request for pre-positioned equipment also is targeted on two of the biggest U.S. Air Force bases in Europe: Ramstein, Germany, and Royal Air Force Fairford, U.K.
Under the European Contingency Air Operation Sets (ECAOS) Deployable Air Base System (DABS) concept, the Air Force is bundling together equipment like billeting, fuel-support equipment, water, vehicles, security gear and aerospace ground equipment, essentially creating an expeditionary base in a very box. It is also propositioning other systems throughout Europe, to feature micro-weather sensors, communications network gear and cyber equipment.
“These pre-positioned kits let the Air Force to be very flexible with regards to what airfield infrastructure it might place in play across the theater,” based on U.S. Army Col. Todd Bertulis, U.S. European Command’s deputy director for logistics.
From Ramstein and Fairford, Bertulis said the command plans to place the ECAOS begins play elsewhere.
While the Air Force gains ground, U.S. European Command carries a variety of pre-positioning and military construction projects meant to enable logistics across all domains and still provide an evident symbol of America’s alliances in Europe. The 2019 EDI budget request includes ammunition storage, staging areas, rail improvements, bulk fuel facilities, and airfield and port improvements.
The U.S. Army continues to dominate America’s military efforts in Europe. Some $2.5 billion would still buy pre-positioned equipment to have an Army division to fall in on, while $921 million would spend on European rotations of American armored troops, coupled with assigned light and Stryker forces. And $100 million would support a combat aviation brigade rotation.
Meanwhile, the Air Force investment may come as the service’s footprint in Europe is at a minimal point, down to some 34,000 personnel, six main operating bases and 204 aircraft, from 72,000 personnel, 25 main operating bases and 805 aircraft throughout the 1990s.
In case of military action against Russia, the U.S. Air Force would likely be helpful to hold Russian air forces back, provide close-air support to American and allied forces, and establish dominance within the militarized Russian enclave Kaliningrad.
“What the thing is that can be a realization which you can’t defend Eastern Europe from Western Europe,” Cancian said. “If all of your forces come in Germany and for unexpected expenses, you are attempting to rush them east, it’s just gonna take a long time. Just doing the paperwork from Germany to Poland takes a week. It’s clearly better to have your forces in Eastern Europe in the first place.”
One catch is that Russia has generated overlapping bubbles of anti-access/area denial capabilities, including long, short and medium-range surface-to-air missiles, which can be meant to deny NATO forces from freely operating. It’s unclear the way the U.S. and its particular allies would counter these.
By improving various partner airfields “outside in the dragon’s teeth,” but close enough to remain relevant, the U.S. gains options, said one congressional aide. Moscow might have the dilemma of needing to strike several Eastern European countries when it planned to weaken U.S. air power.