WASHINGTON — US military officials are growing increasingly concerned that President-elect Donald Trump could choose to withdraw or stop deploying a brigade of US troops designed to signal US commitment to NATO.
“I think there are many making worse-case assumptions based on the rhetoric of the campaign,” one US defense official told BuzzFeed News. He, like two other military officials, spoke to BuzzFeed News on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on the upcoming deployment.
The future of the US deployment of a rotational brigade to Europe is one of the most tangible forecasts on the Trump administration’s stance towards NATO and Russia, one that speaks louder than a tweet or statement.
Nearly 4,000 troops with the US Army’s Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division — known as the “Iron Brigade” — arrived in Germany on Monday and began moving into Poland Thursday. It is the largest single deployment of US troops to Eastern Europe since the end of the Cold War and will rotate and conduct training in nine countries — Bulgaria, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia — over the next nine months.
Among the first things the new administration will have to do after the inauguration is sign off on the deployment to relieve the Iron Brigade.
But some military officials are worried that might not happen because of Trump’s embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his having publicly questioned the role of NATO.
The uncertainty about the way ahead has pushed the ultimate planning organization into overdrive, US military officials said. One US official familiar with the brigade planning told BuzzFeed News that some of the troops currently training are wondering if they will actually carry out their mission, and some of those currently in Eastern Europe are wondering how long they will be in the region. The US military has yet to announce which brigade is slated to replace the Iron Brigade, even though they are in the midst of training.
For NATO, the troops are among the most important reassurances that the US will defend its allies. They are “part of our efforts to deter Russian aggression, ensure territorial integrity of our allies and maintain a Europe that is whole, free, prosperous and at peace," US Air Force Lt. Gen. Tim Ray, deputy commander of US European Command, said when his troops arrived just days ago.
On Thursday Vladimir Putin's spokesman said the Kremlin saw US troops in Poland as a threatening move that could escalate tensions already high after US spy agencies accused Russia of meddling in the US election.
Officially, the Defense Department says it is focused on the current mission. "It would be inappropriate for me to speculate on the policy initiatives of the new administration," Capt. Danny Hernandez, a spokesperson for European Command (EUCOM), which is in charge of the rotational brigade, told BuzzFeed News in an email. "I believe it is important here to keep our focus on the challenges at hand. There is no change to our commitment to our NATO Allies and partners, we continue to plan and execute exercises and operations with them."
During his confirmation hearing Thursday, retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, the Trump administration’s defense secretary nominee, signaled that he would seek to support the ongoing deployment of troops to Eastern Europe.
“NATO is the most successful military alliance certainly in recent times, maybe ever,” Mattis said. “My view is that nations with allies thrive and nations without allies don’t.”
But Mattis also acknowledged Trump’s reticence about the US role in NATO. He sought to reassure senators that Trump has “shown himself open” to new ideas on NATO.
The financial and political cost of recalling troops would be huge, but there are other ways to potentially stop the rotation — for example, deciding not to send the next brigade prepping for the mission. Another option would be deciding to not deploy the replacement troops and at the same time sanctioning Russia. The administration could also decide to deploy the replacement unit and at the same time make overtures toward Russia. Or the new administration could proceed with current plans, which include keeping a rotational armored brigade across Europe, which NATO would welcome.
The uncertainty has already caused concern inside NATO.
“The uncertainty of the decision-making causes panic among European partners,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, whose last posting was as commanding general of US Army Europe, in 2012. “In the past, NATO was assured of a strong strategic partner in the United States, even though at times they were confused by our policies and tactics. Now, they are not certain of our strong strategic partnership.”
Supporters of keeping the rotational brigade in Europe within the US military note that the brigade is a means to support allies and potentially prevent Russian aggression, a form of “peace through strength,” which Michael Flynn, the incoming national security adviser, who is a retired Army lieutenant general, said Tuesday was the best means of ensuring US security.
The presence of US forces has as much a psychological as a tactical effect, Hertling said.
“The thinking is that when American troops are there, Russia will be less inclined to intimidate,” he said.
To send the replacement brigade, the approval would go through the Army, the Joint Staff, and then the defense secretary, presuming funding is available. The fiscal 2017 budget includes a $3.4 billion request for funding to support the rotational brigades and training across Europe.
“The Army currently plans to have continuous armored brigade rotations for Atlantic Resolve until directed otherwise,” said Army Col. Patrick Seiber, an Army spokesman.
The idea of a rotational brigade in Europe was first introduced more than a decade ago as the US began drawing down in the region from a peak of 300,000 during the Cold War to 100,000 in the 1990s to 30,000 troops in the past decade. The last tank brigade left Europe in 2012; the plan to replace those forces was to use a tank rotational brigade in Eastern Europe.
The plan went through fits and starts, often along the lines of Russian expansion, domestic budgetary pressure, administration indecision, and congressional interference.
A year ago, the US Army announced the latest troop deployment, the first full brigade that will be there under a plan to not have a lapse in US armor presence. The Obama administration's decision was based on two major Russian moves in 2014 – its annexation of Crimea and its support of separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine. The troops are intended to reassure allies and anxious NATO members in the face of a resurgent Russia.