STUTTGART, Germany — The U.S. and its NATO allies are dusting off their old playbooks this week during a trip abroad by Defense Secretary Ash Carter, citing the myriad threats facing Europe as the impetus for the Pentagon’s pushing the Cold War alliance back onto a continental war footing.
The specter of Russia to the east will hang over a Tuesday ceremony in which Carter will oversee the change of command for U.S. European Command, based here in Germany. Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti will take over the post from Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, moving into a role that traditionally also makes him the supreme allied commander of NATO’s European forces.
“This is more than just a change-of-command ceremony,” said a senior defense official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity about U.S. policy for Europe and goals for Carter’s trip. “[Carter] will talk about Europe and the challenges facing EUCOM. … That means steps that need to be taken to deter Russian aggression.”
Scaparrotti, a counterinsurgency veteran of the war in Afghanistan, spent his latest tour leading U.S. forces supporting the South Korean military against the threat of its northern neighbor.
The Pentagon sees this change as marking a transition away from the commander serving as the principal organizer of an alliance – responsible for maintaining America’s strong ties with European allies and coordinating NATO military action – to one charged to a greater extent with preparing for and preventing war.
“We’re moving from assurance to deterrence … moving from assurance to war-fighting posture,” another senior defense official said.
Indeed, U.S. European Command has taken on a heightened relevance in recent years, with Russia commencing a new era of flexing its military and political might, leading to its 2014 annexation of Crimea and continuing on with provocative interactions between its armed forces and America’s.
Friday saw the latest such incident, with a Russian fighter jet performing a “barrel roll”maneuver over a U.S. reconnaissance plane flying over the Baltic Sea. It mirrored a similar incident in mid-April, and two encounters earlier in the month between Navy destroyer the USS Donald Cook and Russian aircraft.
U.S. officials have blasted the incidents as unprofessional and dangerous, and each has fueled America’s newfound interest in deploying more military assets near Russia’s border.
“We have no alternative but to do what we’re doing, which is stand strong and balanced,” Carter told reporters aboard a plane Monday en route to Europe.
As evidence of that effort, Carter cited the roughly 4,000 troops plus equipment he pledged in March to deploy to Europe early next year. NATO defense ministers will also soon debate, among other things, an additional U.S. deployment of four battalions to somewhere on the continent.
These efforts will coincide with “continuing to hold the door open if Russian behavior should change,” Carter said.
All of this follows President Barack Obama’s latest budget proposal, which includes a $3.4 billion European Reassurance Initiative to strengthen U.S. support for NATO, quadrupling the previous commitment.
“I expect that will continue,” Carter said of the increase.
The plan to deploy additional troops to Europe, along with equipment to support them, does not mean the U.S. is preparing to fight a war with Russia, according to defense officials; rather, it is building “a stronger deterrence posture in the region,” one said.
While in Stuttgart, Carter also will meet with counterparts on Wednesday from Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain and the United Kingdom to discuss their contributions to the war against the Islamic State group. That conflict, too, is changing in tone following recent gains against the extremist network.
The U.S.-led coalition is now determining what it needs to rebuild liberated areas ravaged by war with the extremists, beginning with Anbar province, a predominantly Sunni Muslim area and Iraq’s largest province.
The Iraqi government also lacks the kind of logistics capabilities that can, for example, ensure its infantry units have enough water, officials say. Organizing support for efforts to help the Iraqi military move across massive swathes of the country to upcoming hot spots like Mosul will also be a key element of Carter’s visits.
While Carter was traveling to Germany, Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg announced the Norwegian military would deploy special operations trainers to a base in Jordan to help train vetted Sunni fighters. Norway will also deploy a medical unit to northern Iraq.
Copyright 2016 U.S. News & World Report