Plans by the Pentagon to quadruple the budget for European defence and that will be formally contained in the full FY17 budget proposal will have clearly been well received at NATO headquarters in Brussels yesterday just as they will also have been by a number of very concerned Eastern European NATO member states.
Speaking at the Economic Club of Washington, D.C. yesterday, Secretary of State Ash Carter described the rise in Russian aggression as a “growing challenge for the US” and that they [the Obama administration] were determined to take a “strong and balanced approach to deter future [Russian] threats”.
The increased funding plan would, Ash Carter said, “allow greater numbers of US troops to be deployed to US bases” [in Europe] along with creating the ability to improve and increase training of troops and also to conduct an increased number of military exercises with US NATO allies in the years ahead. The intention is I believe that an extra 45,000 US troops will be based in Europe from 2017.
I understand that the plan involves spending an extra $1.8bn on what is commonly termed within the US defense budget proposals as the European defense initiative. The proposed increase will take the total planned spending on Europe within the US defence budget to $3.4bn.
From a comparative near $800 million earmarked in the FY16 defense budget plan the quadrupled spending on Europe initiative planned by Carter is by any stretch of the imagination an important and sizable rise. It is a very necessary rise as well and one that properly reflects the huge change in geo-politics that has taken place since Russia annexed the Crimea, challenged Ukraine and put pressure on other reborn now independent sovereign states in Eastern Europe.
We should see the Carter plan for Europe as an adept perception and realisation by the US administration that Eastern European states are now increasingly likely to be threatened by Russia in the years ahead. We should also see the overall plan as one that reflects a worsening of geo political tensions in various parts of the world and that America is determined to do whatever it can to support its NATO allies and to play its part as well in eliminating the other big threat to peace and stability, that caused by the rise of DAISH.
On the latter Secretary of State Carter said that the Pentagon planned a 50% rise in spending to fight DAISH (ISIL if you prefer) taking the annual cost of this up to $7.5 billion. He suggested that within this $1.8bn would be spent replenishing inventories of precision-guided weapons used to counter ISIL campaigns.
Whilst on the subject of the yet to be seen full FY17 budget proposal (I am grateful to colleagues at Capital Alpha Partners in Washington DC for providing details) the intention is also to spend $7bn on cyber and a total of $35bn on this area over the full five-year plan. That is also a very large increase from the $5.5bn requested for FY16. The on/off battle over whether to scrap the fleet of Fairchild A-10 Warthog aircraft appears to have been settled with an intention to retain these through 2022.
As the last defense budget of the Obama administration to be put forward by the Pentagon to Congress I doubt that the $71.4 billion RDT&E (Research Development Test & Evaluation) programs budget plan is likely to receive that much opposition. Arguably what will matter more to some is what policy the incoming administration will adopt for defense within the 2018 budget proposal. That for now must remain an unknown quantity and with uncertainty prevailing as to whether a Democrat or Republican team will be sitting in the White House a year from now the subject remains anyone’s guess!
While details of the full FY17 defense budget plan from the Pentagon are awaited (these are expected to be formally announced by the DoD sometime over the next ten days) one worrying aspect of the Carter FY17 defense plan appears to be that the $71.4 billion RDT&E request to Congress will be lower than the $72 billion request made for the FY16 budget. It is perhaps worth remembering also that last year was in fact the seventh year in a row that Congress had failed to pass a defense appropriations bill in time for the fiscal year to begin and the fourth that the Department of Defense has been forced to struggle against the forced impact of sequestration.
Even so, in FY16 the total defense budget proposal had been $585 billion and defense spending as a percentage of GDP was 3.1%. The share of total federal spending on defense was put at 14.3%. For the record, the DOD website lists there being 1,015,000 soldiers in the US, 492,000 airmen, 387,000 sailors and 224,000 marines. In equipment capability terms the US has 96 operational bombers, 450 ICMB’s (inter-continental ballistic missiles) 49 tactical fighter squadrons, 304 Navy Ships plus 11 operational aircraft carriers, 14 SSBN’s (Ship Submersible. Ballistic, Nuclear) submarines and 54 Army brigades.
One may hope that the intention to place a much greater effort on Europe will not at the expense of future modernisation of other aspects of US defense capability or that it might mean a slowing down of other important capability procurement programs. I suspect that none of what is being proposed will change previously announced DoD plans that include the closure of RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk, UK by 2020/21 plus those of two other smaller bases (Alconbury and Molesworthy) although I would suggest that it might have some bearing on other closure plans announced at the same time that included US bases in Germany, Netherlands, Italy and Belgium being closed over the next few years as part of the European Infrastructure Consolidation (EIC) process intended to shave $800 million costs per annum from US defense.
We should all welcome the intention by Secretary Carter to increase the amount of US effort in Europe and against DAISH. Whilst it is important to recognise that the US decision four years ago to place greater emphasis on recognising the potential of threat that China posed to America’s friends in Far East Asia such as Japan and those further afield there never was any intention to do this at the cost of reducing effort in Europe. Since then the threat that Russia poses in Europe has become all embracing and America has done what it always does best and come up with a plan.
Not only, by what Carter has announced as part of the FY17 defense budget plan, can we begin to feel that the balance of various threats is at least being redressed but also that the NATO hand has been strengthened. Clearly, as previously announced by Ash Cater last year, the US now intends to position many more tanks, armoured vehicles and presumably air power related tools as well in or near to vulnerable eastern European sovereign states.
Other European NATO states should take heed of what the US is planning to do and do the same. The ‘cold war’ may be over but the threat of a dangerous new war of dominance is certainly not. UK armed forces in the form of Royal Air Force Tornado GR4 and Typhoon FGR4 air to ground capability are playing a major role in the war against DAISH and it is time that we stopped belittling the effort. Russia is unlikely to back off even though the economy is now in a torrid state to the extent that Putin, in order to raise cash, was yesterday in talks with Russian airline Aeroflot about possible privatisation.
The UK will along with other NATO allies need to do even more in the months and, in my view, years ahead to protect vulnerable eastern European NATO states. The war with DAISH will no doubt extend over many years yet and may extend to other countries as well. Air Power remains the most important weapon we have and I am not in the camp that believes we should, other than special forces, send more ‘boots’ into the area. Russia, DAISH, Syria, North Korea, China and, even though there has been a positive step forward witnessed in the nations desire to improve international relations and see sanctions removed, Iran all remain trouble spots that none of us can afford to ignore.
Other wars cannot be ignored by the west either. Saudi Arabia’s prolonged war with the Yemen and the one sided ignorance demonstrated by some UK MP’s and media who prefer to close their ears when told about the 40,000 plus missiles that have apparently been fired by Houthi militia forces loyal to the ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh into Saudi Arabia since the war began let alone in the years before the Saudi Royal Air Force began to fight back beggars belief. Al Arabiya English has reported that 63 children have been amongst 375 people killed by Yemeni attacks on Saudi Arabia. Of course I don’t know what the truth is but I rather doubt that claims that Saudi planes have deliberately chosen to attack hospitals and schools in Yemen are really true. More likely is that such damage and claimed loss of life has been part of a deliberate attempt to damage the perception of Saudi Arabia and also that of its relationship with the west.
None of what I have said above takes away the need to increase efforts to find a way to end the war in the Yemen. Neither does it ignore the seemingly joined up attempt now going on in Switzerland under the auspices of the United Nations to find a way out of the war in Syria. We live in hope rather than expectation. Too many fires are burning in other parts of the forest as well for any of us not to feel threatened or to perceive that what Ash Carter announced yesterday in respect bolstering support to face the growing threat of Russia and the war against DAISH is not the right thing to do. Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya are examples of this and each remain areas of deep seated concern. That the west may well have made many mistakes in how it has handled these specific situations in the past and in how some here fail to understand that you cannot implant a democratic system and then walk away and expect it to work can hardly be ignored. But then, neither can allowing any of these nations to fall into the hands of DAISH or, in the case of Afghanistan, back into the hands of the Taliban unchallenged.
CHW (London – 3rd February 2016)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS