Carter Says U.S. Will Contribute to New NATO Rapid-Action Force

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The U.S. will contribute warplanes, special forces units and intelligence-gathering systems to a new NATO rapid-reaction force, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Monday in Germany.

During a crisis, the emerging U.S. plan could lead to a temporary increase in the 65,000 American troops permanently stationed in Europe, though there are no plans to boost the permanent U.S. total, according to a defense official who briefed reporters. European troops would make up the bulk of the ground forces.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s new Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) is designed to reach trouble spots within 48 hours of an alliance decision to act, compared with no better than 30 days previously.

Allied officials decided at a September 2014 summit in Wales to establish the quick-reaction unit after they were caught flat-footed by Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Previewing the U.S. contributions, which will be conveyed to NATO Wednesday, Carter alluded to recent Russian actions.

“The U.S. is deeply committed to the collective defense of Europe,” he told reporters. “At a time when some seek to divide us, we’re only becoming more united.”

The Pentagon chief spoke at a news conference in Muenster, Germany, alongside the defense ministers of Germany, the Netherlands and Norway, at the headquarters of a joint German-Dutch unit.

Still, there are questions about how fast NATO could respond in practice. Before the new crisis unit could move, NATO’s political arm, the 28-member North Atlantic Council, would have to approve any deployment unanimously.

Phased Deployment

While the advance elements of the new force would be expected to land in as few as two days, other units would not arrive for a week after the allies’ political leaders issued the orders, according to NATO.

“The problem is that 48 hours or three days -- the time necessary to organize and send a rapid reaction force -- is too long for the type of potential action that Russia might engage in,” said Jakub Grygiel, an international relations professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. “In two days, the Baltics are gone, were the Russians to engage in a limited war there.”

His comments came in a recent interview with Small Wars Journal.

In the first test of the new concept, 2,100 soldiers from nine NATO nations deployed to Poland this month in an exercise code-named Noble Jump. Further exercises are scheduled before the new rapid-response force is to be declared operational in January.

New Brigade

The new plan creates a 5,000-person brigade as part of a 12-year-old NATO Response Force. The units to be employed would be decided on a case-by-case basis once the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe requested help from individual NATO members.

Rather than combat troops, the U.S. would provide precision weaponry from fighters and bombers, as well as Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missiles fired from submarines and surface ships.

Intelligence and surveillance help probably would involve drones, while transport aircraft would be made available to carry soldiers and materials to combat zones.

Earlier Monday, Carter said NATO allies in Europe must spend more on defense as he emphasized that the U.S. provides 70 percent of all military funding in the 28-member alliance.

‘Two-Way Street’

“The United States cannot, should not, and will not meet these challenges in Europe alone,” he said in Berlin at an event with German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen. “The trans-Atlantic relationship, and trans-Atlantic security, is as ever a two-way street.”

Carter said Germany must do more if it wants its defense spending to match its “leadership role.” Russia, he said, is using economic and military power to destabilize its neighbors, and the U.S. will counter Kremlin “efforts to undermine strategic stability and change the military balance in Europe.”

Carter’s remarks came as NATO released estimates Monday showing a 1.5 percent drop in overall defense budgets in 2015, despite a pledge last year by allied governments to start spending more.

Only six countries will boost spending relative to their gross domestic products, led by three in eastern Europe with direct exposure to Russia: Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. Portugal is raising spending, as is Luxembourg, with a tiny military. Debt-hobbled Greece is the sixth country to make the list, though largely due to the statistical effect of its shrinking economic output.

Mixed Picture

“The picture is mixed,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels. “We need to redouble our efforts to reverse this trend because we are facing more challenges and we cannot do more with less indefinitely.”

Spending will stay unchanged in France and Germany, and is set to fall in Britain. While the Pentagon budget will also be trimmed by the drawdown in Afghanistan, the U.S. remains NATO’s biggest spender, at 3.6 percent of GDP in fiscal 2015.

Carter said the U.S. does not want to make “an enemy” of Russia and prefers to cooperate on common problems such as dealing with Iran’s nuclear program and terrorism. But the future course of U.S.-Russian relations is up to the Kremlin, he said.

Amid continuing calls in Congress for the U.S. to arm Ukraine in its war against Russian-backed rebels, Carter said economic sanctions remain the best tool “to increase the cost Russia is paying for its aggression.”

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