Russia’s Assertive Moves Weigh on Pentagon Plans for 2017 Budget

Russia’s increasing assertiveness in Europe and the Middle East is reshaping the U.S. defense budget for the coming fiscal year, according to Pentagon Comptroller Michael McCord.

“There will be changes” to budget requests from the four branches of the U.S. military to emphasize threats from Russia, McCord said in an interview. He didn’t elaborate on specific areas but said Russia’s emergence as a sophisticated actor in cyberwarfare is one “key driver” of the evolving U.S. strategy.

The services’ budget proposals are being reviewed and haven’t yet reached Defense Secretary Ashton Carter for final approval, McCord said. The fiscal 2017 budget request will be $547.3 billion, about $13 billion more than the fiscal 2016 request and about $35 billion over caps set by the the Budget Control Act, according to the Pentagon’s most recent five-year plan.

“The thing that we have the most thinking to do about in this budget compared to any other previous budgets is Russia,” McCord said, and that’s “in terms of are we doing the right things in investments and posture?”

Russia’s moves under President Vladimir Putin are reviving Cold War-era tensions with the U.S. Its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and continued support for rebels in Ukraine, along with its nuclear arsenal, led Marine General Joseph Dunford to call Russia the most pressing threat to U.S. national security last month. Since then, Russia has expanded military aid to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, home to its only naval base outside the former Soviet Union.

‘Alarming Behavior’

In testimony before a Senate committee in July, Dunford, President Barack Obama’s nominee to serve as the next top U.S. military officer, said the risk from Russia outranked perils posed by terrorists and by nations such as China and North Korea.

“If you look at” Russia’s behavior, he said, “it’s nothing short of alarming.”

The Pentagon’s review of its fiscal 2017 budget proposal may lead to the movement of dollars designated for missions in other parts of the world toward countering Russia, he said. “That’s what we need to take the hardest look at,” McCord said.

The fiscal 2017 budget proposal is scheduled to be released in February.

McCord said the funding shift “likely wouldn’t” reduce the Obama administration’s promised “rebalance” of forces to the Asia-Pacific region, but “the biggest ‘new’ news in terms of building a long-term program is Russia.”

‘Urgent’ Needs

He said “more needs to be done” than was reflected in initial proposals because the budget “is still a work in progress in terms of getting everyone’s heads around it,” from the U.S. European Command to the military services.

An early sign of the increased emphasis on responding to Russia came in July, when the Pentagon asked for congressional approval to shift about $4.8 billion in fiscal 2015 funds.

Among the items was a request to shift an initial $9.8 million toward a new $162 million program described as meeting “urgent operational needs.” The money is designated for the installation of new 30mm cannons on Army Stryker armored vehicles supporting the U.S. European Command.

The request was approved by the four defense committees in Congress, and the Pentagon started the program on Aug. 18, McCord said in an e-mail.

In response to what the U.S. calls Russian provocations, the Pentagon has announced plans to send about 250 tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles and howitzers to a half dozen European countries for increased training.

The Pentagon also is exploring a domestic alternative to the U.S. reliance on Russian-made RD-180 rocket engines used to launch American military satellites.

Syria Role

In the latest development, a “continual, steady” flow of people and equipment into Syria suggests Russia may be setting up a forward air operations center near Latakia, where the Assad family has its ancestral home, U.S. Navy Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters on Monday. He said the Russians haven’t yet moved fighter jets or attack helicopters to the base.

Russia insists its personnel are in Syria only to help government troops operate the weapons being supplied, though it hasn’t ruled out taking unspecified “additional measures” as needed.

While Russia has sent signals to the U.S. and Saudi Arabia that it may allow Assad, its embattled ally, to be eased out of power, according to officials, Putin said Tuesday that the fight against Islamic State should be the global community’s top priority in Syria, rather than supplanting the regime.

Big questions remain, a U.S. official stressed, including whether Putin really is prepared to see Assad marginalized and, if so, whether he can persuade him to go quietly.

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