Is This the Next US Military Base in Europe?
Lithuania built Camp Herkus to woo a permanent contingent of American troops. But the Biden administration is far from convinced.
CAMP HERKUS, Lithuania — American soldiers have found gracious hosts in Lithuania.
At this remote base, which opened in August and is now the temporary home of hundreds of American troops, government officials excitedly showed off the new 7-million-euro facility, which includes a gym stocked with state-of-the art treadmills and weight racks, rubber-turf basketball courts surrounded by container housing stuffed with bunk beds and gear, a PX selling cigarettes and candy, and a game hall where soldiers were playing first-person-shooter video games.
But for Vilnius, these comforts aren’t just about making their guests feel at home. They aim to entice Washington to turn its rotational deployments of U.S. troops into a permanent stay, and deter the Russian forces that frequently deploy and exercise in Belarus, less than 10 miles away.
“We hope that this new infrastructure in Pabrade will become the second home for the U.S. force,” Lithuania’s Minister of National Defense Arvydas Anušauskas said the day it opened.
A few weeks later, Anušauskas underlined his pitch in a tweet welcoming Gen. Christopher Cavoli, commander of U.S. Army Europe and Africa: “The need for the deployment of US forces in [Lithuania] is more apparent than ever & we are providing all the necessary conditions for U.S. troops to maintain their readiness.”
Added Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė: “The presence of U.S. troops in Lithuania and training with our troops, as well as with the troops of NATO’s enhanced forward presence battalion, is the best deterrent...Thank you for the close cooperation between the Lithuanian and U.S. military forces, which we are determined to develop further. The government, in its turn, will do everything to create suitable conditions for the training and life of U.S. soldiers in Lithuania.”
In Washington, however, Biden administration and military officials won’t say whether they are seriously considering a more permanent base for U.S. troops in the Baltic nation. White House officials declined even to comment on the question. A Pentagon spokesman thanked Lithuania for its investment, but was cautious about whether the nicer accommodations and plans for improved training facilities in the Baltic ally would actually make a difference, showing the diplomatic and political sensitivity of boosting the troop presence on Russia’s doorstep.
“Lithuania has been an outstanding host for our men and women in uniform within its borders, and we appreciate the significant investments Lithuania has made in modernizing and expanding the infrastructure that has supported periodic U.S. and NATO forces for training and exercises,” said Marine Corps Lt. Col. Anton Semelroth, a Defense Department spokesman, in a brief statement provided to Defense One. “We look forward to continuing to take advantage of opportunities to enhance the interoperability of our forces, providing a credible deterrent against Russian aggression, and enabling NATO forces to operate more effectively should deterrence fail.”
Semelroth noted that Pentagon officials are currently reviewing their worldwide troop presence and its alignment with national security goals, as ordered by President Joe Biden in February. This Global Force Posture Review is expected to be finished by the year’s end, he said.
Vilnius is not the only Eastern European ally vying for a long-term commitment from America. In 2018, Poland offered to name one of its military bases after President Donald Trump in exchange for a permanent presence of thousands of additional American troops. The idea died in the planning stages last year, but the United States did increase its forces and firepower in Poland.
In Lithuania, the U.S. has kept a rotational presence of hundreds of troops since October 2019. Some in Congress say a new, permanent presence of American troops that close to Russia’s border is needed signal to Moscow of a stronger U.S. commitment to defending Baltic allies.
“I talked to the national security advisor and asked him to consider it and he said he would,” Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., who co-chairs the House Baltic Caucus, told Defense One last week, referring to the White House’s Jake Sullivan. “I talked to him this spring. I said he should put it on his agenda to review, I think that would be a smart option.”
The National Security Council referred all questions to the Pentagon.
Lithuanian officials say their people viscerally feel the threat posed by Russia, and most remember the difficulty of life under Soviet rule, which ended in 1990. Surrounded by Belarus to the east and the detached Russian province of Kaliningrad to the southwest, the nation's citizens are keenly aware of the buildup of Russian military hardware that could cut it off from the rest of NATO. If Russia were to attack, Lithuanian officials argue, its military could sweep through the country, which is about the size of West Virginia, before reinforcements from the rest of the alliance arrive.
Officials in Vilnius are pushing for the Pentagon to permanently base U.S. troops in their country to deter that invasion. If that deterrence failed and Moscow did attack, they argue those U.S. forces could help respond quickly while other allied forces flowed from Western Europe into the Baltics.
Lithuania’s love of America is hard to overstate. Locals are overwhelmingly supportive of the American troop presence, and find comfort in the sound of tank fire because it’s a reminder that protection is nearby, officials said. At the 2019 Comic Con Baltics, the Ministry of National Defense sponsored the meeting of two superheroes for the first time: Captain America and Captain Lithuania.
In the United States, military planners and analysts often debate whether a permanent presence or rotational deployment is better. In recent years, the Defense Department has favored using shorter-term rotational forces in countries from Europe to the Middle East and Pacific regions, rather than larger masses of permanent forces at historic bases. The reasons range from cost to host-nation political sensibilities and the need to be more mobile and less of a sitting duck for today’s high-tech threats. Paying for the transportation associated with a rotational presence is typically a little bit more expensive, and some argue that troops are only focused on their mission for a couple of months between the time spent getting up to speed and the time spent transitioning out, including thoroughly cleaning all the equipment before returning to the United States. But a rotation gives more U.S. troops familiarity with the region, and lets units practice logistics skills like moving tanks into Eastern Europe -- something that would be critical to do quickly if Russia ever did attack.
Some analysts believe that the Lithuanian request will be tough for the Biden administration to fulfill, especially as the president is shifting U.S. attention to the Indo-Pacific region and China.
“I don’t think the Lithuanians are really expecting an increase in presence,” said Stephen Flanagan, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. “They would like it, but I think they know where the priorities are.”
Surrounded by dozens of Abrams tanks rolling through the dusty Pabrade Training Area, Lt. Col. Paul Godson, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 66th Armored Regiment, told Defense One that his soldiers appreciate the facilities at Camp Herkus, which show that the Lithuanians are “really invested” in keeping American forces in the country. But he said that operations and training conducted by a permanent force would look very similar to what his U.S. soldiers are doing now.
“I don’t know if there would be a difference,” Godson said during a September trip to Lithuania paid for by the Atlantic Council think tank. “If we had a permanent presence, we would still be training with our partners and learning with each other and understanding our capabilities better and ultimately learning how to better fight and win.”
But John Deni, a professor at the U.S. Army War College, said the perception of permanence matters. “With the lack of a persistent heel-to-toe presence, we have problems in both reassuring allies of our commitment and steadfastness and problems in deterring the Russians,” Deni said.
The Pentagon’s rotational deployments to Lithuania began two years ago with 500 troops, 30 Abrams tanks, and 25 Bradley armored vehicles. This summer, Godson’s Fort Riley-based 3rd of the 66th arrived in the region for a nine-month deployment in Pabradé, an eastern Lithuanian town less than 10 miles from the Belarussian border and even closer to Lithuania’s main military training facility.
NATO has stationed a battalion-sized battlegroup in Rukla, Lithuania, since 2017, led by Germany and composed of rotating forces from the Netherlands and Czech Republic.
A permanent American presence in Lithuania could take many forms. Saulius Gasiunas, the director of the Euro-Atlantic Cooperation Department at the Lithuanian Ministry of Defense, was asked whether he envisioned it as a promise to continue back-to-back rotational deployments of U.S. troops without gaps, or a situation more like in Germany where troops are deployed to live for years at a time, often with families, to a U.S. base that included schools and shops. Gasiunas said any visible commitment from the United States would send a clear message to Russia.
“You’re talking about details, I’m talking about permanence,” Gasiunas said, stressing that any gap left by a rotational presence could present an opportunity for Russia to attack.
Lithuania recently has taken financial and diplomatic steps to make it a more appealing partner to the United States. The country has aggressively stood up to China. In April, Lithuanian politicians held a hearing on China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and voted in May to formally condemn China’s genocide of the Uyghurs, an ethnic minority group in Western China. In August, Vilnius angered Beijingby allowing Taiwan to open an office under its own name. Chinese officials recalled their ambassador to Lithuania and threatened further “potential consequences” if the office remains open. (The U.S. reportedly is considering a similar move.)
Lithuania has also emphasized its support for democracy, including recognizing the pro-democracy opposition movement in neighboring Belarus.
One regional expert said these stances could be an attempt to curry favor with the Biden administration.
“Lithuania is looking at the Biden administration’s priorities and focus on China and this narrative of democratic values and human rights,” said Piotr Szymański, a research fellow in the regional security program at the Centre for Eastern Studies in Poland. “In their relationship with the U.S., they really seem to put an emphasis on the support for the democratic opposition in Belarus, and portray Lithuania as a champion of democratic values and human rights.”
Biden’s team has taken notice. Sullivan phoned Simonyte, the Lithuanian prime minister, this month to express “strong U.S. support for Lithuania as it faces attempted coercion from the People’s Republic of China” and underscore “U.S. appreciation for Lithuania’s principled foreign policy in support of democracy and human rights,” according to a readout of the call released by the White House.
In Congress, Bacon also said he is “proud” of Lithuania for standing up to China and called on the administration to back the country’s stances on democracy and human rights. “Lithuania is sort of hanging out there right now, and I would like to see the administration pull up and provide some cover,” he said. “Lithuania is showing us how to do it right.”
On the military front, Lithuania has more than tripled its defense spending since 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine. It has met the NATO goal of spending at least 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense since 2018, and intends to increase its defense budget to 2.5 percent of GDP by 2030, according to a report on U.S. presence in Lithuania provided by officials in Vilnius. In the next five years, Lithuania intends to spend more than $500 million on American-made equipment, including Joint Light Tactical Vehicles and Black Hawk helicopters from Sikorsky.
Lithuania is also investing in facilities that could be used by U.S. forces, like Camp Herkus. The country plans to spend nearly 250 million euros between 2017 and 2025 on infrastructure that could be used by American troops, Gasiunas said, including shipping ports, training facilities, housing, recreation, and other transportation.
“The Lithuanians have provided really tremendous host nation support,” said Robert Gilchrist, U.S. ambassador to Lithuania, at his residence in Vilnius. “In reality, we’re doing so much with the Lithuanians that there are always boots on the ground here and we have a really extensive relationship on many different levels and I know that will continue.”
Will it be enough?
The new gym at Camp Herkus might make life more enjoyable for American G.I.s, but it will take more substantial investments in military training facilities for U.S. forces to be ready to fight.
“The enemies of our country are not scared of basketball players,” said Ben Hodges, a former three-star commander of U.S. Army Europe. “It’s not about garrisons and just having people there. The Russians would see that immediately, if people are just hanging out.”
Lithuanian’s training areas are relatively small by American standards, and are in high demand by U.S., Lithuanian, and other NATO troops. Whether or not the U.S. force posture changes, improvements are needed, the War College’s Deni said.
“There are many challenges at the strategic, operational, and even service level to forward presence,” he said. “That said, I think it’s still something we should do.”
Meanwhile, Russia’s information warfare assault on Lithuania is already underway, Deni said, and U.S. troops could gain from increased training with allies there. “NATO forces there are under persistent information operations directed by and coming from Moscow and Russia. So, operating in that environment is, I think, a benefit to U.S. forces. The same thing applies in the electronic and cyber realm,” he said. “These are challenging places to work.”
Any Biden administration decision on U.S. troop deployments also must consider taxpayer costs. A rotational presence is slightly more expensive than a forward-deployed footprint, Deni said.
Rotational deployments, however, offer their own benefits, said Godson, the U.S. battalion commander in Lithuania. When troops rotate into eastern Europe, they are forced to practice logistics, such as getting equipment through ports and switching between train rails of different widths in Western and Eastern Europe — all capabilities troops will need to quickly respond if a conflict were to break out.
“You could almost make the argument that we would lose some flexibility as the United States Army,” he said, if the U.S. made its Lithuania station permanent. “That piece right there is an important part of everything we do, because if we can’t move, we can’t fight, so I think there’s great benefits to having that flexibility and maintaining that flexibility.”
Latvian and Estonian officials have made similar requests for an increased American or NATO presence. Hodges said sending additional troops to Lithuania would force the United States to explain to those Baltic allies why only the ask from Vilnius was fulfilled.
Permanently stationing troops in Lithuania also could conflict with the NATO-Russia Founding Act signed in 1997. The agreement says that “in the current and foreseeable security environment,” NATO will not permanently base “substantial combat forces” along the border with Russia. In return, Russia committed to respecting the borders of countries in Eastern Europe that used to be part of its empire. The language leaves a lot of room for interpretation. It’s unclear how many troops or what sort of equipment constitutes a “substantial” military footprint. And it’s clear to some experts that the security environment today is very different from when the agreement was signed a quarter-century ago.
“When Russia invaded Ukraine, they abrogated the whole thing,” Hodges said. “If we were in a courtroom, the judge would toss out [and] say Russia changed the whole security environment so we’re not bound by it.”
Despite that, some NATO members, especially Germany, believe that the alliance should “maintain the moral high ground” and stick by the intent of the agreement despite the changing circumstances, Deni said.
Hodges said France and the Netherlands would also see a permanent presence as “a major provocative move,” and that the Biden administration “would have to do an awful lot of diplomatic work” to get the support of allies.
Russia likely would see an increased troop presence as an escalatory move. But Moscow already considers rotational deployments to the Baltics as evidence of NATO aggression, Szymański said.
“In propaganda terms, they are using this rotational presence anyway to say that Russia is besieged by NATO, that NATO is aggressive and is placing her troops around Russian borders,” he said. “The military reality is that this battalion and rotational forces are not changing the strategic equation….Russia is using it to simply undermine NATO, especially in the eyes of the Russian population.”
Lithuanian officials argue that permanently basing troops in the region will actually deescalate tension with Russia because it will boost deterrence, and that America can provide protection unlike any other ally.
Their argument, at least, has come through loud and clear, the U.S. ambassador said. “The security relationship with the United States...certainly the Lithuanians view it as absolutely critical to their own security,” Gilchrist said. “I’d say they value especially their relationship with the United States.”