The Pentagon is rethinking everything from training to nuclear deterrence in the wake of unexpected Russian military deployments in eastern Ukraine and Syria – and in anticipation of more to come.
“We must write a new playbook, which includes preparing to counter new challenges like hybrid warfare and cyber, better integrating conventional and nuclear deterrence in Europe, as well as adjusting our posture and presence to adapt and respond to new challenges and threats,” U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told a luncheon of business leaders Wednesday at the Association of the United States Army’s annual conference in Washington.
Preparing to fight Russia has been something of an afterthought for Pentagon planners since the Cold War ended almost a quarter-century ago, but Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and encroachment in eastern Ukraine has changed the situation.
Carter called that “an unwelcome development” and “I frankly don’t expect it to change soon.”
The new plan “needs to rely on different kinds of mobility on highly ready forces that can respond very quickly,” the defense secretary said. These forces must be prepared to encounter high-end combat and proxy militias, the so-called “little green men,” as they have been called in Ukraine.
“We will take all necessary steps to deter Russia’s malign and destabilizing influence, coercion, and aggression,” Carter said. “This is the new reality for us strategically. It looks like it’s here to stay.”
Russia has 25,000 troops in Crimea and additional ones in Eastern Ukraine, Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, commander of U.S. Army Europe, said Tuesday at a Defense One LIVE event.
The U.S. military has little visibility into eastern Ukraine, Hodges said: some 70 percent of the Pentagon’s intelligence assets are focused “where it ought to be” — on U.S. Central Command-led operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
“The fact is, there’s not enough intelligence capacity to do all that we need to do,” he said. “Because of prioritization, we don’t have what we need in all the different intelligence disciplines.”
Over the past decades, the Pentagon has focused its language training toward the Middle East.
“We don’t have that many Russian speakers anymore,” Hodges said. The Army is relying more on National Guard and Reserve forces with Russian-language skills.
Hodges said he was surprised when Russia sent troops into Syria.
“We just do not have the ability to see and track what they’re doing the way we used to,” he said.
For the past two weeks, Russian jet fighters have been conducting airstrikes in Syria, bombing American officials not targeting Islamic State militants, but fighters who want to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Pentagon officials have feared Russian warplanes could collide with American jets that are also targeting ISIS from the skies above Syria. On Wednesday, U.S. and Russian officials held their third deconfliction videoconference since Russia began its strikes.
The talks were “focused on steps that can be taken by Russian and counter-ISIL coalition aircraft to promote safe flight operations over Syria,” U.S. Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said in an email. “Progress was made during the discussions, which were professional and focused narrowly on the implementation of specific safety procedures.”
Russia has upended the Pentagon’s plans to reduce troop levels in Europe. Instead, the Pentagon has been increasingly deploying forces to Europe on a temporary, rotational basis to train and exercise with NATO allies. U.S. soldiers are currently in Ukraine training Kiev’s security forces.
Russia was mentioned only once in the Pentagon’s 2012 global military strategy, which declared that “engagement with Russia remains important, and we will continue to build a closer relationship in areas of mutual interest and encourage it to be a contributor across a broad range of issues.”
Since then, the Pentagon’s approach has shifted.
“We have not, and will not, agree to cooperate with Russia so long as they continue to pursue a misguided strategy,” Carter said Wednesday.