The U.S. military has steadily built up its presence in Europe in the four months since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. More than 100,000 U.S. troops are in Europe today, compared to around 70,000 around the start of the Russian invasion.
Last week, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the U.S. “increased the number of U.S. troops in Europe from roughly 70,000 to more than 100,000 over these last months.”
In addition to the overall U.S. force size in Europe, Stoltenberg noted there are more than 40,000 troops from various countries under NATO’s direct command that are positioned on the eastern edge of the alliance. NATO’s force consists of troops from a variety of alliance member nations.
In a May 20 U.S. State Department press briefing, department spokesman Ned Price had confirmed the U.S. plans to maintain an ongoing presence of 100,000 troops in Europe.
“Before that invasion, we were clear that we would do a few things if [Russian President Vladimir Putin’s] aggression went ahead,” Price said. “We made clear that we would provide unprecedented levels of security assistance to support our Ukrainian partners so that they could effectively defend their freedom, defend their democracy, defend their country from what was then the potential of Russian aggression. We made clear that we would impose severe consequences on the Russian economy, on the Russian financial system.
“We also said that we would reinforce and take steps to reassure the Alliance, the member states of the Alliance, and particularly those on the eastern flank of the NATO Alliance, and that’s what we’ve done,” Price continued. “We have – there are now some 100,000 U.S. service members on the European continent. That number has risen in recent weeks precisely because we are fulfilling the pledge that we made prior to Russian – prior to Russia’s invasion.”
While the U.S. presence in Europe has risen in response to Russia, questions remain about whether the U.S. can maintain this presence in the long run. With no plans for the U.S. and NATO to directly intervene in the conflict in Ukraine — beyond providing Ukrainian forces weapons, supplies and training — the missions of U.S. and NATO forces is primarily to ensure the conflict in Ukraine doesn’t spill over into NATO countries.
Bradley Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank told the Washington Times last week that the U.S. troop build-up in Europe could come at the expense of U.S. readiness in other parts of the world, like the Indo-Pacific region where Chinese forces have expanded their presence.
“We did what we had to do in the short term, following the February invasion, to deter an attack against NATO members,” Bowman said. “Unfortunately, we have no idea how long this lasts. I think we can make a reasonable guess that what’s going on in Ukraine could go on for a very long time.”
“I don’t want to send more forces than we need to Europe because they’re needed in the Indo-Pacific,” Bowman added. “We really need Europe to step up as much as possible to take the security burden off of our forces that are there as much as possible so we can allocate more of our finite resources elsewhere.”
On Monday, Stoltenberg said NATO will expand its response force size.
“At the Summit, we will strengthen our forward defenses,” Stoltenberg said. “We will enhance our battlegroups in the eastern part of the Alliance up to brigade levels. We will transform the NATO Response Force and increase the number of our high readiness forces to well over 300,000. We will also boost our ability to reinforce in crisis and conflict.”
Stoltenberg said the alliance can prepare for future force build-ups by pre-positioning weapons and supplies and pre-assigning specific member forces to defend specific NATO-member nations. He also advised these assigned troops to train more regularly with the home forces of these assigned nations to “become familiar with local terrain, facilities, and our new pre-positioned stocks so that they can respond smoothly and swiftly to any emergency.”
In order to meet NATO’s goals to expand its force sizes, NATO members will have to increase their defense spending.
Stoltenberg said to date, nine of the 30 NATO members now meet or exceed the two percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) target for defense spending. He said another 19 members are on track to meet this spending target by 2024. But, Stoltenberg added, “two percent is increasingly considered a floor, not a ceiling” for defense spending.
Finland and Sweden’s applications to join NATO will also expand the total force of the alliance. Stoltenberg said the alliance plans to make progress on the NATO membership applications of the two Scandanavian nations during the summit in Madrid.