U.S. Presence In Eastern Europe Is Vital, Commanding General Says
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
President Obama wants to quadruple U.S. military spending in Europe next year. He's budgeting $3.4 billion for more armored vehicles and other heavy weapons meant to counter Russia's aggression in the region.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
European countries had already been bulking up their own defense budgets after Russia's incursion into Ukraine and its seizing of Crimea. Now the U.S. is offering those allies some reassurance.
MONTAGNE: One man who's been pushing for those funds is Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges. He's the commanding general for the U.S. Army in Europe. And when we reached him at his headquarters in Germany, he said his mission is similar to that of generals past, with one difference - a much smaller fighting force at the ready.
BEN HODGES: Well, there used to be 300,000 soldiers in Europe during the height of the Cold War - 300,000, mostly in Germany. Today, we have 30,000 distributed all over Central and Eastern Europe with the same mission - to assure our allies and to deter Russia, just like we did in the Cold War. So the task force is to make 30,000 look and feel like 300,000 in terms of our strategic effect. Without this additional contingency funding, we would not be able to provide the deterrent effect that we need to prevent Russia from further aggression. It would be insufficient.
MONTAGNE: What exactly will this money be spent on?
HODGES: Sure, no, that's a fair question. And let me say, Renee, it's fair for Congress and taxpayers, my three sisters - when they say why are we over there, why don't the Europeans, why don't our allies do more? And that is entirely true. But U.S. strategic interests are here regardless of whether or not allies are doing as much as they should. The economic relationship between the United States and the EU is about five times greater than any other part of the world. So our own economic prosperity is very closely tied to security and stability in Europe. Plus, our most reliable allies in addition to Australia all come from Europe. So having said that, this investment in Europe, certainly a large portion of that will go to getting additional equipment over here so that rotational forces could come from the States in the event of a crisis or for training. This is about speed - speed of recognition of an impending crisis, and then speed of assembly. If we can put troops with equipment quickly in an area ahead of it turning into a real crisis, we've given our political leaders some options. And then we can prevent actually ever having to fight. That's why this equipment is so important. It will help us with our deterrence.
MONTAGNE: Deterrence being, in a sense, a show of force and the actual realistic ability to defend that area of the world should it become necessary.
HODGES: That's correct. Russia does not want to fight NATO. When all 28 nations are together, the economic and military and diplomatic strength of the alliance is way more than Russia would ever want to tackle. So they're not going - you know, just a flat-out Russian attack on a NATO country is unlikely, and we want to keep it unlikely. And the way we keep it unlikely is, number one, maintaining the unity of the alliance. And Russia's doing everything they can to break apart that unity. The way they use information to create mistrust, to mislead as to what they're actually trying to do - it's all about information. So by us having equipment here in Europe, forward stationed in Eastern European countries, that assures allies that we are committed. And a constant presence of American soldiers that are rotating through here on exercises is the best chance to ensure deterrence so that we don't have to fight the Russians.
MONTAGNE: But I must ask, so much attention in these recent years has gone to other hotspots that are thought to be quite dangerous in and of themselves - Iraq, ISIS. Is this beefing-up of the funding money, the money now spent in Europe - does that merit devoting funding that might have gone to these other fights?
HODGES: I think you touch on a very important point. Russia is not the only threat that the United States or our allies around the world are facing. I mean, there's competition in the Pacific. ISIL, of course, is committed to killing as many Americans and Westerners as they possibly can. You've got a significant refugee crisis that Europe is having to deal with. So these are all threats. We don't get to pick and choose which threat we want to deal with. Russia is the only country that has the capability to destroy the United States or one of our allies because of its nuclear capability. They have not expressed an intent to do that, which is important, but they do talk a lot about using tactical nuclear weapons. For them, it's a viable option. You know, you're aware that they talked about Denmark as a nuclear target, Romania as a nuclear target, Sweden as a nuclear target if any of them participate in any sort of ballistic missile defense system. So they talk about using nuclear weapons in a way that none of us would ever do it. Again, this part of the way they use information to dismay or distract from what it is they're actually doing.
MONTAGNE: General Hodges, thank you very much for joining us.
HODGES: I'm just really grateful for the opportunity to talk to you and your audience.
MONTAGNE: Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges is commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.