WASHINGTON (AP) — The Pentagon plans to deploy an armored brigade combat team to Eastern Europe next February as part of the ongoing effort to rotate troops in and out of the region to reassure allies worried about threats from an increasingly aggressive Russia.
The decision will put three fully equipped Army brigades in Europe on a continuous basis, and underscore promises made by defense leaders to protect Europe and send a message to Moscow that any actions against allies would be unacceptable.
According to an announcement released Wednesday, the Army will send a full set of equipment with the brigade to Europe. Earlier plans had called for the Pentagon to rotate troops into Europe, where they would have used a set of training equipment already there.
The new proposal would remove the pre-positioned equipment, send it to be refurbished, and allow the U.S. forces to bring more robust, modern equipment in with them when they deploy. There are about 4,200 soldiers in an armored brigade, along with hundreds of heavy vehicles, tanks, self-propelled howitzers and other equipment.
Sending the brigade with its own equipment, Pentagon spokeswoman Laura Seal said, will also allow the military to practice its ability to rapidly deploy equipment and forces to Europe.
"This will be the most modernized equipment the Army has to offer, and will, over the next year, replace the less modern training equipment we put in Europe over the last few years," she said.
About 62,000 U.S. military forces are permanently based in Europe, and about 25,000 of those are Army soldiers. Under the new plan, there would be about 29,200 U.S. soldiers in Europe at any given time.
Wednesday's announcement is also aimed at easing worries in Europe, where allies had heard rumblings about the equipment being removed and feared the U.S. was scaling back support.
Officials also said the Army would send additional communications equipment to Europe so that headquarters units could have the radios, computers and other equipment needed to work with the brigades.
Over the past nine months Defense Secretary Ash Carter has pledged additional military support for the region during trips to Eastern Europe and in NATO meetings.
Last June, Carter announced in Estonia that the U.S. would spread about 250 tanks, armored vehicles and other military equipment across six former Soviet bloc nations to help reassure NATO allies. Each set of equipment would be enough to outfit a military unit, and would go at least temporarily to Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania.
In February, the Pentagon announced it would seek $3.4 billion in the 2017 budget to increase troop rotations and military exercises in Europe. The plan would result in the constant presence of a third brigade in Europe. Two are already permanently stationed in Europe — a Stryker brigade and an airborne brigade. And now a brigade will rotate in and out, every nine months or so, on a continual basis.
The 2016 budget included about $780 million for the so-called European reassurance initiative, which covered the costs of sending hundreds of U.S. troops in and out of Europe for short deployments, military exercises and other training missions.
Carter's proposal to quadruple that amount would allow the U.S. to send more troops to Europe for short-term deployments and also provide additional equipment and improve facilities so that more forces could be accommodated.
The increased U.S. military support comes a year after the Defense Department unveiled sweeping plans to consolidate its forces in Europe, taking thousands of U.S. military and civilian personnel out of bases mostly in the United Kingdom and Portugal, in an effort that was expected to save about $500 million each year.
But, Russia's military intervention in Ukraine over the past year and its annexation of the Crimea region has worried Eastern European nations, which fear they may be next. The latest Pentagon moves are seen as an effort to deter Russia from taking any further aggressive action against any other European nations.
Russian leaders have denied any intention of future invasions.
"Stories are being spread that Russia will send its tanks into the Baltic states, into Sofia or into Budapest. No one intends to do that. There are no such plans, nothing. Russia does not want war," Russia's Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov told German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle. "The very idea of it is ridiculous."