Philip Ewing, Politico
5 August 2015
Even as President Barack Obama tries to stave off a conflict with Russia, the Pentagon isn’t taking any chances.
Each of Obama’s picks for top Defense Department jobs says that Russia represents the biggest national security threat to the United States. The Army is giving heavier weapons to its frontline cavalry unit in Europe, while it also rotates more units into place. The Navy wants to upgrade its ability to hunt for submarines in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.
And with Russian bombers nearing U.S. airspace in Alaska and Russian warplanes buzzing American warships at sea, both top current leaders of the Pentagon have begun talking about Russia in a way that sounds more like the Cold War than the era of “reset” between the two powers.
“While Russia has contributed in select security areas, such as counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism, it also has repeatedly demonstrated that it does not respect the sovereignty of its neighbors and it is willing to use force to achieve its goals,” says the new National Military Strategy published by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey. “Russia’s military actions are undermining regional security directly and through proxy forces.”
The past two years, in short, have forced military leaders to resume their focus on an old adversary that they, Obama and European leaders had come to treat if not as a full ally, then at least a constructive player in the global scene.
Even though there appears to be a broad consensus about the potential danger from Russia, there are deep differences within the administration about what actions to take. In past, the disputes played out behind the scenes, bursting into the open in rare instances such as the resignation of the president’s third defense secretary, Chuck Hagel. Today, the differences are aired openly in regular hearings in Congress.
Hagel’s replacement, Ash Carter, as well as Obama’s picks for the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Joe Dunford; for vice chairman, Air Force
Gen. Paul Selva; and for Army chief of staff, Gen. Mark Milley, all have said they believe sanctions aren’t enough to check Russian aggression in Eastern Europe or that they favor arming Ukrainian troops directly. A longer-serving top Obama administration senior defense official, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, also said she believed Russia represented the biggest threat to the U.S.
The White House has tried to preserve strategic ambiguity about its position, but the president is understood to have all but ruled out sending weapons to Ukraine.
Carter broke with Obama on arming Ukraine as soon as his own Senate confirmation hearing, at which he said he’d “incline” toward supplying government forces there with weapons. Since his confirmation, the secretary has pushed the administration’s line that sanctions, led by Europe, are the best response to Russia’s invasion of Crimea and incursion into Ukraine, but Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) pressed Carter about whether he still had the same personal position.
“Yes,” Carter answered. “I haven’t changed my view.”
McCain and his fellow hawks welcomed the answers of Carter, Dunford and the others, but administration critics say they do not expect the Pentagon’s new cadre of leaders to move the needle much with Obama in terms of major policy decisions.
“We’re not going to see much of a change from this administration,” said Luke Coffey, a former special adviser to British Defense Secretary Liam Fox who’s now a Russia scholar with the conservative Heritage Foundation. “If I was a Ukrainian soldier, I wouldn’t be holding my breath.”
The Pentagon’s rotational deployments to Europe, which involve frequent training exercises with allied units, are a good way to show the American commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Coffey said.
But he also faulted the president for having withdrawn the Army and Air Force units that had previously been based there permanently – evidence, Coffey said, of Obama’s incoherent response to Russian aggression.
“It’s been a series of of bad foreign policy assumptions that led to bad foreign policymaking which resulted in the crisis we have today in Ukraine,” Coffey complained.
Asked about the administration’s Russia outlook, the National Security Council pointed to the National Security Strategy and to earlier comments by White House press secretary Josh Earnest, was was asked about Dunford’s statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee that Russia is the greatest threat to the U.S.
“These kinds of assessments are dynamic based on the activity and the situation on the ground” Earnest said then. “But again, certainly Gen. Dunford is somebody who has spent a lot of time thinking about these issues and has his own view. But I think he would be the first to admit that that reflects his own view and doesn’t necessarily reflect the view of – or the consensus – analysis of the president’s national security team.”
Administration officials say Russian President Vladimir Putin bears the blame for the crisis and dismiss the idea they’re anything but focused closely on the Russia problem. In fact, the Pentagon is asking Congress to move money around within the defense budget to support urgent requirements for dealing with the Russian threat both at sea and on land in Europe.
The Navy has asked to field a new “netted undersea sensor system” in response to an urgent need from the U.S. European, Northern and Strategic Commands that will help look for submarines. Those combatant commands also want the Navy to buy a new, $24 million towed sonar array as part of the submarine search effort.
Meanwhile, the Army has asked Congress to begin reprogramming funds to install heavier weapons aboard the Stryker armored vehicles of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment. The commander of the regiment, Col. John Meyer, himself signed an urgent “operational needs statement” requesting an upgrade from the unit’s current 25mm chain guns to 30mm cannons.
The Army has given the regiment high-profile deployments across Eastern Europe to signal to Russia that the unit is there and ready to support NATO allies if necessary. Earlier this year, cavalry troopers drive their Strykers on local roads from Estonia all the way back to Germany, stopping often to make their presence known.
Meyer told reporters at the Pentagon that the Russian incursion into Ukraine has created a high operational tempo for his unit, and so long as the west continues its standoff with Moscow, that’s the way things will stay.
“I don’t see that requirement going away,” Meyer said.