Washington, DC—(ENEWSPF)—November 3, 2014.
Presenters: U.S. European Command Commander and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe General Philip Breedlove
GEN. PHILIP BREEDLOVE: Good morning. Thanks for welcoming back, I think, now for my third time in front of this group. I’d like to open with a few quick comments and then quickly to your questions.
European Command faces dense defense and security challenges across our area of responsibility, which collectively represents, quite frankly, a strategic inflection point. Of principle concern is the unwelcome return of nations using military force to coerce neighboring states in Europe and clearly also an arc of increasing instability across the Middle East and Northern Africa.
The ongoing conflict in Syria and Iraq is further destabilizing the Levant and the Middle East where under-governed spaces in the Sahel and the Maghreb continue to present a complex array of security and humanitarian challenges.
Far from being whole, free, and at peace, violence in Eastern Europe and along Europe’s periphery represent a threat to the trans-Atlantic and United States security. Strategically, EUCOM is at the nexus of three major global issues today: a revanchist Russia; support to CENTCOM and the counter ISIL coalition; and supporting U.S. government efforts through USAID and AFRICOM to prevent the spread of the Ebola virus disease.
To our benefit, Europe is home to our most stalwart and capable allies and partners and our principle collaborators in promoting global security. Only by working closely with the NATO alliance and our partners in the region can the U.S. adequately, effectively, and quickly address the shared security challenges facing America’s vital national interests.
Accordingly EUCOM will continue to protect the homeland and U.S. interests with a credible capability to assure, deter, and defend while shaping the theater and enhancing our joint and combined ability to respond to an increasingly complex security environment.
A great example of this is our commitment to Operation Atlantic Resolve and our air, land, and ground presence in Eastern Europe. The 1st of the 1st Cavalry Division is in the Baltics in Poland, working and training alongside our alliance partners and, note worthily, with Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles, a first for many of these countries.
Before I take your questions, one only needs to look at the reporting you all generate to see the relevance and critical need of our forward presence in Europe. This forward presence has secured with our NATO allies a more secure, prosperous, and stable Europe; a robust trans-Atlantic economic partnership; and improved U.S. security and prosperity.
With that, I’m ready to go to questions.
Q: Sure, hi, Chris Carroll from Stars and Stripes. I’m going to start off with a question about basing both U.S. and NATO. Could you fill us in a bit on where the deliberations are as far as U.S. base consolidation in Europe? Is that going ahead? Is it on hold?
And secondly, with NATO, the staging bases? Where are those going to be? And sort of what’s a timetable for those?
GEN. BREEDLOVE: So where are we on the European consolidation effort? That process is ongoing. The results should be out soon of our first round and looking at what we’ll do. We have made our input to that, and, frankly, as the European Command commander, I see it as an opportunity, because we’re talking about infrastructure now, not force structure, and there is infrastructure consolidation that we can do and that cuts down fixed costs that I would rather not have to spend.
And so, we have supported the effort. We think the effort is proceeding in a way that supports our mission in Europe. And we look forward to that going forward.
He had two parts to the question, if you’d give me —
Q: Forward staging?
GEN. BREEDLOVE: You bet.
So, the second piece is that clearly as a part of the Wales Summit, and our adaptation, long-term adaptation in Europe, we will be making some changes to how and where we have NATO forces rotationally throughout our alliance. And the deliberation of how the U.S. will be a part of that, we’ve made our input and that is being worked on now by the staffs. And it’s really too early to talk about the exact details of what will happen, except for that our voice has been heard, and I believe that our European Reassurance Initiative is a great opportunity to reinforce that process.
Q: Is there a timetable on the U.S. basing report? I mean, do you know when that —
GEN. BREEDLOVE: I do not, no.
Q: Thank you for doing this, General Breedlove.
Can I ask you to update your latest comprehensive thinking about ISIS and the security threat that Islamic militancy poses on a couple of key points, when you look at it, a couple points. The threat of a lone wolf attack? The sense that ISIS, after several weeks of airstrikes, is actually increasing successfully its recruiting and that effort to recruit people with European passports? Your worry that ISIS, the Khorasan Group can get non-metallic bombs made and potentially back through European security and on to the United States? Do you still believe in your mind, your sense of it, that the Khorasan Group remains a threat to Europe in that perspective?
GEN. BREEDLOVE: So, a broad question. Let me see if I can pick it all apart.
Clearly, ISIS remains a concern. As the European Command commander and as the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, in my NATO hat, this is a problem because we have many nations who have multiple fighters in the area who are being radicalized, and then we’re going to face them when we come home.
So ISIS is a dual problem to us. First of all, it’s a problem along our allies’ border in Turkey. Second of all, it is a problem because the foreign fighters generated there come back to Europe. As you saw, we had one return to Belgium and do damage and then quickly across an international border into France.
This opened everybody’s eyes to what is a big problem of we have to worry about them all, not just the ones nation-by-nation.
So ISIS is a problem.
The ability to generate lone wolf concerns has been on our radar for some time, because these are the hardest to get after, the hardest to find. We are able to use networks, to attack networks, but lone wolves don’t plug into networks and so it’s a tougher problem. And you’ve seen some increased security across many of the European nations to be able to secure venues and events and things to address these lone wolves.
The issue of recruiting is a real problem. I think that I sign up to a broad series of works and thought which says when we get moderate Muslim voices coming from the mosques that speak out against these atrocities that we see in ISIS and others, that will help us with recruiting. It’s hard to address recruiting until we begin to address those hearts and minds, and I believe that that starts with those good, moderate voices of Muslims across not only Europe, but the United States and other parts of the world.
To the Khorasan Group, it’s bigger — the threat that you mentioned about these technical capabilities, it’s more than the Khorasan Group. Clearly, there are other elements of Al Qaida and other threats that are looking for those ways to thwart Western defenses. And, yes, they are still a threat.
Q: Could I just follow up?
You believe the Khorasan Group is still a threat?
And, second, if I could just ask you to go back, what are you specifically seeing since airstrikes began about ISIS recruiting in Europe?
GEN. BREEDLOVE: So, I won’t speak specifically to the Khorasan Group. I think that’s really something you should talk to Lloyd Austin about.
I would speak broadly to I think there is capability in a broad number of groups to try to get at these more technical attack streams, and so the body of work concerns me more than any one particular group of work.
Q: On recruiting?
GEN. BREEDLOVE: On recruiting.
GEN. BREEDLOVE: Yes. I’m not going to tie recruiting to airstrikes. I don’t think I have any indications that give me clear indication that has deepened or lessened the recruiting.
Again, I think that the recruiting piece goes back to my original thought, which is we need to hear the voices of moderate Muslims in the mosques to really get at the hearts and minds of what provides this recruiting base.
Q: General, Craig Whitlock with the Washington Post.
Last week, NATO reported that there’d been a real rash of intercepts of Russian fighters and bombers in Europe.
I wanted to ask you, has that continued in recent days? What’s your thinking as to what’s driving this, what the Russians are trying to accomplish?
And are you seeing similar incidents at sea? We saw reports about this mysterious underwater vessel near Sweden. Is there any connection to what’s going on there?
GEN. BREEDLOVE: So yes, we have seen an uptick in these air actions over the past year or so. That uptick has not been demonstrative, but there has been a general increase in the number of these kinds of incursions.
I think what is significant is that across history, most of these incursions have been very small groups of airplanes, sometimes singletons or at most, two aircraft.
And what you saw this past week was a larger, more complex formation of aircraft carrying out a little deeper, and I would say a little bit more provocative flight path.
And so it is a concern. These do not add to or contribute to a secure and stable situation, these kinds of demonstrations, and so they are problematic.
But what I would tell you is that NATO reacted exactly as it should, and the response was swift, and we had an appropriate number of escort aircraft that intercepted from our air policing bases.
And the situation resolved as it always did, in a professional manner with professional intercepts by fully capable NATO defenders to escort the Russians while they were in the airspace.
Q: What do you think was driving it? What do you think Russians are trying to accomplish with this?
GEN. BREEDLOVE: Well, my opinion is that they’re messaging us. They’re messaging us, you know, that they are a great power and that they have the ability to exert these kinds of influences in our thinking.
Q: Any events at sea that you’re noticing as well, and any insight as to what was going around Sweden underwater?
GEN. BREEDLOVE: Right. So I’ll not speak to the Swedish piece. I don’t speak to intelligence data, so we’ll just leave that at that.
I have not seen more provocative actions at sea in the last few days. But if you remember, as we first started having the issues in Ukraine, we saw some increased and occasionally more provocative actions at sea, not only in the Black Sea but off the north coast in the Baltics with one of our exercises up there, and even in the Pacific Command areas, we had some actions at sea.
So their reactions and their actions are sort of uniform across both land or in air and at sea.
Q: General, Phil Ewing with Politico.
Staying with Russia, I want to ask you, please, about these reports that France will turn over to Russia this month the first of its two amphibious warships they’re building for the Russian navy.
If, in fact, that goes ahead per the schedule, I’d love to get your take about what that will mean for the security situation, given what you just talked about with Russia’s aggressiveness in trying to test, you know, NATO in the eastern periphery of the alliance.
GEN. BREEDLOVE: So we’ve seen these reports as well. I think it’s really premature to discuss whether they will or they won’t. There’s a lot of speculation out there.
What is important is that France is a great ally. We have discussed with them at the political level, and I have discussed with them at the military level with my U.S. hat and my NATO hat, our thoughts about these sales.
France is a sovereign nation, and they’ll make a sovereign decision as they go forward in this. They clearly have our thoughts.
Q: If they do get this ship and then the second copy, does it change their ability to project power to influence their will, you know, at sea in the same way that they have in the Ukraine, clearly, and also with these air operations you were just talking about?
GEN. BREEDLOVE: I’m not going to speculate. Let’s just be factual. These are very capable ships.
Q: Sir, you always said that Turkey is a key player in — in NATO. I would like to hear from you how NATO now assess Turkey’s role in battling ISIS? As you may know, we hear a lot of reports saying that the Turkish army in some ways are allowing foreign fighters, thousands of foreign fighters, to float into Syria every month. What is your information on that? And how do you assess Turkey’s role in countering and battling ISIS?
GEN. BREEDLOVE: So you’ve heard me say before Turkey is a great ally, and this is a long-term relationship. I personally have been going to Turkey and flying out of Turkey since 1983. And this is going to be a long relationship into the future. This is an important ally.
And I think we also need to remember that Turkey is in a pretty tough neighborhood. To their north, the Black Sea and the revanchist Russia, to their south, ISIL and ISIS. So Turkey is in a pretty tough neighborhood right now and working to deal with it.
I have no indications at all that Turkey is allowing any foreign fighter flows or allowing any facilitation of foreign fighters. I do know that they are working with us and other NATO nations to share those pieces of intelligence and tactics, techniques, and procedures to get after foreign fighter flows because we know that there all the nations around Syria and Iraq, these are problems for those nations, flows of these foreign fighters.
So we are working together to address those things in NATO and bilateral.
Q: Just a quick follow-up. So you’re denying that Turkey is allowing foreign fighters to flow into Syria? That’s what I understand from you.
GEN. BREEDLOVE: No, I do not deny. What I said is I’m not aware.
Q: You’re not aware. NATO has a role to defend Europe.
GEN. BREEDLOVE: Yes.
Q: Do you —
GEN. BREEDLOVE: NATO has a role to defend NATO first.
Q: Exactly. Okay. Do you know — could you share with us any information from where those foreign fighters are flowing into Syria?
GEN. BREEDLOVE: Clearly, they’re flowing from all around the world, to include this nation, are flowing into Syria. So foreign fighters are flowing into Syria from many nations and many vectors from the south, as well.
Q: General, Tony Bertuca, InsideDefense. Last week, DOD Comptroller McCord said the upcoming budget submission would reflect the new reality in Eastern Europe. Can you tell us what your budgetary priorities are for FY[fiscal year] ’16, and, you know, in terms of resources? You know, what are you going to ask for? Maybe something along the lines of more troops or more permanently stationed equipment?
GEN. BREEDLOVE: Thank you for that.
So you’ve heard me at this podium say my first budgetary concern is that we take no further troop reductions in Europe. And if nothing changes, there are still troop reductions planned for Europe based on the business case analysis and other budgetary decisions that have been taken. And future concerns will be what happens if sequestration is felt in its full force.
So my first budgetary priority is to not further decrease forces in Europe. Because I believe we’re sized just right. As I said before, I think we have infrastructure that can be divested, but not force structure. We have it just right in the strategic context we have it.
And so, my priorities, beyond that, are that because of the increased pressure that we feel in Eastern Europe now, and because of the assurance measures that we are taking in the Baltics in Poland and Romania, we require — additional rotational presence. As I said, the 1st of the 1st Cav is there in a rotational basis now on top of our existing force structure.
And I believe there is a requirement for rotational forces in the future until we see the current situation begin to normalize.
Additionally, I am having discussions with the service chiefs about the possibility of forward-based equipment and supplies, as the Army calls them, “activity sets,” et cetera, et cetera, in order to give us a more responsive capability if we were to need it in the future.
So we are looking and having those discussions, and those will be high on my list.
But the third piece, may be the most important piece, we need to refocus and continue to focus on our readiness.
As you remember, during a couple of budget shutdowns in the past, we lost the ability to train for sometime forward. That’s opportunity lost, that you can’t build back immediately. We are still recovering from some of those challenges to our readiness.
And so, we’ll continue to focus on the dollars that we need to exercise and train inside of our own services, as a U.S. entity and with our partners and allies in NATO.
Q: General, Andrew Tilghman of Military Times.
Briefly, following on Chris’ question, in response to the more aggressive Russian air operations, has EUCOM changed any of its force posture, particularly in terms of aviation assets?
And also, more broadly, just recently, it sounded like, just a minute ago, you that you’re talking to the chiefs about a significant increase in the rotational presence going forward, beyond the uptick that we’ve seen over this calendar year. Is that accurate? Are you talking about a pretty significant increase in that rotational presence?
GEN. BREEDLOVE: Okay, let’s address the last one first. If I said “significant,” maybe that’s too big a modifier.
I am looking for an increase in rotational presence. As we said, right now, we’ve got the 1st of 1st. For the first assurance measures, we use a European force, one, the first of the 173rd, and they have now handed over the mission to a force coming forward from the United States.
And what we’re looking to do is work with the Army and other services to use their regionally aligned forces — to get them forward, to get their experience forward, to bring that capability to interact with our partners and allies.
I’m asking General Frank Grass to keep a strong pressure on our state partnership programs, which are absolutely key and essential to what we do in Europe.
So those rotational capabilities are very important.
As far as force posture, distinct changes in aviation, not more than what you have seen. Clearly, we took some of our garrisoned aviation assets and pushed them forward into the Baltic air policing, right off the bat. We have U.S. forces in that mission now.
But it is also has also been joined by other NATO forces, so we’re able to return our U.S. forces now back to their European garrisons, like in Lakenheath, Aviano and other places.
We are manning the Polish aviation detachment a little more aggressively than originally planned. So we’ve added some presence in our C-130 rotation and F-16 rotations there, but these are not large changes in aviation force structure.
Q: General, David Lerman with Bloomberg.
Two questions on Russia. They just had separatist elections in eastern Ukraine. Any insight as to what impact those elections have had on the security situation in Ukraine? Any update on how many Russian troops are there or on the border? Do you see that increasing or decreasing right now?
And then, my second question, just to follow up on the air incursions, I assume when these things happen, you confer with your Russian counterparts on this and demand some kind of explanation for what’s going on. Can you share anything about what explanation they give you for what they’re doing?
GEN. BREEDLOVE: The separatist elections were just yesterday, right? So we really haven’t had enough time to see what sort of impact they would have.
I think what we can say about those elections is, as you have heard before, I think, from this podium we don’t recognize them; we didn’t support them. We don’t think that they’re helpful. They’re not in accordance with the Minsk agreements or in support of the Minsk agreements.
And in the long term, these are not going to be helpful for the situation in eastern Ukraine.
As far as troops on the border, no huge change, actually, since the last time I’ve reported to you. We still have somewhere around seven battalion task groups on the Russian border. You have seen the reporting that some of those formations have moved closer to the border. We believe that was probably to bring some pressure on and make sure that the elections went according to the separatist plans. We’ll look out to see if they pull back from the border into their previous locations.
Q: How many troops are we talking?
GEN. BREEDLOVE: As I’ve said from this podium before, it’s really hard to tell.
We don’t know the exact composition of these battalion task groups. They are differing, depending on whether they’re army, infantry, whatever. So I would rather not speculate on that border.
But about seven battalion task groups, and that’s been relatively static now for some time. The only change we’ve seen is, as I said, over the past week or so, some of those forces left their border encampments and moved even closer to the border during the period of the election.
And essentially, what we see inside of Ukraine hasn’t changed since the last time I talked to you as well.
Q: On the explanation of the —
GEN. BREEDLOVE: Well, your assumption is not a good one. We do not have those conversations.
The Russians do routinely conduct these flights, and we have mechanisms that can be used if the flights are unprofessional. If they’re dangerously close, if the maneuvers are not correctly, there are mechanisms by which we address those.
But if the flight occurs in the airspace that these flights occurred in, and they are conducted professionally, which, again, all of the last intercepts I’ve seen, professional, then we do not routinely talk about them.
GEN. BREEDLOVE: Yeah, please.
Q: General, Cami McCormick from CBS Radio.
If I could follow up on the Ukraine question, what militarily has changed since the cease-fire?
GEN. BREEDLOVE: So first, you’ve heard me say that this is pretty much a cease-fire in name only. There continue to be sporadic engagements in and around the cease-fire zone.
And the second thing that I would say that has changed is, we have seen a general trend towards a hardening of this line of demarcation and much more softening of the actual Ukraine-Russia border.
The Ukraine-Russia border is wide open in these spaces. It is porous, completely porous. Russian equipment, resupply, training, flows back and forth freely across that inter-border space.
And so, if anything, I would say what has changed is the line of demarcation has become more defined, and the Ukraine-Russia border behind it has become completely porous.
Q: Have you seen more resupplying by the Russians since the cease-fire or less or about the same?
GEN. BREEDLOVE: They have seen now a series of truck convoys going in and out of eastern Ukraine, none of those approved by the Ukraine government and or monitored by the OSCE.
We have another one that just hit the border yesterday. I have not seen indications that it’s across yet. I have seen reporting that it’s across, but I have not seen my own indications that it’s across yet.
But Russia continues to resupply the Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
STAFF: One last question, Lou.
Q: General, Louie Martinez (inaudible) News.
There was information earlier from NATO that there were actual Russian forces inside Ukraine, up to 4,000, I believe, was the number. Are those numbers still — (inaudible)?
What numbers were seeing of Russian forces inside Ukraine, and are they still active?
And much earlier, the Russian government said they were pulling back the 17,000 troops that the spokesman told us there was some movement away from the border.
Did the two correlate; I mean — or was it just —
GEN. BREEDLOVE: Yeah, let me debunk that 4,000 number very quickly. I’ve never heard that reported.
In recent times, since the original incursion, which rolled back the Ukrainian forces and Russian’s withdrawn forces, there’s been nothing like that number in eastern Ukraine.
So there was a time where you heard us report that there were as many as 18 battalion task groups on the border, and there was a withdrawal of many of those task groups. As I told you today, we think there are about seven battalion task groups left on that border.
For some time now, we’ve been reporting about the same number of Russians inside Ukraine, and that is between 250 and 300 forces inside Ukraine. These are not fighting formations. These are formations and specialists that are in there doing training and equipping of the separatist forces.
And that has been largely static now for some time, about seven battalion task groups on or about the border, and somewhere between 250 and 300 actual Russian troops inside of Ukraine doing the training and equipping of the separatist forces.
STAFF: Thank you, all. Appreciate it.