Continually reassuring our allies is a pillar of our national defense strategy, yet next year’s proposed defense commitments make the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI) only temporary. The President’s Fiscal Year 2017 Defense Budget includes $3.4 billion for ERI, which will strengthen NATO’s conventional capability near the Russian border, more than quadrupling the $789 million allocated for the program in 2016.
In principle, this funding increase is welcome. But since the money will reside in the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account, which is funded on a year-to-year basis and is currently used to evade congressionally mandated budget caps, the Administration is sending the message that European reassurance is not a long-term guarantee. Prioritizing this initiative in the base budget would be a far greater demonstration of the U.S. commitment to defending our European allies.
This initiative will increase the United States military presence in several NATO ally states near the Russian border – including Bulgaria, Estonia, and Poland – to further deter Russian provocations. Increasing ERI funding is a useful step toward combatting the Russian threat through sensible, conventional means. The current plans include committing a continuous but rotational brigade of a few thousands troops in the region, increased bilateral and multilateral training exercises, and programs to improve ally readiness.
US NATO allies have largely welcomed the funding increase, though some European officials have asked for a permanent US presence in the region to further bolster conventional defenses against Russia. While this form of permanent reassurance is unlikely and unnecessary at this time, the Obama Administration can further support our Central and Eastern European NATO partners by prioritizing this plan in the Pentagon’s base budget.
Unfortunately, the European Reassurance Initiative’s funding mechanism is just one symptom of the current Pentagon budgeting process. As we have said before, the OCO budget is irresponsible and a relic of the past. Its utility as a slush fund to avoid budget caps is ineffective for long-term military strategy – and its sustainability has been questioned on a bipartisan basis.
To fully reassure our NATO allies and promote responsible budgeting, the next administration must work with Congress to include defense priorities in the base defense budget, and to reduce and ultimately scrap the OCO account altogether.