US Troops on Alert; Carrier Strike Group Under NATO Command For ‘The First Time Since The Cold War’

By Patrick Goodenough | January 24, 2022 | 6:30pm EST
An F18 Hornet fighter jet on the flightdeck of the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman. (Photo by Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images)
Fighter jets on the flightdeck of the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman. (Photo by Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images)

(CNSNews.com) – Defense Secretary Gen. Lloyd Austin has put up to 8,500 U.S. troops on “heightened alert” as Russia continues to bolster its forces near Ukraine’s border, according to the Pentagon.

Meanwhile NATO said the U.S. has placed an aircraft carrier strike group under NATO command “for the first time since the Cold War.”

The Department of Defense says the naval exercises in the Mediterranean were “long planned” although NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg spoke about them on Monday in the context of allies “stepping up” in the face of the current Russian threat.

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said the U.S.-based troops were being prepared for potential deployment in Europe, if NATO takes the decision to activate its Response Force (NRF).

In order for a “vast majority” of the 8,500 troops who are now being placed on a “shortened tether” for possible deployment to Europe to actually be sent, Kirby told a briefing, NATO would have to activate the NRF.

He stressed that that has not yet happened, and that “no decisions have been made to deploy any forces from the United States as this time.”

At the same time, Kirby also spoke about the possibility that some troops could be deployed outside the NRF construct, “if other situations develop.”

“In the event of NATO’s activation of the NRF, or [a] deteriorating security environment, the United States would be in a position to rapidly deploy additional brigade combat teams, logistics, medical, aviation, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, transportation, and additional capabilities into Europe.”

 

The NRF is a multinational force about 40,000-strong, and includes a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) of around 20,000 personnel, with multinational land troops, and air, maritime, and special operations forces components.

It was created by the alliance in 2002, to provide a rapid military response to an emerging crisis.

Kirby made clear that Russia is not lowering the temperature by withdrawing forces from near Ukraine’s borders, but on the contrary has been bolstering their numbers.

“I’m not going to get into talking about their [Russian] troop movements, but they continue to add battalion tactical groups to their western – to their western border, to the border with Ukraine,” Kirby said, noting also the deployment of Russian troops to Ukraine’s northern neighbor Belarus, purportedly for joint exercises.

“They have not only shown no signs of de-escalating, they are in fact adding more force capability.”

The aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman and its strike group have teamed up with NATO for interoperability exercises in the Mediterranean that began on Monday, and has been placed under NATO operational command, for “the first time since the Cold War.”

(Specifically, the carrier strike group has been placed under the command of the commander of Strike Force NATO, Vice Admiral Eugene Black, who is also commander of the Naples, Italy-based U.S. Sixth Fleet.)

Kirby told reporters late last week that the Jan. 24-Feb. 4 drills, Neptune Strike ’22, were “long planned” and not related to the unfolding situation with Russia and Ukraine.

At the same time, he said “due consideration” had been given to the current tensions, but in discussion with NATO allies “the decision was made to move ahead” with the exercises.

They involve coordinated maritime maneuvers, anti-submarine warfare training, and long-range strike training.

The USS Harry S. Truman in the Mediterranean Sea. (Photo by Fabrizio Bensch/AFP via Getty Images)
The USS Harry S. Truman in the Mediterranean Sea. (Photo by Fabrizio Bensch/AFP via Getty Images)

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that while planning for the drill began “long before the current escalation of tensions from Russia's aggressive posture towards Ukraine, such exercises help the United States and its allies enhance interoperability and ensure readiness for any threat against NATO.”

In Brussels, NATO chief Stoltenberg highlighted the fact that the U.S. had placed a carrier strike group under NATO command “for the first time in decades,” and referred to it while listing examples of NATO allies “stepping up” in response to Russia's troubling actions.

 

Elsewhere, Denmark is sending a frigate to the Baltic Sea and agreed to deploy more F-16 jets to Lithuania as part of NATO’s Baltic air policing mission; France said it was ready to send troops to Romania under NATO command; the Netherlands is sending F-35 fighters to Bulgaria for air policing and putting a warship and land-based units on standby for the NRF; and Spain is sending ships to join NATO naval forces in the Black Sea and Mediterranean, and considering sending fighter jets to Bulgaria.

And in addition to existing multinational battlegroups in the Baltics (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) and Poland, NATO was considering establishing battlegroups to its southeastern members, Stoltenberg said, although “no decision has been taken” yet.

He described the moves as “defensive and proportionate,” stressing again that the alliance was prepared to engage with Russia “in good faith”

“The NATO presence is in no way threatening because it is, compared to the significant military buildup by Russia in and around Ukraine, a very limited presence. But it sends a strong signal and message of our unity and our resolve to protect and defend all allies.”

President Biden discussed the situation in eastern Europe in a video call on Monday afternoon with Stoltenberg, European Union leaders, and the leaders of Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Poland.

The White House said they underscored their desire for a diplomatic resolution to the tensions, and “also discussed their joint efforts to deter further Russian aggression against Ukraine, including preparations to impose massive consequences and severe economic costs on Russia for such actions as well as to reinforce security on NATO’s eastern flank.”

Biden told reporters later there was “total unanimity with all the European leaders” during the virtual meeting.

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