WASHINGTON (AFP) - The US Army plans to deploy about 150 tanks and armoured vehicles to NATO countries next year and some of the heavy armour may be stationed in Eastern Europe, a top American general said on Tuesday.
The move is part of a US effort dubbed Operation Atlantic Resolve in the Baltic states and Poland to reassure allies anxious about a resurgent Russia, with American troops deploying for several months at a time to conduct joint exercises.
Nearly 50 armoured vehicles are already in place and another 100 M1 Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles will be "pre-positioned" in Germany and possibly elsewhere for the US troops conducting drills with NATO partners, Lieutenant General Ben Hodges said in a phone interview from Estonia.
"The troops will come over and train, and they'll go back. The equipment will stay behind," Hodges said.
The arrangement was "a lot cheaper" than transporting tanks across the Atlantic and more efficient for the training mission, the general said.
Hodges said he would soon make a recommendation on whether to store some of the tanks and armoured vehicles among NATO's eastern members.
"I'm going to look at options that would include distributing this equipment in smaller sets, company-size or battalion-size, perhaps in the Baltics, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, places like that," he said.
The United States has about 29,000 forces permanently stationed in Germany, Italy and Belgium but has stepped up temporary deployments of troops for training and exercises designed to send a signal to Russia and NATO partners.
The exercises are meant "to provide assurance to those allies that are closest to the threat", the general said.
About 600 US Army troops from the 1st Cavalry Division are to depart in mid-December after a three month stint in the Baltic countries and Poland. They will be replaced by soldiers from the 2nd Cavalry Regiment based in Vilseck, Germany, who then will hand over in the spring to members of the 3rd Infantry Division, he said.
Hodges, who took over as head of US Army forces in Europe three weeks ago, said the troop rotations will continue through 2015 and into 2016, saying: "This is going to go on."
Russia's annexation of the Crimean peninsula and its backing of rebels in eastern Ukraine has sparked grave concern in a region scarred by decades of Soviet occupation, and the arrival of American troops has received an overwhelming welcome, he said.
"I was in Lithuania yesterday, Estonia today, Poland a few weeks back. All I get is 'thank you, thank you, thank you' from those host nations for what these soldiers represent."