WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is sending six additional fighter jets and an air refueling tanker to Lithuania, a move meant to reassure allies in Eastern Europe of U.S. military support when Russia's incursion in Ukraine has raised fears about Moscow's intentions.
The deployment will mean ten U.S. F-15s are in Lithuania. Four had arrived in Lithuania in January as part of a regular rotation and are scheduled to leave at the end of April.
The jets will participate in NATO's Baltic Air Policing mission, a 10-year-old alliance effort meant to deter Russian violations of air space over Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
The planes, based at Lakenheath air base in Britain, will operate from Siauliai air base in Lithuania, a U.S. Defense official said Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a military deployment.
The Pentagon also is discussing stepping up joint training in Poland with a small U.S. Air Force detachment based there. The 10-member team coordinates periodic rotations of F-16s and C-130 transport planes to Poland, where they train with the Polish Air Force.
Russia's intervention in Ukraine has sent ripples of concern through former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe that spent a half a century under harsh Soviet occupations during the Cold War.
The Pentagon moves are largely symbolic but U.S. officials said they were meant to reassure countries that have joined NATO since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 that the United States will stand by them militarily.
"Understandably, they are concerned," Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Wednesday. "They seek our assurance for their security."
The Obama administration has ruled out using military force in its response to the crisis in Ukraine, using diplomatic and economic pressure instead. But administration officials wanted to emphasize that the United States has defense obligations with Europe through NATO, and will come to their aid if necessary.
Dempsey said that he had spoken with his military counterparts in the Baltic nations and Eastern Europe and promised to seek options "to deter further Russia aggression" and "help shape a path back to the sovereignty and security" in Ukraine.
Dempsey said that in a telephone conversation Wednesday with Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the Russian general staff, he conveyed "the degree to which Russia's territorial aggression has been repudiated globally."
The Pentagon this week suspended military contacts with Russia and pulled out of two multinational exercises scheduled to involve U.S. and Russian forces.
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