BERLIN -- A U.S. Marine Corps unit equipped with tanks, light armored vehicles and artillery will be sent to Bulgaria this fall as part of American plans to help reassure NATO allies worried by Russia's involvement in Ukraine, a top commander said Thursday.
Brig. Gen. Norman Cooling, deputy commander of U.S. Marine Corps Europe and Africa, told The Associated Press that 155 Marines equipped with four Abrams main battle tanks, six light armored vehicles and three howitzers are scheduled to be in place at the Novo Selo training area by early September. He spoke as NATO defense ministers met Thursday in Brussels.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said this week that more American military equipment would be positioned in Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Bulgaria, Romania, Poland and Germany as NATO seeks to bolster its forces in Eastern Europe.
"These are responses to Russia's provocations," Carter told CBS News correspondent Margaret Brennan in an exclusive interview in Estonia, one of the nations the American defense chief said could already "feel" the imminent threat posed by its massive neighbor to the east.
The increased American military presence -- some 250 tanks, armored vehicles and other equipment -- on Russia's doorstep is intended to reassure jittery allies like Estonia, which have been alarmed by Russia's annexation of Crimea and its support for separatists leading the war in eastern Ukraine.
"It's certainly our intent to convince the Russians and Mr. Putin to refrain from aggression and return to the community of peaceful nations," Cooling said.
Cooling said in addition to being a deterrent, the Marine unit would train with Bulgarian, Romanian and other allied forces over the next 18 months to improve the ability for U.S. forces to operate with forces using different equipment and methods. Marines will move through in six-month rotations.
"Ideally this culminates with integrated exercises with units from more and more allied nations that are able to call for fire from one another's artillery, our tanks maneuver in support of their infantry units, and vice versa," he said.
The U.S. already regularly conducts maneuvers with allied countries. In Romania on Thursday, U.S Navy Adm. Mark E. Ferguson III, a top NATO commander, said recent exercises have shown that the alliance is capable of training and operating across northern and eastern Europe.
He also noted that NATO successfully relocated the Allied Joint Force Command temporarily from Italy to Romania for exercises this month involving 1,000 troops from 21 nations, as the alliance continues to hone its ability to react to Russia's moves in Ukraine or other security challenges.