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11 February 2014

The Future of U.S. Bases in Europe-A View from America

Lithuanian Lenin Statue, courtesy of M1K3Y /flickr
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Vandalized Lenin statue in an art park, Vilnius, Lithuania.

Will fewer US facilities and forces in Europe limit Washington’s ability to project power into unstable regions? Luke Coffey thinks so. He also believes these reductions will send the wrong signal about the US’s commitment to NATO, and therefore embolden Europe’s adversaries.

By Luke Coffey for Baltic Defence College (BDC)

Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. military presence in Europe has been viewed as low-hanging fruit for those looking for savings in the defense budget. Reductions in the U.S. military capability in Europe are often carried out without considering the affect such moves may have or how such moves will be viewed by friends and foes alike.

At its peak in 1953, the U.S. had approximately 450,000 troops in Europe. Due to the Soviet threat to Western Europe, the U.S. had good reason to base a high number of U.S. troops in Europe. During the early 1990s, as part of the “peace dividend,” U.S. troop numbers in Europe were slashed. Paradoxically, in the early 1990s, use of U.S. troops based in Europe increased while their numbers were being reduced.[1] Today, approximately only 64,000 U.S. troops remain permanently based in Europe. The Obama Administration’s attempt to “pivot” its defense focus to Asia, while simultaneously cutting defense expenditure to its lowest level in decades, is jeopardizing the future of the U.S. military presence in Europe.

In January 2012, the Obama Administration announced the withdrawal of at least two brigade combat teams (BCTs)[2] totalling approximately 8,000 soldiers and 2,200 combat service and support soldiers from Europe by 2014. In addition, the Administration announced that key aviation assets would be removed from their permanent bases in Europe. These cuts have been supported by some Members of Congress and media commentators who believe that basing U.S. troops in Europe is a Cold War anachronism.

However, basing American troops in Europe directly serves U.S. national security interests. Of course, the presence of U.S. forces in Europe contributes to the collective defense of U.S. allies on the continent, but this is a consequence of, not the reason for, maintaining a robust presence. The challenge for U.S. decision makers is to keep a military force that can promote U.S. interests in the region without creating a culture of dependency on the U.S. security umbrella among America’s European allies. The commonly held belief that U.S. forces are in Europe to protect European allies from a threat that no longer exists is wrong. In fact, forward basing U.S. troops in Europe is just as important now as it was during the Cold War, albeit for different reasons.

From the Arctic to the Levant, from the Maghreb to the Caucasus, Europe is at one of the most important crossroads of the world. U.S. bases in Europe provide American leaders with flexibility, resilience, and options in a dangerous multipolar world. The huge garrisons of American service personnel in Europe are no longer the fortresses of the Cold War, but the forward operating bases of the 21st century. The U.S. needs to have the tools available to react to events in America’s interests. Hence, a robust and capable presence of U.S. military forces in Europe is just as important today as it was during the Cold War. This is why force reductions in Europe are worrying.

Trans-Atlantic Relations seen in a Wider Context.

To better understand the Obama Administration’s position on European basing one must place this issue into a wonder context on how the Administration views trans-Atlantic relations. President Obama has shown little affinity towards Europe. Trans-Atlantic relations are rarely a factor in the Administration’s geo-political strategy. Other than hollow overtures about U.S. and EU free trade in the President’s most recent State of the Union address Obama has shown little interest in Europe. In part this has been the result of the Administration’s so-called “pivot” to Asia and the way such a policy is perceived by America’s European allies. Ever since President Obama announced his so-called “pivot” to Asia, there has been extensive debate in European capitals on what this policy means, and if it really signifies the beginning of the end of serious U.S. engagement in Europe after more than 70 years.

President Obama’s stance on Europe and his “pivot” to Asia tend to be viewed differently depending on where one looks in Europe. Many in Western Europe, more focused on EU integration and dealing with the financial crisis than strengthening trans-Atlantic relations, have largely been ambivalent towards the U.S. administration’s lack of European engagement. In fact, some in Western Europe have welcomed Obama’s aloofness and feel more conformable with less American leadership in Europe.

However, Eastern Europeans tend to take a different view. To many in the former Warsaw Pact, and the three Baltic countries, President Obama’s level of interest in the region has been disappointing compared to his two predecessors. For example, the Clinton administration oversaw the addition of the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary into NATO and sent thousands of American troops into harm’s way to help pacify the Balkans. The Bush administration saw a further seven countries join NATO and paved the way with two more countries, Albania and Croatia, to join soon after his presidency.

Furthermore, George Bush ushered in the best U.S.-Eastern European relations in years and visited Eastern European countries seven times in his first term, compared to Obama’s three. (Bush visited Eastern European countries a total of 21 times during his two terms). As things stand President Obama will be the first American president since the end of the Cold War not to welcome in a new member of NATO.[3] To date, the new U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has visited Europe on seven occasions. He has not visited a single Eastern European country. While a lot of this may seem merely symbolic, perceptions and symbolism latter in international affairs.

Due to America’s pivot to Asia, and the subsequent disengagement from Europe, many in Europe now believe that America can no longer be automatically counted on as a partner. Most now believe that American and European interests, while still sharing some similarities, are increasingly diverging. This point of view has been a driver of policy in many European countries. For example, the lack of U.S. engagement in Europe was one of the unofficial assumptions used when factoring the defense and security requirements during the United Kingdom’s 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review. This view was reaffirmed by the crisis in Libya, and the lack of U.S. willingness to get involved there early on when the UK and France clearly made it a national priority.

The view that Europe’s status has been downgraded under the current administration was further reinforced by the Pentagon’s recent defense guidance. Issued in January 2012 and entitled “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” it contains barely a mention about Europe. In the whole 16-page document—one designed to give the U.S. Armed Forces and the civilians supporting them the Defense Secretary’s broad vision and policy priorities—Europe and NATO receive only one short paragraph. And neither Europe nor NATO is mentioned in President Obama’s foreword for the document.

Missile defense is another area where the U.S. has been inconsistent and weak in terms of European policy under Obama. The Administration has not only slowed down the implementation of missile defense in Europe, it has also reduced investment for it. When the Obama administration abruptly cancelled the emplacement of missile-defense components in the Czech Republic and Poland, commonly referred to as the “Third Site,” back in 2009, those two countries felt as if the rug had been pulled out from underneath them. This was especially the case after both had offered unwavering support for missile defense in spite of staunch Russian opposition, and had strongly supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq when it was fashionable in Europe to disagree with the war.

To make matters worse, it was reported that the Administration announcement cancelling the Third Site was done without first informing the leaders of the Czech Republic and Poland in a timely manner. To add insult to injury, in the case of Poland, this announcement was made on September 17, 2009, the 70th anniversary of the 1939 Soviet invasion of Poland. The treatment of Poland and the Czech Republic has tarnished America’s reputation outside the Euro-Atlantic area. There are many partners in the Middle-East, especially the Gulf, who are wondering if they would be discarded in the same way as Poland and the Czech Republic if the Administration seeks an accommodation with Iran over its nuclear program. Consequently, many in Eastern Europe see a night-and-day difference between the levels of U.S. enthusiasm that existed for the region before and after President Obama entered office.

A Puzzling Distance

The lack of emphasis now placed on Europe by the U.S. must confound many European partners, who have ranked as some of America’s staunchest allies since 9/11. After devoting so much blood and treasure to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade, usually at great political cost at home, many wonder what it was all for. At the end of the day, it is not just Europe that loses out from an aloof American European policy. There are many reasons why the U.S. needs to stay engaged with the Continent.

Through NATO, some of America’s closest military partnerships have been tried and tested. When critics in France and Germany were complaining that the U.S. was “going it alone” in Iraq, 23 European countries, 17 of which were also members of NATO, sent troops to Iraq. The troop contribution to Iraq of countries such as Poland, Italy and Georgia measured in the thousands. The UK contributed 46,000 troops for the initial part of the invasion. Many European countries deployed troops to Iraq at great political cost.

European troops have even a greater presence in Afghanistan. Of the 50 nations, besides the United States, that have contributed 45,000 forces to the International Security Assistance Force, approximately 80 percent of these troops (37 nations) are European. Together, these 37 nations have contributed nearly a third of the military personnel serving in Afghanistan. It is true that there have been some shortcomings, such as major European powers not doing all they can in Afghanistan or disagreeing outright with the U.S. over Iraq in 2003. But on the whole, no other region of the world has been willing to back U.S. foreign policy objectives in the same way as Europe.

U.S. Forces in Europe Today

The U.S. has 21 main operating bases, primarily in Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, Turkey, and Spain. The number of U.S. installations in Europe has declined steadily since the Cold War. For example, in 1990, the U.S. Army had more than 850 sites in Europe, but today the total number for all services is approximately 300. As part of a broader policy that is shrinking the U.S. forces around the world, the Obama Administration’s most recent defense cuts will deeply impact the U.S. military footprint in Europe. These cuts send the wrong signal about America’s commitment to transatlantic security and will embolden U.S. adversaries in the Euro–Atlantic region. Most importantly, the move will reduce the ability and flexibility of the U.S. to react to the unexpected in Eurasia and the Middle East.

On January 26, 2012, the Pentagon announced reductions in the U.S. military force posture in Europe:

·Inactivation of one A-10 squadron at Spangdahlem Air Base in 2013.

·Inactivation of the 603rd Air Control Squadron at Aviano Air Base in 2013.

·Reduction of V Corps headquarters structure after deployment to Afghanistan later this year. It will not return to Europe.

·Inactivation of the 170th Brigade Combat Team (BCT) in 2013 and the 172nd BCT in 2014—a reduction of more than 8,000 soldiers that completely eliminates the U.S. Army’s mechanized capability in Europe.

·An additional reduction of approximately 2,500 soldiers in enabling units of the U.S. Army in Europe over the next five years.

The Air Force Cuts.

The inactivation of the 81st Fighter Squadron and the Air Control Squadron will create significant gaps in U.S. aviation capability in Europe. Disbanding the 81st Fighter Squadron, which is expected to deactivate and leave Europe after 53 years in June 2013, also means retiring its 20 A-10 fighter aircraft.[4] The 81st Fighter Squadron played a key role in U.S.-led operations in the region and beyond, including the first Gulf War, Bosnia, Kosovo, the no-fly zone in Iraq in the late 1990s, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom,[5] and most recently over Libya as part of Operation Unified Protector.[6]

The Defense Department has offered little public explanation of the logic of removing this capability from Europe. During his 2012 testimony to the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, Admiral Stavridis justified the decision by saying said that “even though we’re taking out some aircraft, we’re going to bring some new aircraft and (sic) including the V-22 which is optimized for special operations.”[7] Nobody disputes the combat effectiveness of the V-22, which has proven itself in Iraq and Afghanistan. The V-22 is a very welcome addition to USAFE and will provide U.S. commanders in Europe an additional capability, especially U.S. Special Forces in Europe.

However, the V-22 is not a substitute for the A-10. The A-10 is a ground attack aircraft that can destroy a main battle tank at a range of 6,500 meters using cannon capable of firing up to 4,200 rounds a minute.[8] The V-22 Osprey is a vertical takeoff and landing tiltrotor aircraft that can carry up to 32 troops. As Admiral Stavridis pointed out in his statement, the V-22 is optimized for special operations, not ground attack. The capabilities offered by the A-10 and the V-22 could not be more opposite. Therefore, the assertion that V-22s can replace the A-10s

is misleading.

The Army Cuts.

At the time of the Obama Administration’s announcement in January 2012 the U.S. Army in Europe has two heavy BCTs (the 170th and 172nd Brigade Combat Teams in Germany), one Infantry BCT (the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Italy), and one Stryker BCT (the 2nd Armored Calvary Regiment in Germany) permanently based in Europe. Because they constitute U.S. Army in Europe’s primary armored force, cutting the two heavy BCTs will leave a significant capability gap in the U.S. ground forces. This echoes the analysis of the 2005 Overseas Basing Commission, which warned against removing a heavy BCT from Europe.[9] Despite this warning, the Obama Administration is removing both heavy BCTs. The deactivation of the 170th BCT took in October 2012. A casing of the colors ceremony took place on October 9, 2012, marking the end of 50 years of having U.S. combat soldiers in Baumholder, Germany. The inactivation of the 172nd BCT is expected to take place in October 2013. In addition, the U.S. Army in Europe will see a further reduction of approximately 2,500 soldiers from enabling units over the next five years. In all, more than 10,000 soldiers will be removed from Europe.

In his testimony to the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, Admiral Stavridis justified this move by stating that the loss of these two BCTs will be mitigated by a dedicated BCT based in the U.S. that will rotate its battalions to Europe for joint training. However, a single infantry battalion rotating through Europe cannot provide the same capability as two permanently based heavy BCTs provide.

Admiral Stavridis told Congress that the current BCT structure is “static and essentially parked in Germany.” He went on to say that dedicating a BCT in the United States to focus on Europe would allow its battalions to rotate to places like the Balkans, the Baltics, or other places in Eastern Europe.[10] A renewed U.S. focus on these regions is welcome, but a single BCT based permanently in the United States cannot properly meet this ambition by occasionally rotating one of its battalions to Europe for joint training. Furthermore, elements of the BCTs based in Germany and Italy already deploy to Eastern Europe when they are not deployed on combat operations overseas. For example, elements of the 173rd Airborne Brigade carried out exercises in the Ukraine and Poland in 2011.[11]

The decision to reduce the number of BCTs in Europe appears to have been based on perceived financial savings, not an empirical or strategic review of U.S. force requirements. On April 8, 2011, the Obama Administration initially announced that it was reversing the 2004 decision to remove two of the four BCTs from Europe and would instead only bring one BCT back to the United States. The Department of Defense provided the following justification:

Based on the administration’s review, consultations with allies and the findings of NATO’s new Strategic Concept, the department will retain three Brigade Combat Teams in Europe to maintain a flexible and rapidly deployable ground force to fulfill the United States’ commitments to NATO, to engage effectively with allies and partners, and to meet the broad range of 21st century challenges.[12]

In fact, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that no U.S. troops would be brought back from Europe until after 2015, when NATO leaders had agreed to complete the handover of security responsibilities to the Afghans and end combat operations, Gates implicitly acknowledged the importance of U.S. forces in Europe in supporting expeditionary campaigns, such as the one in Afghanistan. It also highlighted the strain on EUCOM, which was trying to carry out joint training operations in Europe while supporting operations in Iraq and Afghanistan with only four BCTs.

A mere nine months later on January 25, 2012, the Obama Administration changed the policy, announcing that two BCTs will return back to the U.S. from Europe no later than 2014. The Administration has not explained what changed in the geostrategic picture of Europe since April 2011 so it can only be assumed that perceived cost savings, not strategic rationale, drove this decision.

The main reason usually given by proponents of reducing U.S. military bases in Europe is the perception of saving money. This is apparently the rationale for the Obama Administration’s recent decision. However, the facts do not support this argument. First, reducing U.S. troops from Europe and achieving the same capability by regularly rotating units from the United States is not economically viable because deploying two mechanized BCTs and their equipment overseas to Europe would incur huge costs.

The Obama Administration has demonstrated this point with its unwillingness to rotate the same capability to Europe that they are removing. Instead of two BCTs, only one infantry battalion will rotate to Europe at a time. This is dangerous, shortsighted, and based on the false assumption that the U.S. can project the same degree of power with rotational forces as it does with troops permanently based in Europe.

The Case for U.S. Troops in Europe Today.

There are strong economic, political and geographical reasons to keep large, robust and capable U.S. military forces in Europe.

The geographical case: Emerging threats from a dangerous region. The geography of the U.S. European Command shows why the region matters. The 51 countries in EUCOM’s area of responsibility include approximately one-fifth of the world’s population inside 10.7 million square miles of land and 13 million square miles of ocean.[13] EUCOM has physical borders with Russia, the Arctic, Iran, Asia Minor, the Caspian Sea, and North Africa. Most of these areas have long histories of instability and a potential for future instability that could directly impact the security interests and economic well-being of the United States. One of the most obvious benefits of having U.S. troops in Europe is its geographical proximity to some of the most dangerous and contested regions of the world. This proximity of U.S. forces gives policymakers the ability to respond quickly to a crisis.

To the south of Europe, from the eastern Atlantic Ocean to the Middle East and up to the Caucasus is an arc of instability. This region is experiencing increasing instability from demographic pressures, increased commodity prices, interstate and intrastate conflict, tribal politics, competition over water and other natural resources, religious tension, revolutionary tendencies, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and frozen conflicts. This region also has some of the world’s most vital shipping lanes, energy resources, and trade choke points. This is a recipe for instability. Recent instability in North Africa after the popular uprisings in 2011 has shown the utility of basing robust U.S. military capabilities near potential global hot spots. For example, when ordered to intervene in Libya, U.S. commanders in Europe were able to act effectively and promptly because of the well-established and mature U.S. military footprint in southern Europe.

Inside Europe itself the Balkans has a potential for future instability. Although security has improved dramatically in this region, there is still a potential for more violence. On a positive note, Albania and Croatia have joined NATO, and Croatia will soon join the EU. The situation in Kosovo still remains fragile. As recently as August 2011, elements of the 12th Combat Aviation Brigade were deployed to reinforce NATO’s Multinational Brigade East in Kosovo after conflicts arose at border control points.[14] The security situation in the Balkans is far from settled.

To the north, the Arctic or the High North is becoming more contested than ever before. During summer months, Arctic ice has been decreasing in size and new shipping lanes to Asia are opening as a result. Even if the recent reduction in Arctic ice is a cyclic phenomenon, it poses security challenges in the present. Of course, the U.S. has an $ interest in stability and security in the Arctic because the U.S. is an Arctic nation. The American commitment to NATO is also relevant because four of the five Arctic powers are in NATO.[15]

Geography also plays an important role in missile defense, especially against medium-range and long-range missile threats from countries such as Iran. Locating major missile defense assets in Poland, Romania, Spain, and Turkey would help to protect U.S. interests and European NATO allies.

Russia is also important to the U.S. troop presence in Europe. With the Cold War over, Russia no longer poses a direct military threat to Western Europe, but Russia’s future is uncertain. For some NATO members, Russia is still a force driver in military planning. For other U.S. allies, such as Georgia, Russia continues to be an aggressor. Nothing indicates that Russia is on a path to reform. Its economy is in tatters, its demographics and aging population are putting pressures on the state, and its government is best described as a thugocracy. In Russia democratic freedoms are in retreat, corruption is endemic, and the future is bleak. The same failings of the Soviet Union a quarter of a century ago are starting to reappear in Putin’s Russia. Even with Russia’s current economic difficulties, Vladimir Putin clearly indicated during his presidential campaign that he will invest heavily in Russia’s military. In an article for Rossiiskaya Gazeta, Putin stated:

Under these circumstances, Russia cannot rely on diplomatic and economic methods alone to resolve conflicts. Our country faces the task of sufficiently developing its military potential as part of a deterrence strategy. This is an indispensable condition for Russia to feel secure and for our partners to listen to our country’s arguments.

We have adopted and are implementing unprecedented programs to develop our armed forces and modernize Russia’s defense industry. We will allocate around 23 trillion rubles [$775 billion] for these purposes over the next decade.[16]

Putin has also linked strengthening the Russian economy with modernizing its armed forces. In the same article Putin suggested that financial investment in modernizing the Russian Armed Forces must “serve as fuel to feed the engines of modernization in our economy, creating real growth and a situation where government expenditure funds new jobs, supports market demand, and facilitates scientific research.”[17] Although Russia by itself should not drive the U.S. military presence in Europe, the second-order effects of Russian-induced instability in the region should be an ongoing NATO concern. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall caught many by surprise. Western leaders should not allow a resurgent Russia catch them by surprise, too.

The Economic Case: Stability Equals Prosperity. A stable, secure, and economically viable Europe is in America’s financial interest. Regional security means economic viability and prosperity. For more than 60 years, the U.S. military presence in Europe has contributed to European stability, which has economically benefited both Europeans and Americans. The economies of the 27 member states of the European Union,[18] along with United States, account for approximately half of the global economy. The U.S. and the members of the EU are each other’s number one trading partners. The potential impact of the current Eurozone crisis on the U.S. makes European economic stability more important than ever before. The Eurozone crisis could turn into a security crisis. For example, any instability or civil unrest resulting from Greece defaulting or leaving the Eurozone could spill over into the Balkans. Nobody can predict the security effects of the current Eurozone crisis.

The economic case also illustrates the importance of the greater European region to energy security and the free flow of trade. Some of the most important energy security and trade corridors are on the periphery of Europe as are some of the world’s most dangerous and unstable regions. European economies depend on oil and gas transported through the volatile Caucasus and several maritime choke points. As Arctic sea lanes start to open, shipping is increasing in that region, creating new security challenges.

The Political Case: Relations with European Allies Are Best Done Through NATO.The U.S. troop presence in Europe is the strongest signal of American support for NATO. Regardless of its institutional shortcomings, NATO has anchored the U.S. inside Europe for the past 64 years. It is important for the U.S. to engage its European allies through NATO, especially with the EU looking fractured and weak. Since the EU’s failed 2004 Constitutional Treaty, the political situation among EU member states has become more fragile and incoherent. Recognizing this in 2005, the U.S. Overseas Basing Commission stated that the French and Dutch referendums rejecting the EU Constitutional Treaty “highlighted the continued weakness of the [European] Union and thus the importance of NATO to our relationship with Europe.”[19]

The 2009 Lisbon Treaty, which replaced the failed Constitutional Treaty, was finally ratified by all EU member states after great political cost and controversy. Ireland initially rejected the Lisbon Treaty in the June 2008 referendum, but passed it in a second referendum in October 2009. Lingering political fallout from the Constitutional and Lisbon Treaties, coupled with the current Eurozone crisis has increased the risk of political instability in Europe. The current economic and political situation has also made the EU unpopular among Europeans. However, NATO still enjoys a high degree of increasing popular support. A recent Eurobarometer poll found that only 31 percent of Europeans have a positive image of the EU,[20] compared the most recent German Marshall Fund on Transatlantic Trends, which reported that 62 percent of Europeans thought that NATO was an essential organization.

Considering the EU’s bleak future, the U.S. needs to continue multilateral political engagement in Europe through NATO. Maintaining full participation in NATO allows the U.S. to maintain a leadership role in European affairs in a way the EU would prevent. With all of the problems and the uncertain future, NATO should continue to be the primary interlocutor for U.S. engagement in Europe.

Capacity Building: Training European Allies to Fight. A capable and militarily strong NATO is in America’s interest. NATO is only as strong as its member states, which is why joint training between U.S. forces and its allies is vital to keeping NATO a strong alliance. Preparing the militaries of European allies to deploy outside of NATO’s borders offers huge benefits for the United States. In 2010, the U.S. carried out 33 major multinational training exercises involving 50,000 troops from 40 countries in Europe. Many of these training exercises were to prepare European allies for deployments to Afghanistan. Approximately 80 percent of the countries with forces deployed in Afghanistan are European.[21] If these European troops were not in Afghanistan, U.S. would need to have deployed more troops. For example, a Georgian infantry battalion[22] is fighting alongside U.S. Marines in Helmand province, one of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan. The more America trains its allies to carry out challenging missions, such as in Afghanistan, the more they can share the burden carried by the U.S.

However, former EUCOM commander General Bantz Craddock told the House and Senate Armed Services Committees in 2007 that wartime deployments left him without the forces needed for exercises and other security cooperation in his area. Removing two more Brigade Combat Teams, as the Obama Administration is planning, will exacerbate this already difficult situation.[23]

Opposition to U.S. bases in Europe is getting stronger.

There has been stiff opposition from various corners in the U.S. to the continued presence of U.S. forces in Europe. Often the opposition to U.S. forces in Europe’s stems from the false assumption that they are there to protect Europeans. By extension, it is therefore believed by opponents that the U.S. tax payer is subsidizing the defense of wealthy Europeans who have decided to cut their own defense expenditure for the benefit of a bloated welfare state.

Perhaps the strongest opposition comes from the Republican controlled U.S. House of Representatives. In the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year (FY) 2013, the House of Representatives passed an amendment that called for the removal of all four U.S. Army Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs) currently based in Europe. (It is likely that a similar amendment will be considered in the upcoming FY 2014 NDAA.)

The sponsors of the amendment, Representatives Mike Coffman (R–CO) and Jared Polis (D–CO), argue that the U.S. should not be subsidizing the defense of its European partners at a time when many European nations are cutting their own defense budgets. The 2012 Coffman–Polis amendment, which was passed by a vote of 226–196, went further than the Obama Administration’s current proposal and calls for the return to the United States of all four BCTs currently stationed in Europe and their replacement by rotational forces. However, this measure was not included in the Senate Conference Report and, therefore, did not make it into the NDAA.

Much of the frustration in the U.S. Congress is due to the lack of defense spending and investment in Europe. As an intergovernmental security alliance, NATO is only as strong as its member states. Of NATO’s 28 members, 26 are European. Of these, 21 are also in the EU. European countries collectively have more than two million men and women in uniform, yet, by some estimates only 100,000—a mere 5 percent—of them have the capability to deploy outside national borders.[24] Since 2008, the 16 European members of NATO have reduced their military spending. Reductions in many NATO countries have exceeded 10 percent.[25] In 2012, just four of the 28 NATO members—the United States, Estonia, Britain, and Greece—spent the required 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) on defense. France fell below the 2 percent mark in 2011.

The lack of defense investment by Europeans has had a direct impact on recent overseas operations. At the height of the combat operations in Afghanistan, many European NATO members were having difficulties deploying just dozens of troops at a time. When Europeans do send troops, many are restricted by numerous caveats, such as no flying at night or no combat patrols beyond a certain distance from a base.[26] Even though on a much smaller scale compared to Afghanistan, the recent campaign in Libya fared little better. What started off as a French–U.K.-inspired military adventure had to be quickly absorbed into a NATO operation because the Europe did not have the political will or military capability (without the U.S.) to see the mission through to completion. Regarding Europe’s contribution to the Libya operation, former Secretary of Defence Robert Gates summed it up:

However, while every alliance member voted for the Libya mission, less than half have participated at all, and fewer than a third have been willing to participate in the strike mission. Frankly, many of those allies sitting on the sidelines do so not because they do not want to participate, but simply because they can’t. The military capabilities simply aren’t there.[27]

This is mainly the result of a decrease in defense investment by the members of NATO since the end of the Cold War, and the lack of political will to use military capability when and where it is needed. The lack of defense investment by Europeans since the end of the Cold War, and the subsequent dependence on the U.S., has planted the seed of discontent among U.S. lawmakers. It is true that the presence of U.S. forces in Europe contributes to the collective defense of European allies, but this is a consequence of, not the reason for, maintaining a robust military presence.

The Way Ahead.

Far from reducing the U.S. military presence in Europe, the Obama Administration should examine ways to increase the U.S. presence, especially on Europe’s periphery and with allies who have been committed to Euro–Atlantic security. In 2004, General Jim Jones, EUCOM commander, told Congress that any “new bases should have a transformational footprint, be geo-strategically placed in areas where presence yields the highest return on investment, be able to both contract and expand as required and should...take advantage of our developing ability to rotationally base our forces.”[28] His advice still applies today.

Some believe that the European region is yesterday’s news and that the U.S. should focus on defense and security issues in Asia. Indeed, the U.S. and its allies are facing emerging security challenges in the Asia–Pacific region. Furthermore, the world’s economic interdependency means that factors that affect the security situation in Asia will often directly affect Europe. U.S. force posture in Asia and U.S. force posture in Europe are complementary. It is not a zero-sum game.

Some believe that the U.S. should not have a robust military presence in Europe because the Europeans should defend themselves and that the U.S. should not be providing a security umbrella at the expense of the American taxpayer. However, the primary objective of U.S. forces in Europe is to provide a forward-based military capability that gives U.S. decision makers timely and flexible military options in defending America and promoting American interests in the broader European region. The U.S. contribution to the collective defense of Europe is simply a positive side effect.

The Administration’s justifications for cuts in U.S. military capability in Europe do not add up. No matter how it is spun, V-22s are not a replacement for A-10s, and a rotating infantry battalion is not the same as two heavy BCTs permanently based in Europe. The Administration’s cuts in the U.S. force posture in Europe are part of a large array of defense cuts that will weaken America and its allies. The decision to remove a large number of U.S. troops and their associated military capabilities from Europe and the Administration’s disgraceful treatment of Poland and the Czech Republic over missile defense plans sends the signal to European allies that America no longer cares about Europe.

The U.S. military presence in Europe deters American adversaries, strengthens allies, and protects U.S. interests. Whether preparing U.S. and Allied troops and deploying them to Afghanistan or responding to a humanitarian crisis in the region, the U.S. can more quickly and effectively project power and react to the unexpected using its forward-based military capabilities in Europe. Reducing this capability will only make America weaker on the world stage.

In the past 90 years, the U.S. has disengaged from Europe on two occasions: during the early 1920s when the U.S. occupation force left the Rhineland and during the huge troop drawdown in the early 1990s. Both cases saw new eras of instability and warfare on the continent. America’s economic and security interests require a stable Europe, and the U.S. military presence in Europe contributes to this.

For additional reading on this topic please see:

Sideways: America's Pivot and Its Military Bases in the Asia-Pacific
The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11
Air and Space Power Journal: May-June 2013
Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA)

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[1] For example, between 1990 and 1993 the number of U.S. soldiers in Europe decreased from 213,000 in 1990 to 122,000 in 1993, and the number of U.S. Army installations across Europe dropped from 858 to 415. However, during this time the U.S. Army in Europe command supported 42 deployments required 95,579 personnel. U.S. Army Europe, “History,” (accessed May 12, 2013).

[2] A brigade combat team is a self-contained combined arms formation and the basic deployable maneuver unit in the U.S Army. There are three types of combat brigades: Heavy Brigade Combat Teams, Infantry Brigade Combat Teams, and Stryker Brigade Combat Teams.

[3] [This note is missing.]

[4] U.S. Air Forces in Europe Public Affairs, “FY2013 Budget Cuts to Impact U.S. Air Forces in Europe” Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, February 22, 2012, (accessed May 11, 2013.

[5] Spangdahlem Air Base, “81st Fighter Squadron,” October 21, 2010, (accessed April 30, 2013).

[6] Joe Pappalardo, “Air War over Libya, in the Pilots’ Words,” Popular Mechanics March 31, 2011, (accessed April 12, 2013).


[7] Stavridis, testimony, March 1, 2012.

[8] Airforce Technology, “A-10 Thunderbolt (Warthog), United States of America,” (accessed April13, 2013).

[9] Dempsey, “Questioning EU’s Will, U.S. Panel Backs NATO.”

[10] Admiral James Stavridis, testimony before the Committee on Armed Services, U.S. House of Representatives, March 1, 2012, european-command-and-u-s-africa-command (accessed May 17, 2013).

[11] News release,“U.S. Army Europe Looks Back at a Busy, Productive 2011.”

[12] News Release, “DOD Announced U.S. Force Posture Revision in Europe,” U.S. Department of Defense, April 8, 2011, (accessed May 23, 2013).

[13] Stavridis, “European Command.”

[14] News release, “U.S. Army Europe Looks Back at a Busy, Productive 2011,” U.S. Army Europe, January 5, 2011, (accessed April 11, 2013).

[15] U.S., Canada, Norway, and Denmark (Greenland). The non-NATO Arctic Sea power is Russia.

[16] Vladimir Putin, “Being Strong,” Foreign Policy, February 21, 2012, (accessed April 11, 2013).

[17] Ibid.

[18] Any further mention of the European Union in this document refers to the 27 independent and sovereign nation-states that collectively form the European Union.

[19] Judy Dempsey, “Questioning EU’s Will, U.S. Panel Backs NATO,” The New York Times, September 13, 2005, (accessed May 22, 2013).

[20] European Commission, “Eurobarometer 76: Public Opinion in the European Union,” December 2011, p. 20, (accessed April 11, 2013).

[21] Admiral James G. Stavridis, “European Command Posture Statement,” testimony before Committee on Armed Services, U.S. House of Representatives, and Committee on Armed Services, U.S. Senate, March 30, 2011, (accessed May 11, 2013).

[22] This commitment from Georgia will be doubled in the autumn of 2012, making Georgia the largest troop contributor per capita.

[23] General Bantz J. Craddock, statement before the Committee on Armed Services, U.S. House of Representatives, March 15, 2007, (accessed May 11, 2013).

[24] Nick Whitney, “Re-Energising Europe’s Security and Defence Policy,” European Council on Foreign Relations Policy Paper, July 2008, p.20, (accessed April 3, 2013).

[25] News release, “Military Balance 2012,” International Institute for Strategic Studies, March 7, 2012, statement-b956 (accessed May 22, 2013).

[26] David P. Auerswald and Stephen M. Saideman, “NATO at War: Understanding the Challenges of Caveats in Afghanistan,” presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, September 2009, p. 9, (accessed April 3, 2013).

[27] Robert M. Gates, “The Security and Defense Agenda (Future of NATO),” speech delivered in Brussels, June 10, 2011, (accessed April 3, 2013).

[28] General James L. Jones, statement before the Committee on Armed Services, U.S. Senate, September 23, 2004, (accessed May 25, 2013).

Luke Coffey is the Margaret Thatcher Fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington DC.

Editor's note:

This article was published in the Baltic Security and Defense Review, Volume 15, Issue 2, 2013, by the Baltic Defense College.


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