After budget-linked delays, review of US bases in Europe continues
A Pentagon review of U.S. bases in Europe, initiated last year to look at possible money-saving and strategic consolidations, is continuing after delays, according to defense officials.
Plans called for the study, announced last April, to conclude in December with a list of options for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. But the analysis was thrown off by sequestration contingency planning, according to Department of Defense spokesman Mark Wright.
Results of the study are now expected to be forwarded to Hagel by spring, Wright said. Defense officials and service commanders in Europe say they have capacity to spare as the U.S. assesses its posture on the Continent 25 years after the end of the Cold War and amid a rebalance of military and diplomatic resources toward the Pacific. The review is not considering troop numbers in Europe, they say, but infrastructure.
“It’s looking at what should we hold onto and what can we consolidate to try and reduce our footprint,” Wright said.
Defense officials have suggested those changes could be significant, including the consolidation of major bases.
Many factors could complicate the review and decision-making process, Wright added, including treaty obligations, local concerns and environmental laws.
The top U.S. commander in Europe, Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, suggested in an interview with Stars and Stripes last year that priority bases would be closer to areas of current strategic interests to the U.S. — the Mediterranean and Africa.
“We are a force … that lives in a legacy positioning associated with Cold War outlooks,” Breedlove said at the time. “We are seeing ourselves needing to be based closer to those places where we are continuing to find threats. … Clearly, the Levant, the east Med, northern Africa are places we need to be positioned well to react quickly into those areas.”
Some moves are already taking place. Marine rapid-reaction teams recently were placed in Spain and Crete. The Navy base in Rota, Spain, at the western entrance to the Mediterranean, is preparing for the arrival of four guided-missile destroyers beginning in February.
Troop numbers in Europe have steadily declined since the end of the Cold War and the faded threat of a land invasion from the former Soviet Union. From more than 300,000 servicemembers and division-level Army assets in the 1980s, the U.S. now counts fewer than 80,000 personnel and two Army combat brigades as the largest ground combat units.
While many bases and sites have closed in the intervening years, others continued to provide support for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade, from providing logistics to housing troops.
Another mission has been training allied militaries, especially those from former Eastern bloc countries interested in making modern defense reforms and joining NATO. The U.S. expanded its foreign military training in Europe over the past decade, bringing more countries into the NATO fold — and into the coalition fighting in Afghanistan.
The coming withdrawal of all NATO combat forces from Afghanistan in 2014, combined with tighter budgets among the U.S. and its allies and the new emphasis on Asia, have spawned questions about the future of the U.S. training mission.
Stars and Stripes reporter Chris Carroll contributed to this report.