WASHINGTON — The prospective new Air Force chief of staff said service officials must look into further base consolidations in Europe as part of the larger effort to trim military spending and stabilize the national economy.
Gen. Mark Welsh III, outgoing commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, told lawmakers during his confirmation hearing Thursday that the region remains critical to the nation’s strategic plans, but budget realities warrant a close look at how many bases and personnel the service needs to keep there.
“We should consider reductions and consolidation opportunities in Europe,” he said in a statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee. “That planning must begin with a careful assessment of the enduring missions in Europe. ... We should focus our reduction and consolidation efforts on the force structure and facilities that remain.”
The comments were greeted warmly by the lawmakers, several of whom have publicly pushed for deeper cuts to the military’s footprint in Europe. Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said he would push Welsh for specific ideas about Europe force reduction after his confirmation.
The topic has been under discussion at USAFE for more than a year, Welsh said.
If Congress approves pending fiscal 2013 budget plans, he said, the Air Force’s presence in Europe would be reduced to six fighter squadrons, one tactical airlift squadron, a rescue helicopter squadron and a single tanker squadron.
Welsh noted that’s a “small fraction” of the Air Force’s European footprint during the Cold War, but still represents a force that is sizeable — and potentially too large.
“From our end, it’s fairly easy once we identify those enduring missions,” he said. “Then the legislative and executive branch can debate what will be the other requirements for Europe in the future.”
Welsh would not comment on whether those reductions could mean an increase in equipment, personnel or base numbers in the Pacific region, which the Pentagon and White House have deemed a more critical focus for the foreseeable future.
Welsh also expressed support for another round of base closures. A Defense Department report in 2004 put the Air Force’s excess capacity at 24 percent and little has been done to significantly reduce that figure.
Lawmakers rejected that Pentagon proposal earlier this year, noting that base closures identified in 2005 produced questionable savings and controversial strategic shifts.
Welsh is expected to be confirmed by the full Senate in the next few weeks. He would replace Gen. Norton Schwartz, who is expected to retire this summer.