STUTTGART, Germany — In the coming months, the Defense Department is finally to decide whether to act on a nearly 10-year-old plan to return two brigade combat teams to stateside bases or hold steady in a post-Cold War world, even as European militaries are scaling back.
The verdict, which was delayed until after NATO’s November summit in Lisbon, represents the culmination of a debate that has raged in military circles since the fall of the Soviet Union. Without the presence of a serious conventional military threat, is a substantial American military presence still required in Europe?
“We still have to consult with our allies in Europe and come to a decision on how many BCTs will stay in Europe,” said Lt. Col. Tamara Parker, a Pentagon spokeswoman. “We expect that decision in early 2011.”
Since 2002, two U.S. Army brigades have been operating in a state of bureaucratic limbo as the Pentagon wrestles with how to structure its forces overseas. Under the Army’s transformation plans, the Baumholder, Germany-based 170th Infantry Brigade Combat Team and the 172nd Infantry Brigade in Schweinfurt have been scheduled to redeploy to the U.S. by 2013.
The moves are part of an ongoing restructuring of overseas forces meant to save money and increase efficiency.
In the last five years, the military has consolidated its overseas bases into five main hubs. And last year, it announced the closure of 22 Army installations between 2010 and 2015.
Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. presence in Europe has dropped from 300,000 during much of the 1980s to roughly 75,000 troops today. Moving the two brigades back to the States would further cut U.S. forces by about 10,000 personnel.
And the final review comes at a time of more calls for money-saving cuts across the Defense Department.
On Dec. 1, President Barack Obama’s bi-partisan Deficit Reduction Committee, recommended that one-third of overseas bases should be eliminated to save more money. The recommendation resembles a plan developed in 2010 by a congressionally appointed committee, which found that cutting a third of the U.S. military presence in Europe and the Pacific would save $80 billion over 10 years. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said he wants to reduce Pentagon spending by $100 billion over five years.
Whether the U.S. military needs to maintain an expensive and robust military presence in peaceful western Europe will likely be the crux of the debate, according to Alexander Cooley, an international relations professor at Barnard College, who also has authored a book about the politics of U.S. overseas basing policies.
“It’s a conversation we need to have,” Cooley said.
“We can’t just keep spending at these levels as if everything else is equal. The Pentagon budget has to take a hit. In an ideal world you can keep everything, but that’s not the case. You have to make choices.”
While most analysts acknowledge that the removal of two brigades wouldn’t greatly alter the security landscape in Europe, some experts say a drawdown could mark the beginning of a decline in political influence in the region.
“When you look broadly at European security it is still dependent on American protection, but this has more to do with the nuclear umbrella and not American forces on its territory,” said Jan Techau, a military analyst at the NATO Defense College in Rome.
But in Techau’s view, a potential decline in political influence trumps the issue of deterrence.
“The real question is a political one,” Techau said. “How much military engagement is necessary to maintain political influence in Europe? The number of brigades here has taken on symbolic value that goes beyond its military value. Symbols mean a lot in international affairs.”
The troop realignment decision comes as Washington is attempting to achieve several, sometimes conflicting, strategic objectives in Europe.
For instance, as the U.S. courts Russia for greater cooperation on issues such as missile defense, nuclear disarmament and Afghanistan, it also is attempting to reassure eastern European allies that the U.S. still has their back.
Returning nearly 10,000 soldiers to the U.S. could be interpreted as something of a diplomatic olive branch to Russia, which is skeptical about NATO’s missile defense plans and angered by the U.S.’s recent commitment to conduct joint F-16 training missions in Poland, analysts say. At the same time, returning more troops to the U.S. could cause more consternation among strategic partners in Eastern Europe who already are fearful about a resurgent Russia.
“American presence in Europe means different things to different people,” Cooley said. “When it comes to Western European countries — the older allies — the subject of U.S. forces is an anachronism. It’s out of sight, out of mind. But in Eastern Europe, I think there could be some concerns (about a further drawdown) for some people. The issue of security is very much alive.”
Several past and current U.S. military commanders, including U.S. European Command leader Adm. James Stavridis, have expressed discomfort with the European drawdown plan. Those concerns were brought into focus back in 2008 when Russia’s invasion of Georgia prompted EUCOM officials to question assumptions about security in the region.
During a recent interview with Stars and Stripes, Stavridis, also NATO’s top commander in Europe, said the military continues to play an important role in Europe, but he stopped short of endorsing a four combat team presence.
“It is too soon to know how that is going to come out, but force structure in Europe is in fact a balance and is evaluated constantly in the context of allied militaries and in terms of where we’re going to operate in terms of the NATO alliance,” Stavridis said during a visit at Ramstein Air Base. “The exact size of it is something that will be discussed between the executive branch and the legislative branch. I’m confident that whatever decisions will be made we will be able to make that work in Europe.”
Matt Rhodes, a professor of national security studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Garmisch, Germany, said the combat brigades in Europe play a practical role for the U.S. military that shouldn’t be overlooked. Training partnerships with European militaries ensure they have the capacity to operate alongside U.S. forces in places such as Afghanistan.
“It’s much more difficult to do that without a forward presence,” said Rhodes, adding that the current force structure represents an overall commitment to the region. “I do see value in maintaining four brigades.”
As the U.S. debates the cost of its presence in Europe, other countries are cutting back.
Gates and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen have cautioned European governments against a decade-long downward trend in military spending, which dropped by 2 percent in the past 10 years. Today, U.S. defense spending represents 73 percent of NATO expenditures, compared to about 50 percent a decade ago.
While the U.S. spends nearly 5 percent of its GDP on defense, nearly every other NATO nation falls short of the 2 percent spending goal. Germany, the second-richest nation in the alliance, spends only about 1.2 percent.
If the trend continues, Europe risks becoming a “paper tiger,” Rasmussen warned during NATO’s 28-nation summit in Lisbon.
During a speech last year, Gates struck a similar tone regarding the dangers associated with a “demilitarization” mindset in Europe, where there is a widespread distaste for military investment. “Not only can real or perceived weakness be a temptation to miscalculation and aggression, but on a more basic level, the resulting funding and capability shortfalls make it difficult to operate and fight together to confront shared threats,” Gates said.