RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said Friday the U.S. military would continue to have a strong presence in Europe, even as the Pentagon prepares to take two brigade combat teams from the region and shifts its strategic focus to Asia and the Middle East.
“We knew we would have to rebalance the forces based on where we thought problems would arise,” Panetta told servicemembers and civilians at Ramstein Air Base and Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, during brief stops at each base to thank mostly medical workers and other caregivers for their service and meet with wounded troops.
That rebalancing comes at what Panetta called “a key turning point” for the U.S. military, as a decade of war nears an end and the Defense Department looks to reduce its budget by $487 billion over the next 10 years.
Rather than make cuts across the board and risk “hollowing out the force,” Panetta said part of the Pentagon’s new defense strategy is to shift its focus to regions where it foresees potential problems.
The U.S. military will have “a great forward presence” in the Pacific, he said, and also in the Middle East.
But Europe won’t be left out, Panetta stressed.
“Europe is important to us,” he said. “We’re going to maintain a very strong presence here in Europe.”
Though asked by an airman at Ramstein what the Air Force footprint in Europe would look like in the future, Panetta talked mostly about the Army.
Without identifying which ones, Panetta confirmed that two of Europe’s four brigade combat teams would be leaving, but those units, he said, spent most of their time “fighting in Afghanistan.”
Both the 172nd and 170th infantry brigades have repeatedly deployed to Afghanistan, and they are the only two heavy brigades in Europe.
The number of soldiers in Europe will drop from about 44,000 to 37,000, Panetta said. But that number still “represents more soldiers than just about any place in the world,” he said.
The Army will also begin rotating soldiers into Europe about twice a year to train with allies, Panetta said.
The expected withdrawal of U.S. forces is also of concern to officials in Germany, where U.S. communities have been based for generations and provide economic impetus. This week, the commander of U.S. Army Europe, Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling held meetings with local mayors. Local media quoted the mayors of Bamberg and Schweinfurt as saying installations in both towns would be closed by 2015.
Panetta stopped at Ramstein and Landstuhl en route from a NATO meeting in Brussels to an international security conference in Munich.
At Ramstein, Panetta was asked about tensions between Iran and Israel and at what point the U.S. might get involved.
Panetta said the international community must continue to apply diplomatic and economic sanctions to keep “that pressure on to try to convince Iran that they shouldn’t develop a nuclear weapon.”
“But I have to tell you, if they don’t, we’re going to have all options on the table and we’ll be prepared to respond if we have to,” Panetta said.
“We’ve made very clear that they cannot — they cannot develop a nuclear weapon,” Panetta said. “The world community is unified on that.”