Sgt. Cesar Cobena, from 66th Military Intelligence, assists a German soldier in loading his M16 while at the Training Support Center Wackernheim Range in December, 2012.

Sgt. Cesar Cobena, from 66th Military Intelligence, assists a German soldier in loading his M16 while at the Training Support Center Wackernheim Range in December, 2012. (Dee Crawford/U.S. Army)

STUTTGART, Germany — Of all the places U.S. troops are stationed around the world, no place seems to cause as much consternation as the military’s robust presence in wealthy western Europe.

With defense spending set to undergo its biggest squeeze in a generation, many lawmakers are once again taking a hard look at Europe and asking the question: What is the military still doing there?

“One of the things we’re hearing a lot around the Hill here is, maybe we don’t need forces in Europe anymore,” said Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, last week during a hearing on the military mission in Europe. “We’re so far advanced there, maybe we can pull all those troops home and it would be a big money savings. And then the way things are going right now financially, that would be a great thing. That’s what we’re hearing.”

The military is already scaling back to accommodate the steep automatic budget cuts mandated by sequestration, with furloughs planned for civilian workers, reductions to numerous on-base services, cuts in training that could eventually hamper readiness and a smaller overall active duty force.

But with still no sign of a deal in Washington to stave off the $500 billion in additional defense cuts that come with sequestration, budgetary pressures and Congressional scrutiny could put further pressure on the military to reevaluate its mission across the Atlantic.

While turning away from Europe would have strategic consequences for the military, whose commanders view the region as a key launching pad for hotspots in Africa and the Middle East, some experts argue that Europe is more than capable of picking up the slack should the U.S. downsize there.

According to a recent report by the RAND Corporation, the Pentagon could save up to $500 billion over 10 years if it would simply tell its European allies in NATO that they now have the security lead in defending shared interests in the region, allowing the U.S. to assume a more backseat role in Europe.

For example, pushing allies into the operational lead around the Mediterranean perimeter, for counter-piracy operations in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden and for providing the bulk of ground and tactical air forces that serve as a strategic counterweight to Russia could provide big savings, according to RAND.

America’s European allies together spend 200 billion euros ($260 billion) on defense annually, or about four times more than Russia.

The RAND report, which offers a range of alternatives for dealing with budget cuts, also states that even as the U.S. “pivots” to the Pacific the U.S.’s Asian partners could also do more to secure sea lanes in the region.

“This strategic direction does not require that the major U.S. allies become more concerned about external threats, or more security-conscious than they are,” according to the RAND report, titled Defense in an Age of Austerity. “It does require that these allies grasp that the United States, driven by reduced resources, will be looking to them to take lead responsibility in key areas in their respective regions.”

The report, however, notes there is one major risk with the strategy. If the U.S. steps into the operational background, there is no guarantee that allies in western and central Europe will step forward to offset the difference.

Defense spending trends in Europe indicate they will not.

In 2012, Asia for the first time surpassed Europe in defense spending, according to a report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“This is not simply a result of Asia spending more; it is as much a result of states in Europe spending less,” according to IISS’ annual report, which assesses global defense spending.

Last year, defense spending by European NATO members was about 11 percent lower than in 2006, according to the report.

“This is occurring as it becomes ever more clear that Europe should not presume that the US will provide the same level of operational support,” the IISS report stated. “The restricted nature of the US role in Libya, and again this year in Mali, could be seen as an incentive for European countries to work together to develop a wider spectrum of capabilities. But there is little sign of this happening.”

Still, France’s leading role in Mali, where al-Qaida aligned insurgents have gained a foothold, could be seen as a sign of European willingness to confront shared security threats.

But as Europe confronts its own economic challenges, getting allies to spend more on shared defense will be a challenge. Even during better economic times, most allies have struggled to meet a minimum goal set by NATO, which calls for members to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense. With the U.S. willing to carry the load, critics say there is little incentive for Europe and others to assume a greater burden.

“With average West European and Japanese defense spending of less than 1.5 percent of GDP, low allied defense spending is as much a political choice as an economic necessity,” the RAND report stated. “Thus, as allies decide what to spend on defense, the willingness of the United States to spend on defense appears to moderate any imperative they might feel to increase their own defense spending.”

That sentiment also was echoed by Congress, where late last year the House of Representatives’ version of the National Defense Authorization Act included language that called for the return of troops from Europe amid frustration with allied spending on defense. The idea was scrapped from the final version signed into law by President Barack Obama. But it if the budget wars continue in Washington and the military is forced to get even leaner, calls for more cuts in Europe could grow stronger.

At the height of the Cold War, the U.S. had roughly 450,000 military personnel in Europe and 1,200 bases scattered around the continent. Today, most of those bases have been shuttered, with roughly 80,000 troops stationed at select hubs around Europe.

“I would argue our current level is roughly right,” Adm. James Stavridis, head of U.S. European Command and supreme allied commander of NATO, said during testimony before the House Armed Services Committee last week.

In subsequent testimony on Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Stavridis said a military study on the force structure in Europe is being conducted and that more trimming in Europe could occur as a result. “We conceivably could drawdown a bit further,” he said.

Still, while he continues to press allies to dedicate more resources to defense matters, the U.S. presence in Europe still remains vital, Stavridis said.

“People sometimes say, you know, those bases in Europe, they’re kind of the bastions of the Cold War,” Stavridis said during last week’s hearing. “They really are not. They’re the forward operating bases for 21st century security.”

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John covers U.S. military activities across Europe and Africa. Based in Stuttgart, Germany, he previously worked for newspapers in New Jersey, North Carolina and Maryland. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.

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