20 years after the Berlin Wall: In Europe, U.S. military remains committed to ensuring stability while taking on new threats
Stars and Stripes November 9, 2009
There are playgrounds, youth centers, schools, stores and freshly paved streets, all part of a $1.1 billion Pentagon construction effort to expand the base into a facility for some 15,000 people, including 4,500 U.S. servicemembers.
A few hours away, in Wiesbaden, the U.S. government is spending $500 million to transform that community as well.
And officials at Ramstein Air Base near Kaiserslautern recently opened a $170 million complex that includes a shopping mall, a multiplex cinema and a hotel.
Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall - and the beginning of the end of the Cold War - the American military is scarcely getting out of Germany. Instead, it's digging in.
The Nov. 9, 1989, breaching of the infamous wall hastened the collapse of communist governments across Eastern Europe, sounded the death knell of the Soviet empire and shattered the historical reason for America's vast military presence across Western Europe. Many people anticipated that the U.S. would soon pull up stakes and head home.
It didn't turn out that way.
Today the threat is terrorism rather than communism. Germany is no longer a front line in the Cold War but rather an essential staging point for other conflicts. And the American military footprint is decidedly smaller.
But experts say the need for the U.S. military to remain deeply engaged here is as strong as it's ever been, given the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and the challenges in other parts of the hemisphere.
"The United States can't go it alone," said Jim McNaughton, the U.S. European Command historian. "The world doesn't want us to go it alone. One of the ways we show our willingness to work in this collective environment is to have forward-stationed forces."
Before the Berlin Wall came down, the U.S. military's reach in Western Europe extended from Iceland to Greece, with the majority of forces in the former West Germany entrusted with doing their part to blunt a potential invasion by the Warsaw Pact nations.
Today, U.S. troop strength in Europe is less than a quarter of its Cold War levels: 80,000 troops in place of the 375,000 servicemembers once stationed here at the height of the confrontation with the Soviet Union.
Since 2003, U.S. European Command has closed 43 bases and installations and returned some 11,000 servicemembers and 16,000 of their dependents to the States. The tanks of yore are being replaced by new vehicles more suited to today's conflicts: Mine Resistant Ambush-Protected Vehicles, MRAP All-Terrain Vehicles and Stryker armored vehicles.
"It's not the traditional U.S. Army in Europe anymore," said Markus Kaim, director of research at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. "Nobody really assumes there will be an attack on NATO or German soil in the foreseeable future."
Yet while the American presence is decidedly smaller, it helps ensure that stability, analysts say.
"It was not clear in the immediate aftermath [of the end of the Cold War] how stable Europe was going to be," said McNaughton.
In fact, when ethnic war broke out in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992, the intervention of U.S. and NATO forces stationed across Europe was key to resolving the conflict, though it would take a few years for the allies to respond.
The war in the Balkans "was a horrible wake-up call for the kind of instability that is possible," McNaughton said.
There have been other flare-ups as well. When the former Serbian province of Kosovo unilaterally declared independence in 2008, tensions in the region heightened. U.S. Marines at the American Embassy in Serbia hunkered down during protests and members of the NATO-led Kosovo Force, which includes about 1,500 U.S. troops, were placed on standby.
And last year's conflict between Russia and Georgia shattered assumptions that war on European soil was a thing of the past. EUCOM leaders continue to eye the volatile Caucasus region warily.
McNaughton believes that in today's world, the United States' role as a world power is intricately tied to its European allies, new and old.
"We are an important part of their defense equation," he said. "I don't think they want us to leave."
Money is another reason. The U.S. pumps hundreds of millions of dollars into European communities each year.
That didn't seem to matter as much in the mid-1980s, when the U.S. presence was more widespread and Europeans - Germans in particular - took exception to the deployment of Pershing II medium-range ballistic missiles on their soil.
Yet a decade later, German mayors were traveling to Washington to lobby Congress to keep open U.S. bases in their communities.
McNaughton says he doesn't sense a groundswell of support anywhere in Western Europe for a withdrawal of U.S. forces. And if the U.S. were ever asked to leave, it would, McNaughton said, explaining that's been unstated policy through the decades. He cited Morocco, Libya and France as examples.
"While many good reasons exist to reduce the number of troops in Europe," a 1990 Government Accountability Office report stated, "it seems likely the United States will need to maintain some kind of credible military presence there."
Exactly what constitutes a "credible military presence" is a question military and civilian officials have been discussing ever since. The current Pentagon plan is to reduce U.S. forces in Europe to 60,000 by 2015. Beyond that date, nothing has been announced.
As the military spends more time and resources rotating troops into Romania and Bulgaria for training, and participating in a multinational heavy airlift wing in Hungary - used principally to shuttle troops and supplies to Afghanistan - a renewed appreciation has developed for the existing facilities in England, Italy, Spain and Germany.
The current infrastructure "is very efficient," said Jackson Janes, executive director of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
"You can't wave a magic wand and create that overnight someplace else," Janes said.
"Eventually, it may evolve, but not in the foreseeable future."
Janes and McNaughton noted that having forces based in Europe allows the Pentagon to more easily deploy troops to places like Africa, Afghanistan and Iraq than if troops were dispatched directly from the U.S.
And the continued U.S. military presence gives Washington something else: credibility.
"If you don't have any chips on the table," said Douglas V. Johnson II, professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Army War College, "who is going to give a damn what you think?"