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WASHINGTON - House lawmakers voted Friday to remove all brigade combat teams from Europe in coming years, a plan that would drastically reduce the United States' footprint in the region and is opposed by military officials.

The Senate and the president would have to sign off on the plan before it could become law, an improbable scenario given the Army's concerns that such a move would jeopardize national security. But the vote highlights lawmakers' continued frustration with U.S. military spending overseas amid shrinking funds for domestic priorities.

Two heavy Army brigades based in Europe will be withdrawn starting next year as part of the new national security posture announced by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta earlier this year.

Four brigade combat teams are currently stationed in Europe: The 172nd Separate Infantry Brigade, out of Grafenwöhr and Schweinfurt, Germany; the 170th Infantry Brigade out of Baumholder, Germany; the 2nd Cavalry Regiment out of Vilseck, Germany; the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team out of Vicenza, Italy.

The House amendment, included as part of the annual defense budget authorization debate, passed by a 226-196 vote. Amendment sponsor Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., said the move was needed to end European countries' overreliance on America for their defense.

"Instead of being forced to find the same [fiscal] balance that the U.S. is, they're able to drastically reduce their national defense spending because they can take for granted that the United States will continue to guarantee their security," he said. "This is an unfair burden to U.S. taxpayers."

Coffman, a former Marine and soldier who served in Europe, said Army officials will be able to replace the brigade combat teams with rotational forces including National Guard soldiers without harming national security. Opponents questioned that.

"What we're doing with this is not just defending our allies, but it's joining with our allies to make sure we're defending the United States," said Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va.

He added that the cost-savings from the move would be minimal, "because rotational units are very expensive and much less effective than forward-based forces."

Removing all four brigade combat teams would mean pulling back roughly 15,000 troops, dropping the Army's presence in Europe to fewer than 30,000 soldiers, and reducing the total U.S. military end strength there to around 70,000 troops.

Defense officials have argued that maintaining a strong presence in Europe is critical for current overseas operations like Afghanistan and to preserve strong ties with European allies.

The Senate is supposed to begin debate on its draft of the annual authorization bill next week, but a final compromise measure is not expected to be approved until later this year.

shanel@stripes.osd.milTwitter: @LeoShane


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