Plans slow for base closures in Europe
December 8, 2003
Bogged down by logistical limits and skepticism in Congress, the Pentagon appears to be slowing down its plan to move U.S. military forces out of western Europe to the United States, Africa and eastern Europe.
Last week, Pentagon officials acknowledged what many military insiders in Europe have been saying for months: The massive transformation that was expected to pull most Army forces out of Cold War-era bases must happen slowly, and it must happen with the consent of Congress and America’s allies.
Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith announced Wednesday that he and other senior governmental officials would cross the Atlantic this week to begin consultations with the European allies about the possible restructuring of U.S. forces.
His first stop? Germany.
“Our friends and allies are sensitive to changes in the U.S. overseas posture, that’s why we’re consulting with them before the president or Secretary Rumsfeld make any decisions on changes,” Feith said.
“They will serve our interest fully only if they also help sustain and strengthen our ties with our friends, allies and partners around the world.”
The Munich daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, citing unnamed German sources, reported recently that up to 80 percent of the U.S. forces in Germany will stay where they are. Pentagon officials dismissed the report, saying no decisions would be made until after negotiations.
The Pentagon’s language is far different from last spring and summer, when it was flush with confidence from what seemed to be a quick victory in Iraq. That’s when Marine Gen. James L. Jones, chief of the European Command, offered a sweeping vision of “transformation” in Europe.
He talked of rotating troops to temporary camps in places such as Bulgaria, Romania, Poland in eastern Europe or Djibouti in eastern Africa, while cutting back substantially on U.S. military presence — currently at about 100,000 troops — elsewhere in Europe, particularly in Germany.
Although Jones pledged to keep several German bases, including the air bases at Ramstein and Spangdahlem and the training area at Grafenwöhr, he never specified which ones would be closed.
Still, details of draft plans filtered out and were magnified by rumor. Many Americans and Germans at 1st Infantry Division bases in the Würzburg area and 1st Armored Division bases from Hanau to Baumholder expected their bases to shut down within two years.
The Los Angeles Times, citing unnamed senior defense officials, reported earlier this year that many units from the 1st AD — now in the middle of a 12-month tour in Iraq — would not return to bases in Germany, but be directly restationed to stateside bases.
Some 1st AD troops in Iraq also say they were warned to plan on moving their families to stateside bases within six months after returning from Iraq this spring, and many 1st ID soldiers say they expect not to return to Germany when their 2004-05 Middle East deployment ends.
The German press printed speculation that the United States, angry over the German government’s failure to support the invasion of Iraq, would pull out all of its troops before the end of 2003.
However, Jones and other Defense Department officials repeatedly have said the restructuring plan had nothing to do the German government’s lack of support for war with Iraq. The restructuring plans, they insisted, were based solely on the desire to restructure the U.S. military’s Cold War posture.
Regardless, the mayors of 12 German cities with U.S. military bases traveled to Washington to lobby against their closure.
As summer turned to fall, the Pentagon said little about Jones’ aggressive proposal, which was expected to be spelled out with details and timetables by the end of the year. But in Europe, word began to filter down through the chain of command that change would not come quickly.
“A lot of people are on pins and needles, thinking something is imminent,” Lt. Col. Thomas Fass, commander of the Kitzingen-based 417th Base Support Battalion, said in early November. “The rhetoric has been tempered. I don’t see anything happening in the short term.”
It had been clear to many military officials in Europe that, despite the impatience of senior Pentagon leaders, abandoning bases in Germany would not be a simple matter.
Lt. Col Amy Ehmann, the new commander of 414th Base Support Battalion in Hanau, Germany, told a gathering of community leaders last month she believed any major realignment “is not going to happen during our time here.”
She said the military lacked the infrastructure to move or house troops in any of the proposed destinations.
“There’s no place to put these people,” Ehmann said.
At the same meeting, 104th Area Support Group commander Col. George A. Latham II said it made little sense to close overseas bases before Congress announces its round of stateside base closures, scheduled for spring 2005.
“What politician in his right mind ... would want to close something before [then]?” he asked.
The Pentagon’s tone the past several weeks stressed the upcoming talks with allies over base realignment are the beginning of a long process, one that senior Defense officials say they hope will lead to a nimbler force suited to the post-Cold War world. Feith and other Defense officials have been purposely short on specifics and have given no timeline for the change.
“We’re still in what I’d call a visionary state,” said Lt. Cmdr. Rick Haupt, a EUCOM spokesman. “There a political, administrative and logistical hurdles that exist before we get to the end state.
“It’s a huge, huge process. It’s going to take a long time.”
— Reporter Kevin Dougherty contributed to this report.