US defense officials in Europe are reconsidering a plan to dramatically cut the number of US forces there – a potential change that illustrates how the war in Iraq and other threats are forcing the military to revisit a broader transformation that was to redefine its strategy overseas.
Many senior defense officials are concerned that the plan to cut by nearly half the number of forces in Europe could make it difficult to support American interests in the European theater. The troop reductions, they say, go too far.
"I am very apprehensive about how low we are taking capabilities of the US Army in Europe," says one senior defense official in Europe, who asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of the ongoing discussions.
For years, the presence of more than 110,000 US troops at big, established bases in places like Germany and Italy has been seen as a cold-war relic. In 2002, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld oversaw an initiative to reduce the American military footprint in Western Europe in favor of smaller, more agile forces at temporary bases in places like Romania and Bulgaria. That would put US forces in far less stable areas and make them far more relevant.
Under the plan unveiled in 2005, many of the extra forces are to be returned to the United States. By 2012, only about 60,000 US personnel would remain in Europe.
But that was so two years ago.
Today, those assumptions may not hold. Russia's democratic reforms have moved in reverse, and Iran has emerged as a potentially serious threat. In addition, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have lasted longer than expected, which has tapped American forces based in Europe who would otherwise be engaged in European Command missions such as building "partner nation" capacities. That has made it difficult for European Command to pursue a new, more active strategy with these nations and potentially prevent problems before they occur. Indeed, exercises and other military engagements across Europe and in Africa have had to be canceled because the command has or will have fewer troops.
The new strategy means "a whole new set of skills and requirements that will be needed inside this theater," says Air Force Col. West Anderson, who heads European Command's Transformation Concepts Division. "Whether that means more forces in theater has yet to be determined."
Army Gen. Bantz Craddock, newly minted as both head of US European Command and senior military commander of NATO, has directed his staff to study how the base restructuring plan would affect US strategy in Europe, as well as how reducing the size of the force by half could impede operations. A preliminary report to General Craddock will be complete next month, with a full report due by midsummer, defense officials say.
Last month during congressional testimony in Washington, Craddock indicated tentatively that he has reservations about the plan, without saying he would undo it altogether. While acknowledging that US forces across the Defense Department are strapped, Craddock indicated that the war is making it difficult to conduct other operations.
"We have very little capacity left after we source the global force pool, if you will, for these ongoing [operations]," Craddock said. Roughly 75 percent of the US force in Europe is either deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq, is about to go, or just returned, according to the defense officials.
"Our ability to do that now is limited because we don't have the forces available since they are in the rotation to [Iraq or Afghanistan]," said Craddock.
There is another problem of a more practical nature: The forces the Army is returning to the US don't have a place to go. Congress has only partially funded the Base Realignment and Closure Act, which governs a series of base closings and consolidation. While military construction officials have tried to spend what they have to accommodate forces returning from Germany, shortfalls exist, defense officials say, which has delayed construction at Fort Bliss, Texas, and Fort Riley, Kan.
"We're now in a position where we can't absorb many more," says David Reed, an assistant for construction in the Army's office of installations and environment at the Pentagon.
Whatever recommendation Craddock ultimately makes, it may come down to maintaining just enough American forces to send a forceful message to allies and potential foes alike, says Mackubin Thomas Owens, a professor at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. "The main reason for keeping troops in Europe is that it keeps us at the head of the table," he says.