Cutting U.S. Force Structure in Europe: A Reprieve?
Is the Obama Administration weakening America by decreasing the number of U.S. forces in Europe? That is what some critics will have you believe regarding Department of Defense plans to reduce and consolidate some military posts in Europe. These changes, however, appear to be driven in relatively equal measure by budgetary concerns and a clear-eyed assessment of the security situation on the other side of the Atlantic. Indeed the report essentially acknowledges that Russia’s invasion and occupation of Ukraine have fundamentally altered security in Europe, and that the United States’ vital interests are best served by retaining a robust forward presence on the continent.
Two years ago, the Pentagon began work on its European Infrastructure Consolidation (EIC) report. The report was to focus on infrastructure – not force structure – but many observers assumed, as the name implied, that this report would ultimately lead to additional reductions to U.S. forward presence in Europe. There were good reasons to assume this – for the last 25 years, the Pentagon has steadily reduced the once massive presence of U.S. military forces in Europe.
To some degree, those reductions over the last two and a half decades made sense. The end of the Cold War and the relatively weak and unthreatening position of Russia meant the United States no longer needed hundreds of thousands of troops in Europe to safeguard vital American interests. Over the last decade though, reductions of U.S. forward presence have increasingly appeared driven less by an objective assessment of American interests and more by budgetary pressure. When confronted by the need to reduce force structure and related excess infrastructure, it has often been more politically expedient to cut in Europe, rather than say Texas, despite the strategic and operational advantages of forward presence.
The result has been to reduce Washington’s ability to reassure allies, maintain interoperability with and among the most capable NATO allies across a range of military ops, build capability and capacity among less capable, newer allies, and project compelling levels of force on the continent and beyond. Ironically, these strategic and operational costs have come at a time when the United States plans to rely more than ever on partnering with capable allies, when it is trying to build and maintain an allied coalition against the Islamic State, and when it is eager to get more allies involved in bolstering NATO’s presence in Poland and the Baltic states.
Indeed, had it not been for the remaining U.S. forces based in Europe, it is very unlikely that Washington could have dispatched troops as quickly as it did in early 2014 to reassure allies in Northeastern Europe. Last fall, those Italy-based U.S. forces in Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were replaced by rotational deployments from the United States. While those rotationally deployed units have made an important contribution to security on the continent, their small numbers and rapid turnover are insufficient to completely safeguard U.S. and allied interests or to build the kind of high-end interoperability needed for an alliance of 28 member states.
The value of Europe-based American forces has become increasingly obvious given Russia’s invasion of a sovereign European state, a violation of both the spirit and the letter of agreements to which Moscow is a signatory. Russia’s actions have appeared to push strategic considerations to the fore, delaying the release of the EIC report from last summer to last week. Even though the EIC report includes several significant consolidations – mostly in the United Kingdom – it leaves largely untouched major U.S. Army and Air Force facilities in Germany, Italy, Romania, and Bulgaria. Hence the EIC report has limited impact on U.S. forward presence as it exists today, especially in terms of deterring Russia and – if necessary – responding to aggression against a NATO ally.
In fact, the EIC could have been much worse than it was for Army and Air Force assets in Europe. This is good news for those that believe a robust U.S. forward presence in Europe is necessary to safeguard vital American interests in Europe and beyond. More specifically, it is also good news for Poland and the Baltic states, which now justifiably believe Russia represents an existential threat and understand the United States is NATO’s underwriter. These countries have come to see the U.S. military presence on the continent as the backbone of the allied commitment to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty.
Although the EIC report therefore represents a somewhat balanced approach, the longer-term future of the U.S. forward presence in Europe is by no means assured. Particularly concerning is the impact sequestration may have on the U.S. forward presence in Europe over the next few years, with some in the government willing to further reduce American force structure and infrastructure in Europe in order to safeguard U.S.-based forces and infrastructure.
Given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its increasingly aggressive military actions across Europe, it would seem counterproductive to further reduce the U.S. military presence on the continent at the moment, especially in terms of the practical and rhetorical effects this would have on Washington’s ability to reassure allies. Nonetheless, the risk remains that budgetary forces and political expediency will overrule broad, clear-eyed strategic analysis. American interests abroad can be best served through a balanced approach, one that carefully weighs budgetary concerns against the importance of maintaining strategic flexibility and the necessity of protecting vital U.S. interests in Europe and beyond through forward presence.
Dr. John R. Deni is a Research Professor of Security Studies at the Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute. He is the founding editor of and a frequent contributor to the SSI Live podcast series, and you can follow him at @JohnRDeni.