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Congress pushing toward Europe base closures

Jan. 27, 2013 - 10:35AM   |   Last Updated: Jan. 27, 2013 - 10:35AM  |  
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• 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment in Vilseck, Germany
• 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, stationed in Vicenza, Italy


• 170th Airborne Brigade Combat Team, stationed in Baumholder, Germany. Inactivating in fiscal 2013.
• 172nd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, stationed in Grafenwoehr, Germany. Inactivating in fiscal 2014..

European duty stations a favorite for many soldiers and families for more than half a century will close their doors if Congress has its way.

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European duty stations a favorite for many soldiers and families for more than half a century will close their doors if Congress has its way.

Lawmakers have authorized and requested that the president pull all permanent troops out of Europe.

The request is contained in the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, signed into law Jan. 2 by President Obama. While the legislation calls for the return of all troops, it specifically identifies the brigade combat teams stationed there.

Several issues have contributed to the push to vacate Europe. Listed among them in the NDAA is the failure of European nations to invest in defense spending as promised. That leaves the U.S. to pick up the check, and that doesn't sit well with a Congress whose wallet is getting thin.

Some lawmakers and defense leaders anticipate another round of base closures could be necessary and are working to ensure gates shut in Europe before they shut stateside. And some see European bases as little more than an unnecessary Cold War relic.

Troops in Western Europe are "unnecessary," said recently retired Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., in a Jan. 9 MSNBC interview.

Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., said last year that "at a time when we must seriously consider cuts to our budget and balancing our budget, we should not continue to subsidize the defense of wealthy European nations against a Soviet threat that ceased to exist two decades ago."

Congress, in the 2013 NDAA, contends that the use of rotational Army deployments would be "sufficient to permit the United States to satisfy the commitments undertaken by United States pursuant to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty … address the current security environment in Europe and contribute to peace and stability in Europe."

Some military leaders and defense think tanks disagree.

The removal of remaining ground combat brigades would be "extremely shortsighted and counterproductive" and would have a "devastating effect" on the nation's strategic and diplomatic posture, according to retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, who commanded U.S. Army Europe until last fall. Hertling has extensive experience over the past 10 years with USAREUR transformation.

He said the plan to rely on rotational forces a battalion or less to replace two BCTs would fall short.

"Rotational forces can complement forward-deployed forces. But, in my view, they cannot replace," he said.

Luke Coffey, the Margaret Thatcher Fellow at The Heritage Foundation, said U.S. bases in Europe "are no longer the fortresses of the Cold War but the forward operating bases of the 21st century."

A withdrawal would be a "dangerously shortsighted" decision that could weaken NATO and have considerable economic effects, he said. Europe and the U.S. together represent half of the world's gross domestic product and are top trade partners.

"If we don't have troops to ensure stability there in a region surrounded by instability it just wouldn't make sense," he said.

Coffey not only opposes current and potential cuts in Europe, he feels geopolitical, energy and trade issues call for troop levels to increase and move to eastern and central Europe and the Caucasus, a region at the border of Europe and Asia situated between the Black and Caspian seas.

"No one knows what the future holds for Europe, but this much is certain: It's not going to be rosy," he said.

Money vs. strategy

The tough new congressional stance appears to be based on money more than strategy.

The issue opens in the 2013 NDAA with this statement:

"Congress finds that, because defense spending among European NATO countries fell 12 percent since 2008, from $314 billion to $275 billion, so that currently only 4 out of the 28 NATO allies of the United States are spending the widely agreed-to standard of 2 percent of their GDP on defense, the United States must look to more wisely allocate scarce resources to provide for the national defense."

That NATO is not paying its fair share is no secret.

Adm. James Stavridis, commander of European Command and Supreme Allied Commander-Europe, has made repeated calls for greater defense investment from European allies.

"The good news is even at that low level, the Europeans spend about $300 billion a year on defense, which is a significant contribution in the sense of being part of security globally," he said in congressional testimony last year. "It's not enough. They should spend more. And if they spend more, it would permit the United States to spend somewhat less."

The allies have failed to heed that call. Congress is fed up and Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., took action.

Coffman, a veteran, penned the legislation in question. It's not his first attempt to pull troops out of Europe. A 2012 amendment that looked to cut U.S. troop presence by half failed with a dismal vote of 96-322.

But the new amendment, bolstered by Europe's lack of investment and Congress' lack of money, passed with a vote of 226-196.

And Congress didn't stop there.

The 2013 NDAA also places a limit on European missile defense activities. It withholds one-fourth of the money until the secretaries of defense and state jointly submit reports on the cost-sharing arrangements for the phased, adaptive approach to missile defense in Europe and written certification that a proportional share will be provided by NATO members.

The U.S. spends $4 on European missile defense for every $1 on homeland defense.

Congress has the support of the American people on this barely. A Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey in May 2012 showed that 51 percent of likely U.S. voters believe the U.S. should remove all of its troops from Western Europe and let the Europeans defend themselves. Only 29 percent disagreed, and another 20 percent were undecided.

How the White House will respond to the call for withdrawal is anyone's guess. The administration's European policy has thus far resembled a bottle rocket without a stick.

In January 2011, the administration spoke of its commitment to Europe when it was announced that plans to cut two BCTs from Europe were on hold. While an "excess" force structure in Europe was acknowledged by senior defense officials, they said no action would be taken until 2015 or without consultation with allies.

One year later, the president released his defense strategy document, "Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense." It stated that Europe is home to some of America's most stalwart allies and partners and emphasized a U.S. commitment to NATO. But it went on to say "most European countries are now producers of security rather than consumers of it. Combined with the drawdown in Iraq and Afghanistan, this has created a strategic opportunity to rebalance the U.S. military investment in Europe, moving from a focus on current conflicts toward a focus on future capabilities. In keeping with this evolving strategic landscape, our posture in Europe must also evolve. … In this resource-constrained era, we will also work with NATO allies to develop a ‘Smart Defense' approach to pool, share, and specialize capabilities as needed to meet 21st century challenges."

Three weeks later, senior defense officials announced plans to rebalance global posture and presence with an emphasis on likely problem areas namely, the Asia-Pacific region and the Middle East. The plan to remove two BCTs was back on, and those soldiers would not be alone.

The armored BCTs to be inactivated were the 170th Airborne Brigade Combat Team stationed in Baumholder, Germany, in fiscal 2013, and the 172nd ABCT stationed in Grafenwoehr, Germany, in fiscal 2014.

The Army's V Corps Headquarters, based at Campbell Barracks, Heidelberg, Germany, would not return to Europe upon completion of its Operation Enduring Freedom deployment this year.

These cuts will lead to a further reduction of approximately 2,500 soldiers from enabling units over the next five years.

An Air Force A-10 squadron, the 81st out of Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, and the 603rd Air Control squadron based in Aviano Air Base, Italy, will also return home.

What Army would lose

An Army analysis said the reduction of two BCTs would save $2 billion over 10 years. The consolidation of headquarters for U.S. Army Europe, 5th Signal Command, and a military intelligence brigade in Wiesbaden also permits the closure of communities in Mannheim, Heidelberg and Darmstadt. This will eliminate 47 sites, nine schools and three sets of community support infrastructure for an estimated annual recurring savings of $112 million, according to U.S. Army Europe data.

But there also is an unseen cost to readiness, experts said. The U.S. European Command has roughly 12,000 troops deployed to Afghanistan, and it plays a primary role in training and deploying the 40,000 European troops deployed to theater.

The Army did not respond when asked for its position on a full withdrawal from Europe.

But former USAREUR commander Hertling is not overly worried.

"Barring catastrophic fiscal or strategic sea change, I do not believe it is likely," he said. "While anything could happen in the current fiscal environment, the removal of the two remaining ground combat brigades … would be extremely shortsighted and counterproductive."

Hertling described U.S. forces in Europe as a "tailored, economy-of-force military structure." It is the product of a 10-year transformation built not only to address NATO partnerships but also to execute a variety of contingency operations such as support to Israel, missile defense and logistics support to Europe, Africa and Central commands and others.

"From a national security standpoint, from the view of how various combatant commands and commanders are supported, and from the point of view that the Army has just spent the last 10 years preparing facilities and locations for an appropriately sized force to remain in Europe, it would be extremely shortsighted and misdirected to remove any additional forces from Europe," he said.

New forms of ‘support'

Defense and White House officials are adamant that planned cuts will not weaken NATO.

They often talk about an increased use of innovative partnerships and strengthening key alliances.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta took a weeklong trip to Europe in mid-January as part of this endeavor.

The secretary in a Jan. 17 stop at U.S. Army Garrison Vicenza, Italy, emphasized the need for force projection "in those areas where we face the biggest threats," namely the Asia-Pacific region and the Middle East. The defense secretary said alliances and partnerships are the keys to military presence in the rest of the world.

"[NATO is] a model for the kind of partnerships and alliances we have to develop elsewhere," he said. "What we'll do is we'll do rotational deployments. Units like this will go into an area, exercise, train, assist countries to develop their capabilities so that they can help provide for their own security. That's the future; that's what we have to do, is to develop their capabilities so that they participate in being able to provide security."

From 2010-2011, U.S. European Command carried out a combined 55 major multinational training exercises involving 100,000 troops from 42 countries.

The White House also committed the forward stationing of Navy ships in Spain as part of the president's Phased Adaptive Approach for European ballistic missile defense. And Panetta last year announced plans to increase special operations forces stationed in Europe.

But the centerpiece for ground stability and power projection remains the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment in Vilseck, Germany, the 173rd Airborne BCT in Vicenza, Italy, and U.S.-based Army units that will rotate to Europe for training and exercises.

"These BCTs and supporting units are also viewed by some as being a deterrence to potential ‘Russian adventurism' and also serve as a form of reassurance and U.S. commitment to former Soviet-controlled states," Andrew Feickert, a specialist in military ground forces, wrote in his Congressional Research Service paper, "Army Drawdown and Restructuring: Background and Issues for Congress," this month.

Rotation forces will add to that firepower. To rotate two BCTs to Europe twice a year will cost the Army approximately $1 billion over 10 years, according to a 2010 Army analysis. But there is a question of size.

Service planners told Army Times that rotating entire brigades will not be the norm. Smaller formations such as companies and battalion-sized elements are far more likely, they said.

One unmistakable benefit is the ability of rotational forces to deploy deeper into Eastern Europe and the Balkans. But that benefit is not enough, Hertling said.

"Interestingly, many studies have shown our Army will not be as effective, or as fiscally efficient, when we attempt to use rotational forces for executing contingencies, conducting theater security cooperation missions or building future coalitions," he said. "Several studies have shown that forces based on the continent can conduct significantly more partnership exercises, with a significantly cheaper bill, than rotational forces.

"The [Government Accountability Office] and EUCOM, in studying these issues, proved conclusively that it cost millions more to rotate active and National Guard forces to Europe to conduct training events," he added. "We also proved that conclusively when we executed brigade-level reinforcement missions in the [1970s], known as Brigade 75 and Brigade 76, both of which we deemed failures, and the REFORGER exercises we did during the Cold War.

"It is the job of the theater forces and the on-scene commanders to build trust with allies and partners," Hertling said. "In my view, that can best be gained by living on the same continent."

‘Devastating effect'

U.S. forces in Europe have decreased from almost 400,000 troops and civilians at the height of the Cold War to approximately 80,000 military personnel in 28 main operating bases, primarily in Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and Spain. That includes 35,000 soldiers, 25,000 airmen, 10,000 sailors and Marines, and roughly 10,000 troops dedicated to NATO. Another 16,000 defense civilians and contractors are based there.

The cost of military construction, family housing and operation and maintenance for those troops and their families was a combined $17 billion from fiscal 2006 to 2009, with the Army requiring slightly more than half of that budget.

The current cuts will reduce that force by 12,500. The Army in 2015 will have about 30,000 soldiers at seven major sites.

But these cuts send the wrong signal and put U.S. interests at unnecessary risk, Coffey said.

Continued reductions in the U.S. military presence in Europe would cripple the flexibility of American military responses, reduce policy options and send a message of U.S. indifference toward Europe and NATO, said Coffey, who served as a soldier in Europe for 4 years.

The European nations, some of whom are NATO's newest members, "could feel ‘abandoned' if the United States were to remove all ground combat forces from Europe and ‘might well cede political ground to Moscow, and politicians overly friendly to Russia may find new voter support,'" Feickert said in his congressional report.

"It's also important to realize that almost half of the 50 countries that USAREUR partners with in Europe are not members of NATO, and are, in fact, emerging democracies where the strength and leaning of the military is important for the further development of representative government," Hertling said.

Stavridis, who was not in favor of the current cuts, made a passionate petition to maintain the status quo during Senate testimony last March.

"The irreplaceable combination of location and services at the nexus of these three continents is essential in responding to contingencies, both foreseeable and unforeseeable, in today's highly dynamic security environment," the admiral said March 8.

Hertling said a complete departure would have "a devastating effect" on the nation's strategic and diplomatic posture.

"Much like the recent debacle associated with how Congress handled the fiscal cliff issues, these kinds of statements from our Congress are embarrassing and counterproductive to shared alliance vision and long-term relationships," Hertling said. "These statements show our allies and our partner nations that there are many in our government body who do not understand collective security, how to build coalitions to address future threats, how Europe must remain a centerpiece of our national engagement strategy and how alliances are built and maintained before conflicts occur so they can come together to address threats.

"It is true that some of the European nations do not meet the 2 percent of GDP threshold for defense spending, but some of those same nations have been sending battalions and brigades to Iraq and Afghanistan to fight alongside of us, and those nations have lost soldiers," Hertling said. "In my view, that willingness to sacrifice the nation's treasure is much more important than a percentage of GDP."

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