Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO supreme allied commander in Europe, walks with Turkish air force Brig. Gen. Serdar Gulbas after arriving at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, on July 11. The Europeans are 'the allies of choice,' the general said, and maintaining connections with them is vital. (Senior Airman Daniel Phelps / Air Force)
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The U.S. military’s role in Europe has changed dramatically since the late 1970s, when Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove began flying F-16 fighter jets at the height of the Cold War.
With the Berlin Wall a receding memory and the possibility of conventional armed conflict on the continent remote, the Defense Department is laying plans for a “pivot” in operational emphasis to the Pacific region, where China is expected to be the chief U.S. rival in the next few decades.
Still, Breedlove, who recently took over as chief of U.S. European Command and the supreme allied commander in Europe, NATO’s top military officer, says EUCOM and the NATO alliance continue to play a vital role in the U.S. military’s global strategy. He talked about the issues on his radar in an interview with Military Times.
Q. The U.S. military footprint in Europe has fallen from more than 200,000 troops at its Cold War-era peak to about 68,000 today. Why do we need a continued presence?
A. The access that these nations represent is absolutely essential. Our forward operating bases here [in Europe] and around the Mediterranean are important to today’s missions not only in the eastern Mediterranean and the Levant but also northern Africa. They are going to be the same bases by which we engage in the future. ... It’s important to remember that about half of the world’s trade goes back and forth across the Atlantic between Europe and the U.S. While there are growing economies in other parts of the world, this will remain a background of interest to America.
Q. Top Pentagon officials talk a lot about a “pivot” or a “rebalance” to Asia. What does that mean for EUCOM?
A. The reason that our nation can consider a rebalance to Asia is because of the long-standing partnerships and the capacity and the ability of our European allies. And so I think it’s important to realize that while we will rethink and recast our eyes toward the Pacific, we can do that based on what we have here [in Europe]. … It will be important for us to maintain that engagement to make sure that our base here is firm. What we have in Europe is a set of proven partners who have served alongside us now for seven decades. ... [They] share our values, our experiences and quite frankly our vision for what we think is important in the world.
Q. How have this year’s budget cuts affected readiness in Europe?
A. All of these budget uncertainties have had a significant impact on EUCOM. We grounded two and a half [Air Force] fighter squadrons, had to stand them down. Just recently, we have started reflying them, but we lost currency in aviators, we missed maintenance … and it will take us time to recover. For our Army units, most of them are either recently returning from or just getting spun up for [Afghanistan] rotations, so there are less impacts on the readiness of our Army units. For the Navy … steaming time and flying hours were reduced by 22 percent for deployers in our area, so a lot of missed engagement with European nations.
Q. How have the budget cuts affected the U.S. partnership with NATO?
A. What we did have to cut are those mil-to-mil training events where we’re training our partners to go downrange so that we don’t have to, a 45 percent cancellation in those kinds of training events for our Army units. … From 2007 to 2011, EUCOM units trained a little over 40,000 partners and NATO soldiers to go downrange — that means 40,000 Americans didn’t have to go downrange. What we have seen in our Army is a degradation in our ability to do those mil-to-mil events and do the training that allows those units to stand the watch downrange.
Q. Fewer of today’s troops are deploying and living in Europe. Are you concerned that the NATO alliance may suffer because the next generation may not have the same personal and cultural connection with NATO partner countries?
A. It is absolutely a concern. … We will have a generation of officers who have not served here as we did in the past, haven’t made the personal connections to the leadership ... and will not be able to pick up the phone and call a familiar face to solve those tougher problems, which you know we always solve in personal format. ... [The Europeans] will continue to be the allies of choice in the future. These are the most capable nations in the world to fight alongside of, and it does concern me that we would lose contact.