Commentary Magazine


Why Our Troops Should Stay in "Old Europe"

Why should we continue to maintain an expensive, permanent military presence in Europe? This question, raised over a decade ago when the Soviet Union passed from the scene, arose with fresh urgency this year as our European allies, in particular France and Germany, vigorously obstructed our efforts to obtain international support for action in Iraq. In the aftermath of that war, scrutiny of our overseas deployments is likely to intensify still further.

General James Jones, Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, began the most recent flurry by proposing to reduce the U.S. presence in Germany, to move some U.S. forces into bases in Eastern Europe, to shorten the normal tour of service, and to shrink our overall military “footprint” on the continent by withdrawing many families of soldiers stationed there. According to some reports, he would reduce the overall number of soldiers, which now stands at approximately 60,000, as well.

Is that a good idea? What makes it difficult to answer this question simply is that so many issues and, even, emotions are involved. General Jones and others have defended his proposal on practical grounds. It makes sense, they say, to move forces closer to the areas—primarily the Balkans and the Middle East—to which they are likely to be sent in times of conflict. In addition, some have supported the proposal because it would punish our German allies for refusing to rally to us when we needed them. Still others are attracted mainly by the money we could save if we ended the continual movement of military families to and fro. Finally, to enthusiasts of NATO expansion, a shift in basing would strengthen our links with new and prospective members of that alliance in Eastern Europe.

Some of the arguments in favor of redeploying our forces rest on military-technical considerations, others on geostrategic grounds. In reality, the two are inseparable; invariably, actions taken for military-technical reasons have geostrategic consequences. Still, for the purpose of analysis it is worth looking at each on its merits.

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General Jones is a former commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps. This is a pertinent fact in evaluating his proposal, for the Marines are structured very differently from the Army.

Consider the U.S. Army presence in Europe. There, soldiers and officers are stationed in permanent bases, usually for two- or three-year rotations. They bring their families with them, which means that the infrastructure needed to support these families must be maintained as well. There are Army schools, health- and child-care facilities, PX’s, commissaries, and so forth. With each move, the family’s possessions are relocated at government expense.

By contrast, Marine units serve on troop and aircraft carriers for six months at a time; during this period, they are available to move rapidly to an enemy’s coast, to seize beaches, ports, or airfields by means of helicopter-borne infantry supported by their own airplanes, and even to fight mechanized warfare with M1 tanks. Once upon a time, the Marines’ striking power was confined to the ocean littoral, but no longer; as they have showed in Afghanistan and Iraq, that power can reach hundreds of miles inland.

The core of General Jones’s proposal is to make the Army more like the lean, mean Marines. Under it, soldiers would leave their families behind and deploy to Europe for six-month training tours, ready to move at a moment’s notice to hot spots in the Balkans, the Middle East, or elsewhere. The bases themselves would become—in a much-ridiculed phrase that General Jones came to regret—“lily pads,” to which forces would jump from the U.S. and from which they would jump to where they were needed. For the first time, Army forces in Europe would become truly expeditionary.

But we have already glimpsed the problem: the Army is not the Marines. Marines keep their equipment on ships, and they themselves can be stationed in advance near a potential enemy. The Army’s heavy forces, by contrast, reside on inland bases, from which they must be moved to ports and then by ship to wherever they have to go. An enduring issue for the Army is the length of time it takes to get troops and equipment to the theater of war.

Europe, whether Western or Eastern, is much closer to both the Balkans and the Middle East than is the United States, and forces based there can get to trouble spots in those regions much more rapidly than forces based in America. The dirty little secret of General Jones’s plan is that by reducing the number of U.S. forces in Europe at any given time, it would also dramatically reduce the deployability of our Army, making it not more expeditionary but less so.

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We currently maintain a total of five combat brigades in Europe on a permanent basis. Four heavy brigades (two divisions) are in Germany and one airborne brigade is in Italy. They are there all the time, running through the same eighteen-month “readiness cycle” as units in the U.S.: six months of training, six months of deployment or readiness for deployment, and six months of recovery (during which soldiers go on leave, are transferred among units, perform routine maintenance, etc.).

It is clear from his proposed six-month regime that General Jones wants to keep in Europe only those troops that are go-to-war ready, and that those troops would be honing their skills at East European training centers. Theoretically, we could maintain as many units in that status—five combat brigades—as we currently maintain in all three phases of the cycle, but only if we committed fifteen brigades, or half of the entire active Army, to supporting such a project (i.e., five in go-to-war status, five training for it, and five recovering from it). More likely, General Jones has in mind keeping in Europe only the one-and-a-half or two brigades that are currently go-to-war ready at any moment.

The difference is, obviously, enormous. Our plans early this year for war in Iraq foresaw an invasion by about ten brigades; by the end of March, there were eleven brigades in Iraq, with more on the way. In the meantime, our peacekeepers in the Balkans number more like a brigade and a half. Under the one option, we would have in Europe (as we now do) about half of the force we believed necessary to fight a significant adversary like Iraq. Under the other, we would have enough to conduct a significant peacekeeping operation—but only a very small fraction of what we would need to fight a war. In the latter case, and in the event of a crisis calling for more than a couple of brigades, all of the rest of the Army units would have to come from the United States—a much greater distance. Once again, the effect would be to make our forces less expeditionary, not more.

If General Jones’s proposal fails to give to the Army the benefits the Marines derive from their approach, it simultaneously imposes on the Army some of the disadvantages. The Army’s biggest problem is deployment; the Marines’ biggest problem is sustainment. Although they can move very rapidly and strike very rapidly, the Marines cannot supply themselves. The relative lightness of their forces is achieved in part at the expense of the large and sophisticated support structure that accompanies Army units, feeds, clothes, and houses them, and provides fuel and spare parts for their equipment. During the first Persian Gulf war, Marine units had to rely on the Army supply system to keep them going. That supply system came, in significant measure, from Germany.

One of the virtues of keeping five brigades permanently based in Europe is that we also keep the support structure necessary to supply them. If we eliminated the permanent basing of units and maintained only the structure for one-and-a-half or two brigades, we would lack the wherewithal to support a large deployment rapidly. Logistical support would have to be drawn from the United States and sent across the Atlantic—dramatically delaying the start of operations, placing an additional burden on our already inadequate airlift and sealift capabilities, and severely hampering the re-supply of units in forward positions. Here, too, the Jones proposal, while aimed at making the Army more flexible and battle-ready, would in fact leave it emaciated and less mobile than it is now.

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American forces are now deployed in the Balkans, and it looks as if they will be there for a long time. Should we not move our permanent bases closer to where those units are actually engaged? Would not this, at least, result in a more “expeditionary” force?

It would not. American forces now in Bosnia and Kosovo do not live well. They are without their families, and they lodge in basic, bare-bones camps. Although (for the most part) no one is shooting at them, their duty is nevertheless onerous, the more so because they are so far from their bases. We could indeed ameliorate their condition by establishing permanent bases either in Bosnia and Kosovo or just across the frontiers of their eastern neighbors. But, political complexities aside, doing so would be unwise, and extremely backward-looking.

The transportation networks both within Bosnia and Kosovo and leading from there to most of the border regions of the neighboring states are very poor. On the map, it may seem to be less far from these regions to ports on the Adriatic or the Black Sea than it is from Germany, but the actual route is almost certainly not any faster and probably rather slower. Beyond this, the idea that, wherever we happen to be, there we should dig in makes sense only if our aim is to consolidate successive conquests—which it is not. It makes no sense at all in light of our real purpose in maintaining troops in Europe, which is to facilitate their deployment elsewhere.

What about the money we could save by moving our bases to Eastern Europe? That depends on an accurate estimate of what would be entailed in such a move, and what we would have to spend to make it happen.

East European states do not now have training areas that American ground forces can use. For one thing, Warsaw Pact countries did not care for their soldiers as we do. They maintained mass conscript armies in which soldiers served for two years and then left. Since they were also vicious dictatorships, unanswerable to their own populations, they had no need to treat their soldiers well—and they did not. The result is that housing and base facilities are, to put it mildly, far below NATO standards, and unfit even for six-month tours. In addition, most of these bases have not been maintained for over a decade, and would have to be repaired to bring them back even to the condition they were in at the end of the cold war.

For another thing, the Soviets and their satellites were environmental pirates of the worst sort. Many of the bases are contaminated with toxic materials, and some with the residue of chemical weapons. When the Germans began to clean up East German barracks after reunification, the removal of unexploded ordnance turned out to be vastly more expensive than anticipated. These environmental nightmares, too, would have to be rectified before U.S. troops could move in.

Then, too, even if the bases could somehow be made ready, most of the maneuver areas are too small to support our sort of training. The two-year conscripts of the USSR and its vassal states focused on basic skills and, at more advanced stages, on training at the company level. Our professional soldiers acquire their basic skills within the first year or so and then regularly reach the level of battalion and brigade maneuvers. Soviet-era bases would not easily support such training; although some of them could no doubt be expanded, land, even in Eastern Europe, costs money.

Finally, aside from the very significant down payment that would be needed before we could think about moving our forces eastward, there would also be the expense of shutting down our existing bases. True, we could recoup most of those costs over a period of years, but the overall savings is almost certain to be far less than current optimistic statements would suggest.

In sum, the gains in military efficiency promised by advocates of General Jones’s proposal are highly questionable. But the most critical problems with it lie in a different realm altogether.

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That the German government behaved reprehensibly during the past months is hard to dispute. Its opposition to the use of force to disarm Saddam Hussein was troubling enough; far worse was the adoption of a platform of overt anti-Americanism on the part of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, a blatantly political move aimed at securing the victory of his Red-Green coalition in a national election.

Whether it is in our long-term interest to punish Germany for Schroeder’s cynical manipulations is, however, another question. Since his narrow win in September, two regional elections have been held in Germany and in both of them Schroeder’s candidates were resoundingly defeated. What is more, Germany’s opposition parties have sensed a potential opportunity to unseat the present government, precisely over the issue of its anti-Americanism. It may be, then, that the current obstructionist program will not outlast the Schroeder government, or that Schroeder will be forced to backtrack.

If what we are seeing in Germany is a temporary condition, the removal of American forces, in whole or in part, would be permanent—and would be seen, moreover, as punitive in its intent. Before embarking on any such move, we need to consider its implications.

There is no significant movement now in Germany to throw our forces out. On the contrary, leaders of many German municipalities have consistently opposed the closure of bases in their areas. Their motive is, in part, economic—American bases create jobs and inject money into the economy. But as General Montgomery Meigs, the former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, recently testified before the House Armed Services Committee, economics is only part of it. Our soldiers in Germany are our best ambassadors, helping to cement our relationship with the German people. That relationship is invariably the first thing mentioned by local German officials worried about base closings.

By withdrawing our forces from Germany, not only would we antagonize those whose communities would be hurt by it and who have consistently supported our presence, but we would be working actively to weaken the links that remain. Such a move might be defensible if Germany were a country of no great consequence to us, or if we could supplant it with other allies. But that is not the case. Not only is Germany one of the linchpins of Europe, it is also the keystone of NATO. Unlike France, Germany sits on all of the critical military-planning committees, and so is in a position to oppose any effort to use the alliance in support of our policies. To imagine an alliance in which Germany is isolated and hostile is to imagine an alliance that is no longer NATO.

It may be objected that NATO has already lost its purpose. But if so, do we want things to stay that way? NATO has served us very well—not by fighting wars, but by consolidating our own commitment to keep the peace, and by giving us a powerful voice in European affairs. To the extent that we weaken NATO, or acquiesce in its weakening, we will weaken that voice and encourage the development of a Europe over whose policies we have no control.

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There is an undeniable temptation in imagining that we might replace the old, faltering structure by revolutionizing our alliances altogether. As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld seemed to suggest in his comments about the old Europe and the new, just as American ground forces strengthened our bond with Germany, so they would strengthen our bond with the fragile democracies of Eastern Europe. Not only are they more in need of support, but, with the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the evaporation of any threat to Western Europe, they constitute a new frontier, and are arguably more important to us in the world that is now forming before our eyes.

Unquestionably it is in our interest to forge close ties with these new NATO members—to support them in their efforts to solidify their democracies and set right their economies, and to secure them against the destructive effects of conflicts on their periphery. But to what are we binding them? We could focus either on bilateral arrangements or on drawing them into an existing alliance in which their relationship with us is only part of the picture.

The new NATO members are hungry for recognition, for security, for support, for funds. They have shown over the past several months that they are willing to bid high for our friendship, at least in moral terms. It may also be, as some claim, that, having only recently emerged from the grip of a despotic regime, they value their freedom more highly than the West European states and are consequently more willing to fight to defend the freedom of others. In supporting them, might we not create a “Little Entente” of our own as a counterweight to Germany and France?

Unfortunately, what the East European countries need at least as much as membership in NATO is membership in the European Union (EU). Powerful elements in Germany and France are making a bid to form an independent Europe under the control of their two countries. If we play into their hands by seeming to punish Germany, we must expect that they in their turn will punish the smaller and weaker European states that would align with us. The economic health of these states, and therefore the stability of their polities, is dependent upon their relations with the EU and the two major powers that dominate it; nothing we could offer would offset the price they would pay for falling out with those powers. Nor can we hope to establish meaningful bilateral relations with the East European states by pursuing a policy that puts them at odds with the EU’s leading powers.

But now let us imagine that, in reaching out to the new NATO countries, we mean to bind them more tightly to NATO itself. What sort of NATO would we wish to bind them to? One in which Germany was pursuing an independent course? That would be a NATO without real value to us. In sum, strengthening our relations with the smaller states depends critically on maintaining and improving our relations with the major powers, and especially with Germany.

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Why did we keep ground forces in Europe during the cold war? They were never intended to defeat the advance of the Red Army, by which they were outnumbered by margins of ten to one and more. Their military purpose was to buy time, to delay a Soviet advance while the Western world mobilized and rushed to their support. Their political purpose was somewhat different, and more important.

The deployment of soldiers together with their families was the most dramatic possible statement of America’s commitment to defend its allies—and the clearest evidence of our determination to keep the peace. On account of their presence on European soil, no one could ever doubt that we would fight to defend Europe if the Soviets attacked. This was the bond that cemented NATO—the palpable, human assurance that we would not leave the Europeans to their own devices.

If that was true of European deployments in general, American soldiers in West Germany served a more particular purpose: they made it possible for that defeated country to be rehabilitated, minimally rearmed, and reintegrated into the European community, without arousing the fears of its neighbors that it might once again turn to aggression. Our permanent presence in Germany enabled the Germans to skimp on their own defense and, in contrast to all of their former major enemies, accept a non-nuclear status. Simultaneously, it enabled the French and the British to accept the restoration to health of their former adversary.

Many decades after NATO’s founding, some of these considerations still apply. Germany will not immediately embark on a massive arms program or develop nuclear weapons just because we pull Out a few tens of thousands of soldiers. But any such move would indeed compel the Germans to reassess both their security and their role in the world. It is hardly in our interest, or the world’s, for the Germans to engage in such a reassessment. The relative disarmament of Germany has been one of the most important factors in securing more than 50 years of peace in Europe, and we should do nothing to alter that situation.

At the end of the cold war, we did not pull our forces out of Europe, and the Europeans did not ask us to do so. Having defeated our adversary, we declared, in effect, that we would not forsake the world’s security. Our first war with Iraq, fought in 1991 largely with American soldiers drawn from Europe, underlined that declaration. Now, in the looming aftermath of our second Iraq war—this one fought over French and German opposition—we will once again face a test. If we pull our soldiers’ families out of our bases in Western Europe, we will be making a strong statement. If we pull them out of Germany alone, the statement will be stronger. If we significantly reduce the overall number of our forces in Europe, it will be stronger still. We will be saying that our commitment to maintaining the balance within Europe, and to keeping the peace globally, is weakening. If that is our intention, it is highly dangerous. If it is not our intention, and we go ahead anyway, it is dangerous all the more.

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