Soon after President Barack Obama unveiled the U.S. Defense Department’s latest strategic guidance in early 2012, his administration cut the Army’s presence in Europe by half.
The decision to withdraw two of the four brigades stationed on the continent meant that as many as 10,000 troops, plus their support personnel, would be eliminated as part of the effort to reduce the Army’s size. The administration calculated that stability on the continent meant its European allies would begin contributing more to ensure security, letting the U.S. pay greater attention to the Asia-Pacific.
After Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea last week and ordered a troop buildup along the country’s border with Ukraine, the decision to reduce the U.S. military presence in Europe must be reexamined, said retired U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis, the former supreme allied commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization from 2009 to 2013.
“I supported the decision to downsize forces in Europe,” Stavridis, who’s now dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, said in a phone interview. “But I think times are changing, and I think it’d be prudent to revisit that decision in light of events of the last 30 days” because European allies are seeking the reassurance of “having committed U.S. ground forces.”
Obama’s 2012 defense strategy was accompanied by $487 billion in reductions from planned defense spending over a decade, with more than half of those cuts going into effect by 2017. That didn’t include the added constraints from the government-wide spending reductions known as sequestration.
The assumptions underpinning the strategy were a peaceful Europe and a Russia that was a partner rather than an antagonist. The new focus of U.S. conventional ground, air and naval forces was to be a rising Asia, where China’s rapid military modernization and territorial disputes were alarming its neighbors. In the Middle East and Africa, U.S. special operations forces and unmanned aerial vehicles would continue to track and decimate terrorist groups.
The Army’s 170th and 172nd Brigade Combat Teams have been removed from Europe and eliminated, Army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Don Peters said in an e-mail.
The 2012 U.S. strategy also was rooted in a desire to see NATO take on security responsibilities outside Europe, said Samuel Charap, a senior fellow at the Washington office of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based policy group.
The U.S. “wanted NATO to be a tool that could address global challenges” instead of “security threats on the continent itself,” Charap said. The focus now must return to NATO’s “territorial defense mission,” he said. If that happens, it could undo “much of what the Obama administration had hoped” in terms of transforming the alliance.
Obama’s strategy looks outdated after Russia’s aggressive moves, Stavridis said. “Any strategy has to survive collision with real-world events,” he said. “The decisions that looked quite sensible a year ago need to be reexamined.”
Increasing the U.S. military presence in Europe would provide more troops for joint exercises with allies, create a larger ground-combat capability, and “the key thing it does is reassure European allies of the real strength of U.S. commitment,” Stavridis said.
The Obama administration has begun to move in that direction, at least temporarily.
“We will be increasing our rotations of ground and naval forces to NATO allies to complement” deployments of F-15 and F-16 jet fighters to Poland and the Baltic states, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters this week. “The United States is prepared to join those commitments so that we have a continuous presence to reassure our allies in terms of ground, naval and air assets.”
Deterring Russia from further moves requires more than such temporary maneuvers, retired U.S. Army colonel Robert Killebrew argued yesterday in the “War on the Rocks” web magazine.
Three of the U.S. Army’s “independent brigades should be stationed, on a long-term basis with supporting arms, in Europe along routes of approach from Russia into Poland and the Baltic states,” Killebrew wrote, with comparable Air Force bases, “not temporary lily pads that have no deterrent effect.”
The U.S. Army’s leadership isn’t reviewing the decision to remove the two brigade combat teams from Europe, General Ray Odierno, the service’s chief of staff, told reporters yesterday in Washington.
“What we are looking at is making sure” the Army has the necessary force to respond if help is requested by NATO, he said. Odierno said the Army is discussing with the European Command whether to advance an exercise in Europe that was originally planned for June.
Some NATO allies, such as Lithuania, that are on the front line with Russia say the trust that U.S. and western Europe placed in Putin over the last decade was misplaced.
The American decision to withdraw Army troops from Europe “was a miscalculation,” said Rasa Jukneviciene, a Lithuanian lawmaker and the country’s former defense minister. Even as the U.S. was shrinking its presence in Europe, Putin was “militarizing, using European money from the sale of Russia’s energy resources,” she said in an interview.
During Putin’s first term as president, Russia’s military spending, measured in constant 2011 dollars, more than doubled to $67.9 billion in 2008 from $32.5 billion in 2000, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
After Putin returned to the presidency in 2012, Russia’s defense spending rose 16 percent from the previous year to $90.6 billion, making it the third-largest spender after the U.S. and China, according to SIPRI. Comparable U.S. defense spending for 2012 was $668.8 billion.
The U.S. was beginning to scale back after a decade of increases fueled by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2012, U.S. defense spending declined 6 percent in real terms from the previous year, according to SIPRI.
The worldwide financial crisis left many European countries fiscally weak and unable to meet the goal of spending at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense, according to the NATO Secretary General’s 2013 annual report.
Only three of the 26 European members of NATO -- Estonia, Greece and the U.K. -- met the 2 percent guideline, in 2013, the report found. The U.S. spent 4.1 percent.
NATO members must boost their defense spending, Obama said in a March 26 news conference in Brussels. “If we’ve got collective defense, it means everyone has got to chip in,” he said, adding that he was concerned about the “diminished” spending by some alliance members.
There’s little evidence that’s going to happen. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron this week rebuffed a call from a former chief of the general staff to deploy an additional 3,000 British troops to be on standby in Germany. The U.K. plans to cut its Army to 82,000 soldiers from 102,000 by 2018 while doubling its reserves to 30,000.
Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, told reporters the U.S. still expects its NATO allies to help respond to the latest Russian moves. “We expect other European partners to step up and join us in doing so, other NATO allies, of course,” he said.