Bringing Brigades Home From Europe Isn’t Retreat: View

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(Corrects in ninth paragraph job title for Lieutenant General Mark Hertling. For more Bloomberg View, click on VIEW <GO>.)

Jan. 18 (Bloomberg) -- In planning to withdraw two of the U.S.’s four combat brigades from Europe, the Barack Obama administration is drawing on an unlikely inspiration: Donald Rumsfeld, when he was secretary of Defense under President George W. Bush, wanted to do the same thing (the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan made the idea moot).

Not that this will make Obama immune to partisan criticism: Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, likened the administration’s proposed defense cuts to those in the U.K. last year “that have reduced its military to a shadow of its former capability.”

Leaving aside the matter of the U.K.’s military might, let’s consider the major questions about the European troop drawdown. First, will it reap much budget savings? In and of itself, no. A central aspect of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s strategic review is to shrink the Army by about 70,000 troops; the shift of 7,000 combat forces from Germany to the U.S. will only create savings if that number is offset by troop cuts at home.

In addition, housing troops in Europe may be only marginally more expensive than in the U.S. Although there may be some tangential benefits to the switch: The soldiers and their families will probably be happier based at home; and the economic benefits that now accrue to European cities near Army bases would be transferred to U.S. communities.

Second, will the drawdown impair the U.S. Army’s ability to project power around the globe? Not really. Although Europe is closer than North America to hot spots such as the Middle East, that makes little difference in terms of large-scale troop deployments to a new war zone, as the necessary transport ships and support equipment would mostly come from the U.S.

Eastern Concerns

Next, what effect might the drawdown have on Eastern Europe and Russia? Seeing as the U.S. would still have 30,000 service members in Europe, it would hardly be an invitation to Russian adventurism. However, the psychological effect on former Soviet-controlled states might be profound; if they feel abandoned, they might well cede political ground to Moscow, and politicians overly friendly to Russia may find new voter support.

Feeding their anxiety is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s credibility gap on defense. The Obama administration insists that European NATO members will step up their defense capabilities. Yes, Europe showed initiative in the Libya operation last year -- but that was a relatively minor affair militarily. As of 2009, only four European NATO states spent more than 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense as required under the treaty, and the U.S. contributed 75 percent of total alliance spending. Given the state of the EU economy, don’t look for an arms race on the continent any time soon.

So, if the U.S. can’t force Europe to bulk up, what can it do to reduce the effect of the drawdown? First, Obama and Panetta can repeatedly stress the truth: This is not a retreat, and the U.S. still has a dominant expeditionary force on the continent. Any plans for drastic cuts in the number of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe should be put off.

The Pentagon is smart to want to step up joint military exercises with European partners, which is a primary goal of Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, the commander of U.S. Army Europe. Central and Eastern Europe need to be part of this new emphasis, as with the Black Sea Rotational Force, a joint operation between the U.S. Marines and more than a dozen Eastern European nations that began in 2010.

Pulling half the U.S. combat brigades out of Europe is not as dramatic a measure as it sounds, nor will it lead to immense budget savings. Yet, as part of a global restructuring to shrink the military footprint, it makes sense.

Cutting -- at a minimum -- nearly half a trillion dollars from baseline Pentagon spending over the next decade is going to call for trade-offs. We have urged Panetta to focus on eliminating individual programs of questionable necessity rather than trying to share the pain across the services. U.S. forces in Europe are hardly a boondoggle. But removing two combat brigades will not leave the U.S. military less potent globally and, done the right way, it need not leave Europe -- or U.S. interests there -- more vulnerable.

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