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More harm than good

Cutting forces in Europe too deeply will do more harm than good.
/ Source: NBC News

In the campaign President Bush has stated he will bring home, mostly from Europe, 70,000 U.S. troops.  He claims they are massed as if the Soviet Union still existed; bringing them home will make life easier for families.

He is wrong on the facts and the implications.  The campaign rhetoric glosses over critical strategic implications of his decision.

Let’s take, first, the notion that our troops are massed abroad as if our chief rival remained the now defunct Soviet Union, and that their operational capabilities have not been transformed to address new strategic realities.  Yes, it is true that most of these forces remain in the bases that they occupied during the Cold War, but their entire mission focus, deployment pattern, and training changed radically as strategic needs changed.

The so-called Cold War Army disappeared in the mid 90s.  Well before the Bush Administration signed in, we cut our troops in Europe from over 200,000 to 62,000.  Then, to make the remaining divisions more deployable, the Army removed one fourth of their tanks and heavy infantry.  Logistic troops were traded to gain an additional airborne battalion to augment the 173d Airborne Brigade.  Multiple tours in armed peacekeeping in Bosnia and Kosovo honed skills that made veterans of sergeants and young officers and seasoned field grade staffs and commanders in unconventional warfare.  The great strategic value of the Army forces in Europe is now their ability to act quickly as the entering wedge - heavy, light or mixed - for a joint campaign in two theaters.

These new capabilities paid off in Iraq.  The three star headquarters that took Baghdad in just over two weeks came from Germany.  In 2001-2002 its structure was reduced and lightened, so that almost no wide body aircraft like C17s, a scarce resource in mounting a big campaign, were needed to deploy it to a crisis.  Plus, in Iraq, V Corps headquarters had totally modern command and control gear.  During peacekeeping in Bosnia and Kosovo, U.S. Army Europe developed the “Blue Force Tracking” system that Army and Marine commanders in Iraq used to track and to control their units, a transformational first in combat.

In the campaign, the 173d Airborne flew directly from Italy and parachuted into Northern Iraq  to link up with Special Forces to help anchor the effort in the north.   In Iraq, 1st Infantry Division is successfully and with minimal casualties conducting offensive operations against insurgents.   European-based Patriot Air Defense units protected very sensitive strategic targets in theater.  After being poised to play a role in the initial attack into Iraq, the 1st Armored Division arrived just after the war ended serving fifteen months in country, engaging in some of the toughest postwar fighting.  Simultaneously, when a crisis flared up in Nigeria, the headquarters of the Southern European Task Force in Italy provided the Joint Task Force  headquarters for European Command.

Almost every Army unit in Europe played a role in accomplishing U.S. strategic objectives in two theaters.  Strange that these capabilities are characterized as Cold War era holdovers.

Bringing forces home will not create greater capability.  One can argue that we could have done the same with all these units from the U.S., but we cannot afford the cost of the additional strategic lift to make that happen.  Joint Strike Fighter, F-22, and Missile Defense mandate huge fixed costs in future Defense Budgets.  We are living on huge supplemental appropriations to pay for Iraq and Afghanistan.  Now at 5.6% of GDP, our current account deficit, what we buy overseas minus what we sell, continues to grow.  The Congressional Budget Office predicts a likely structural fiscal deficit of 3.5% of GDP by 2013.  Oil prices are on the rise.  These realities rule out spending for additions to programs like strategic lift.  Forget lots of new wide body aircraft and very fast sealift ships. 

Nor will bringing all these units home lessen the demands on families.  Picture a family in the 1st Armored Division in Germany, just reunited after the tour in Iraq.  In the next two years, they can bet on another tour in harm’s way for the division.  With the Bush administration’s realignment proposal linked to the timing of the Base Relignment and Closure process, soldiers will likely leave home not knowing when and to what post the family will move.  With European bases marked for closure, those families will live in old facilities denied all but emergency repair.  Their children will attend schools in similar shape.  The uncertainties frustrate recruitment and retention of teachers.  When that family moves to a base in the U.S., deployments of the soldier into harm’s way will not be any less painful or less frequent for them than deploying from Europe, where reenlistment rates have historically led the Army.

The President’s statements also avoid an important political reality.  The scale of the realignments will reinforce the view in Europe that the U.S. no longer values NATO.  The French have a strong interest in reducing our voice in European strategic affairs.  The Russians want to cripple NATO, the alliance that defeated them in the Cold War.  Cutting European based forces too deeply plays into their hands.  The European Union is in the process of ratifying a new, restrictive charter.  With that charter, if the EU decides on a foreign policy, all would have to fall in line.  No member country could support a U.S. view that conflicted with the decision in Brussels.  We now have a vote and a dominant voice in NATO.  We have neither in the EU. 

Today, Allies question our leadership.  While they investigate how to profit from an unsuccessful result, some “friends” are sitting back to see whether we will succeed in Iraq. Meanwhile, we propose to weaken our military presence in the North Atlantic Alliance.  And by making this topic a campaign issue, one based on false premises, one that obscures strategic implications, the President’s position forecloses debate at a time when discussion on the merits is needed.  Campaign rhetoric that ignores the facts, runs away from common sense, and mandates future action does not good strategy make.

Montgomery C. Meigs is Louis A. Bantle Chair in Business and Government Policy at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University.  Meigs, who retired from the U.S. Army in 2003 as a four-star general, was commander of Army forces in the U.S. European Command from 1998 - 2002.