Washington — U.S. military commanders have asked the Pentagon to keep more combat forces stationed in Europe to respond to a rising Russia and other potential threats, according to senior military officials.
Plans to cut the number of soldiers based in Europe will leave commanders with too few troops to protect and train with allies on the continent and to stand ready for deployment to hot spots elsewhere, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, said Army Gen. David McKiernan.
“In this era of persistent conflict, we have some fault lines that are there in the European Command (area of responsibility) that we have to pay attention to,” McKiernan said Oct. 11. “We don’t know what’s going to happen in terms of a resurgent Russia.”
The Pentagon organizes its operations into geographic commands and has been evaluating the proper role of its European Command since the end of the Cold War.
European Command, which includes about 95,100 U.S. personnel, supports NATO and, since 2001, has provided troops to Afghanistan and then Iraq, wars managed by another command.
Some analysts long argued the U.S. did not need a large presence in Europe after the end of the Soviet threat. In 2004, U.S. President George W. Bush agreed, announcing he would close hundreds of U.S. facilities overseas and bring home tens of thousands of troops based in Europe.
But recent activities by the Russian military have led some defense officials and military officers to take a second look at the U.S. militarys posture in Europe.
Amid strained relations between Washington and Moscow over U.S. missile defense plans, Russia has issued a series of statements about building its military power. It also resumed long-range bomber missions to U.S.- and NATO-patrolled areas.
McKiernan said some Russian activities of concern to military leaders included the resumption of long-range reconnaissance flights and arms sales to countries unfriendly to the U.S.
He also listed other things that would be worrisome, including Russian involvement in border conflicts in its area and military action outside its territory.
As part of an effort to shift U.S. forces globally, the number of soldiers based in Europe has fallen from about 62,000 two years ago to about 50,000 today. The Pentagon plans to push that down to 28,000 and relocate two of four combat brigades to the U.S., according to McKiernan, who said he now wants to keep all four combat brigades and support staff, about 40,000 troops, in Europe. That call came out of a review of the entire U.S. military presence on the continent ordered by the commander of European Command, Army Gen. Bantz Craddock. He said Oct. 10 that he asked staff to evaluate if they had the capability to complete tasks assigned by the Pentagon.
“The result was, it appears we do not,” he said. Craddock said he made a recommendation to U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, but no decision had been made.