UPDATED 2: Army's Europe Commander Hopes to Stave Off Further Troop Reductions
With billions in defense spending cuts looming, the Army’s top commander in Europe believes further reductions in forces there is not a foregone conclusion.
The Pentagon is looking for ways to cut $450 billion over the next decade, but Lt. Gen. Mark P. Hertling, commander of U.S. Army Europe, told a gathering of defense reporters Oct. 5 that it’s unwise to expect a significant reduction in the Army’s forces in Europe, where troops have been stationed since the end of World War II.
“I don’t think that’s universal at all,” Hertling said, responding to a suggestion that force reductions in Europe were inevitable in the current fiscal climate. “There is certainly the discussion about drawing down forces, but frankly we have quite a few friends [on Capitol Hill] and I’m seeing some of them this week about the need for security cooperation in Europe.” (see clarification at end of story)
In April, Defense Department officials announced that one of four brigade combat teams stationed in Europe will be brought back by 2015, when demand for ground forces is expected to wane. Hertling said the recommendations on which brigade will return are under review, and acknowledged that one of them could be withdrawn sooner than the prescribed deadline. (see clarification)
The primary job of the 41,000 U.S. servicemen and women stationed in Europe has been preparing forces for deployment to combat zones, but they do much more than that, including cooperative training exercises with foreign forces and building trust with potential allies, said Hertling.
Though the number of soldiers stationed in Europe has fallen dramatically from the 213,000 there in 1989, Hertling believes the soldiers under his command perform a crucial role not only in fighting the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but preparing for future global threats. Hertling declined to put a number on the amount of military personnel needed in Europe.
“I personally won’t defend a certain number of forces,” he said. “In terms of the calls for reduction what I certainly will present is, ‘Here’s what I’m doing right now.’”
The Army conducts about 8,000 “security cooperation events” a year – everything from participation by individual soldiers to establishing liaisons with foreign command headquarters and helping them with operations. As U.S. participation in the hot wars in Iraq and Afghanistan begins to cool, the Army in Europe should focus on building international partnerships and trust as a means to “preventing future wars,” Hertling said.
Of the 51 countries in Europe, the Army partners with 43 of them. With 28 countries in NATO, Hertling said the Army’s participation in European defense strategy goes well beyond the U.S. commitment to that organization with roots in the Cold War.
As the NATO intervention in Libya highlighted, future coalitions likely will be ad hoc and hastily assembled. Cooperation with European nations in peacetime is an important mission aimed at making future alliances more successful as threats arise.
“You have to be prepared for those kinds of things and you have to build them before the fight,” Hertling said. “You can’t [issue a request for forces] for trust. You can RFF bombs and planes and sailors and soldiers, but you can’t RFF trust and that’s what building partnership capacity gives you, is trust in working with people over the years.”
Aside from intervention in foreign conflicts, Hertling recently called for a “soups to nuts” assessment of the potential threats the Army is facing in the European theater.
Soldiers in Europe are the gatekeepers of international terrorism between the Middle East and West, he said. Apart from that threat, there is a significant flow of illegal drugs — heroine, cocaine, methamphetamines — through Europe, some of which is used to finance terrorism.
Add to that human trafficking, radical domestic terrorism and a belief that Russia is using its energy reserves to intimidate neighboring states, and the Army in Europe will have plenty to defend against when the wars are over.
After 10 years fighting insurgencies in two countries, the Army also needs to retool and even “expand a little” to remain vigilant against different adversaries, Hertling said. While soldiers remain “technically savvy,” they have been trained and equipped to fight a specific type of enemy for a decade, he said.
“In the Army as a whole, the systems need to be polished — they’ve rusted,” Hertling said. While the Army may have to suffer a reduction in force, it needs to remain versatile and large enough to respond to future threats, whatever or wherever they may be, he added.
“We need to able to get out of [counterinsurgency] and be able to understand and respond to future threats,” he said.
For more about the future of the Army, check National Defense Magazine's blog for complete coverage of the Association of the United States Army's annual convention Oct. 10-12.
Clarifications: While a reporter asked about attitudes towards troop levels on Capitol Hill, Gen. Hertling in his response did not mention lawmakers specifically. The story was also updated to reflect the general's comments about the possibility of one brigade returning sooner than expected.