ANALYSIS DEFENSE DEPARTMENT
Base Closures in Europe a Preview of Future Debates Over U.S. Military Budget and Strategy
The Pentagon announced last week it intends to close 15 bases in Europe, shift aviation forces from the United Kingdom to Germany, and in the process save $500 million a year. The proposal does not dramatically alter the U.S. military presence in Europe, but is significant because it sets the stage for a broader debate about how the U.S. military should posture itself to counter Russia's aggression.
The base realignment Europe also is a harbinger of much more contentious political battles the Pentagon will have to fight in Washington as it tries to close unneeded bases in the United States to free up money for troop readiness and for new equipment.
U.S. European Command is closing down bases but is not reducing its workforce of 94,000 — 67,000 military and 27,000 civilians. The decision to keep EUCOM personnel largely intact speaks to the unexpected changes in Europe's security situation since the Pentagon launched a review of its presence there two years ago.
"Europe is now a theater of insecurity. It hadn't been considered that since the end of the Cold War," said Barry Pavel, director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.
Pavel was one of the architects of the Bush administration's global military realignment in 2004 which removed heavy Army brigades from Germany and recommended reductions of about 30,000 troops. "At the time the thinking was that Russia was not a problem. That now needs to be revisited," Pavel said in an interview.
The latest moves to consolidate military facilities in Europe are legitimate "efficiency" efforts that were long overdue, but they underscore the Pentagon's reticence to draw down too quickly, Pavel added. "There's this Putin guy who is acting in ways we would not consider responsible."
Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Derek Chollet downplayed the significance of the Ukraine crisis in the decisions to shut down European bases. "Obviously, when events occurred in the Ukraine, we took a look and asked the question to ourselves, 'Should we pause this?'" he told reporters Jan. 8. "We decided to continue with the analysis, because the going-in conditions were not particularly affected by the events going on in the world."
The issue of having to save money is still "pertinent" regardless of the security situation, Chollet said. "We were talking about our ability to do that same mission for less money, and that was an effort worth continuing."
Although Chollet suggested further consolidation of U.S. bases in Europe might be considered, Pavel believes that is doubtful, given the worsening situation in Russia. "Because of the price of oil, the ruble is collapsing. Putin's entire campaign is premised on oil being over $100 a barrel," he said. "He's going to play the nationalist card and engage in riskier military endeavors than he would have before these economic pressures started. I think we are in for dangerous times."
From a domestic politics standpoint, the European proposal is helpful to the Pentagon at it gears up for another fight with Congress to get authority to close bases in the United States. "It gives political impetus and options for the secretary of defense and the president to pursue another BRAC round," said Pavel.
John Conger, acting assistant secretary of defense for energy, installations and environment, said the process in the European base review was "very similar to the proven U.S. BRAC process in analyzing the bases. ... We looked at capacity, at requirements, at military value, at cost and at the diplomatic dynamics involved with each action."
Defense Department spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said the U.S. military has a 25 percent surplus of military bases that are "unnecessary." But he insisted that the European initiative was entirely divorced from domestic issues and not intended to be used as leverage for U.S. base closures.
The claim that both efforts are disconnected is hard to believe, said Pavel. "Savings of $500 million is nothing to sneeze at," he added, even with upfront costs estimated at $1.4 billion. "The Defense Department has checked that box and now can argue there's a lot more money in domestic base realignment and they need to take that on."
The Pentagon conceivably might have to wait until a new administration is in office and hope for a less toxic political climate. Pavel said a discussion about closing military bases should be part of a larger conversation about national security priorities and what resources the military needs to fulfill its responsibilities.
As the 2016 presidential season gets underway later this year, “I hope there's a robust debate on military strategy and broader national security questions,” Pavel said. “Whatever we're doing, it doesn't seem to be working.”
The U.S. presence in Europe should be looked at in the context of how the nation “deals with the world,” he said. “We need to reset our assumptions about the role of the U.S. in the world. I hope it’s a key discussion point in the 2016 campaign. It's a long overdue public debate.”
Critics of U.S. foreign policy and fiscal hawks contend that the United States can no longer afford to bear the financial responsibility of providing global security. They would like to see other countries step up. In Europe, that is hardly realistic, said Pavel. Other than Poland, which is ratcheting up its military spending, military capacity is declining everywhere else. That creates a dilemma. “On the one hand, we can't care more about the Russian challenge than the Europeans. But on the other hand, it's not in the U.S. interest for Russia to be dominant in Europe in a way that is coercive,” said Pavel. “If we say we're just going to go home, that would be detrimental to U.S. interests.”
Coincidentally, as the United States closes bases in Europe, it is also pouring $985 million into additional U.S. military rotations and training exercises with Central and Eastern European allies like Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. How specifically those funds will be allocated has yet to be announced, said EUCOM spokesman Navy Capt. Gregory Hicks. “We'll be able to disclose specific locations soon,” he said.
Also signaling U.S. intent to stay in Europe for the long haul is a decision to permanently base Air Force F-35 Joint Strike Fighters in the United Kingdom. Lakenheath Royal Air Force base was picked as the first location in Europe that will host the F-35 in 2020.