Restructuring America's European Base Structure for the New Era

Report Europe

Restructuring America's European Base Structure for the New Era

April 28, 2003 16 min read

Authors: Jack Spencer and John Hulsman

While all eyes are turned toward the conflict with Iraq, the U.S. has already learned several critical lessons in the prologue to military conflict with Baghdad. Simply put, American forces in Europe are not deployed to meet the coming challenges of the 21st century. The Bush Administration should seriously consider redeploying NATO forces further east in greater numbers.

As National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice recently observed, throughout history there have been a few events that triggered systemic changes in international politics. The attack of September 11, 2001, was such an occasion and, like similar events in the past, has tested long-lasting alliances and institutions.1

This is currently true as coalition forces are working to enforce United Nations resolutions that call for the disarmament of Iraq. Institutions such as the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and alliances such as NATO are being tested. The UNSC was unable to agree on a path to enforce its own resolutions, and long-time allies in NATO disagreed on how to neutralize the threat posed by Saddam Hussein.

As the coalition defeats tyranny in Iraq, those alliances and institutions will still have an opportunity to re-emerge stronger than ever and prepare for the many challenges of the 21st century. However, they have yet to move beyond the status quo and redefine themselves to become relevant to the new era. The United States can lead this effort by restructuring its bases in Europe, as part of a global base realignment and closure program, to be more consistent with the realities of today's threats.

Whether globally or only in Europe, the United States should adhere to four principles to ensure that its decisions on restructuring its forces and base structure advance the national interests of both the U.S. and its allies:

  • Strategically
    a base must advance America's overall strategic objectives.
  • Operationally
    a base must increase America's ability to respond to current threats as well as facilitate and enhance America's ongoing military transformation from an industrial age force built to fight the Cold War to a digital-age force built to address the varied and unpredictable threats of the future.
  • Politically
    the decision to maintain an existing base or open a new one must not be driven by recent political differences; yet it must take into consideration the evolving political realities of the 21st century.
  • Economically
    the decision to maintain an existing base or open a new one must not be driven by economics but should embrace economically prudent practices.

Strategic Considerations

The highest priority for any restructuring of America's bases in Europe must be advancing America's strategic objectives. Those objectives include nurturing existing alliances and friendships, preventing a hostile power from dominating Europe or the Middle East, and ensuring access to regional natural resources. Committing to regional stability and increasing geostrategic flexibility will facilitate these objectives.

With the increasing need for operability outside Europe, bases in the heart of Germany alone no longer serve the strategic purpose they did during the Cold War. Berlin is no longer the fault line for future military conflict, and America's European basing structure should reflect that reality. Given that flashpoints for future conflict are likely to revolve around the Caucasus, Iraq, the Middle East, and North Africa, establishing forward positions in closer geographical proximity to those regions would demonstrate America's commitment to the long-term security of the region. It would also allow the U.S. to respond rapidly to crises in those regions.

Furthermore, restructuring America's military bases in Europe would increase its geostrategic flexibility. Currently, the United States is too dependent on a few countries. Developing a presence in other nations of the region would decrease America's dependence on Turkey, for example, and therefore ease pressure on that vital American ally. It is important that Ankara, situated in a very tough neighborhood, not be the sole pressure point when the U.S. projects forces eastward and southward from Europe. The political situation inside Turkey might force even a generally sympathetic regime in Ankara to resist America's using Turkey as a jumping-off point, as has happened over Iraq. Basing in Bulgaria and Romania would shift some of the burden away from a hard-pressed American friend.

Likewise, basing in Bulgaria and Romania would provide Turkey, which will remain a key partner, the diplomatic cover it may need to help the United States by emphasizing such actions are regional in nature and not solely a case of the U.S.'s asking an embattled Ankara for yet more military assistance.



Operational Considerations

The United States should revisit its current European base structure for operational reasons as well. Although base restructuring would incur significant financial costs, Soviet-era bases are available throughout Eastern Europe; and while most would require significant improvements, some nations, such as Romania and Bulgaria are already upgrading their bases in Constanza and Burgas under the terms of the NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP).

Furthermore, due to less stringent environmental regulations than those found in Germany, such bases allow American troops to train more fully, critically maintaining military readiness at a higher level. Indeed, General James Jones, Supreme Allied Commander Europe, is currently visiting 26 nations (the 19 full members of NATO and seven prospective members) to determine what each nation could provide if the U.S. decides to restructure it bases.

Each country in Eastern Europe has attractive basing opportunities. The Taszar air base in Hungary, which was used by U.S. forces to conduct operation into the Balkans, could be upgraded and expanded. Bulgaria offers Black Sea access with its ports of Varna and Burgas and air bases such as Dobritch in the Northeast and Kroumovo in the South.2 The Czech Republic, as well as other nations, offers a variety of basing options.

Training has become more difficult in Western European countries, especially Germany. That country has severely limited America's ability to fly helicopters at night, conduct live-fire exercises, and conduct training maneuvers in heavy, tracked vehicles.3 This is not the case with America's new allies in Eastern Europe. In fact, America and other NATO allies are already taking advantage of training opportunities there.

NATO countries have been holding military exercises in Eastern Europe since 1994.4 In early February, for example, the United States began training members of the Iraqi opposition in Hungary. Last year, European Command decided to move its largest training exercise from Germany to Poland because German regulations put too many restrictions on the exercise for them to be optimally effective. This training exercise, Victory Strike III, is V Corp's biggest annual exercise, lasting three weeks and involving 5,000 U.S. soldiers.5 The Czech Republic also has allowed U.S. forces to train on its territory.

The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland offer a variety of terrains on which to train, from vast flatlands and swamps to the Baltic Sea and rugged mountains. This has attracted eight countries, including Germany and Italy, to train regularly in Poland.6 These training opportunities not only help increase the readiness of U.S. forces, but also facilitate interoperability among allies.

The issue of interoperability between American forces and those of its allies should be of great concern, and the more NATO allies train together, the better they will operate together. The success of any military coalition comes down to the ability of its members to work together. This was notably demonstrated in Operation Iraqi Freedom when American tankers refueled British jets.

NATO members and Eastern European nations have already established a track record of working together. For example, Eastern European nations and Russia worked under American command during missions in Bosnia in 1995, nearly every Eastern European nation sends representatives to work with American National Guard units, and many of those same nations send top military officers to study in American military schools.7 Expanding America's basing to include its new Eastern European allies would greatly enhance NATO interoperability.

Developing bases in Eastern Europe, however, does not mean that the United States should abandon all of its current bases in Western Europe. The United States has many state-of-the-art facilities throughout Europe, especially in Germany, that it should not leave.

New bases in Eastern Europe could also facilitate the Pentagon's ongoing transformation from an industrial-age force built to defeat the Soviet Union to a digital-age force prepared to take on the varied and unpredictable threats that are sure to emerge in the 21st century. The current base structure was developed to defend against a largely static and predictable enemy--the Soviet Union. The current threat environment is dynamic and unpredictable. As demonstrated by the September 11 attacks that required a response in Afghanistan, it is very difficult to predict where America's armed forces will be asked to fight next. Therefore, a flexible basing structure that promotes adaptability in a world of diverse political, strategic, and diplomatic interests is necessary.

The new bases in Europe will likely be smaller and used to maintain a rotational force. These new bases can help foster the mobility and strategic agility that today's force lacks. A series of small bases used by rotational forces will, by their very nature, facilitate the lighter and more mobile force that the Pentagon is trying to restructure. On the other hand, by remaining dependent on the status quo of permanent bases in Europe, the force will have less incentive to transform.

The added flexibility will give U.S. military commanders more options than are currently available. Turkey's hesitancy to give full cooperation to coalition forces had a deleterious effect on U.S. military planning in the war with Iraq. Essentially, the pendulum of Turkish politics, which happened to be swinging in the wrong direction at the wrong time, limited the options available to the coalition. Turkey's legislature success-fully did, albeit for vastly different reasons, what America's adversaries will attempt in the future: deny American forces the access that they require to achieve optimum advantage in times of conflict.

The result was that the attacking forces really had no significant strategic reserve or maneuver force. The 4th Infantry Division was stuck floating in the Mediterranean instead of charging Baghdad, thus increasing risk by weakening the northern front of the offensive. The result was that available forces were put under undue strain when they were given the order to attack. Luckily, Saddam was unable to take full advantage of the opportunity provided to him.

Political Considerations

It is no secret that the further east one travels in Europe, the generally more pro-American the governments become. After being oppressed by the tyrannies of Nazism and communism, Eastern Europeans recall American efforts for those on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. As a result, they see American political, economic, and military engagement in Europe as essential for their long-term stability. This is often not the case with some of America's friends such as France and Germany.

That said, however, both old and new Europe remain important to America's future. Therefore, while the U.S. works with its new friends in Eastern Europe to develop new bases, it should maintain a good relationship with its old allies.

The series of letters proclaiming support for the position of the United States and the United Kingdom in Iraq shows conclusively that, despite arguments to the contrary, many European countries are still ready, willing, and able to support the United States in its hour of need.8 To nurture this political reality, America should increase its ties with these strongly pro-American countries.

The attempt by certain members of the German parliament to limit American use of German airspace for a campaign on Iraq failed. If it had succeeded, it would have severely impeded U.S. operations. While the effort amounted to little, its very existence should send shivers through all conscientious members of the alliance; in a world of rogue states, weapons of mass destruction, and global terrorist networks, such a threatened hampering of America's ability to act decisively and quickly with coalitions of the willing depends on the critical word "willing."

On the other hand, Bulgaria and Romania opened their airspace unconditionally and offered use of their land and sea ports to U.S. forces during the Afghanistan conflict.9 Similar cooperation among Eastern European friends is ongoing in the war in Iraq.10

It will also be important to ensure that any restructuring of American forces is not seen as a reaction to Germany's opposition to the war with Iraq. While fissures have emerged over the war, it will be imperative to reaffirm that the U.S. values its traditional alliances, especially with Germany, and that its restructuring efforts will benefit all of Europe.

Similarly, this move will require conferring with Russia, possibly even renegotiation of the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty, to emphasize that it is not directed at Moscow but could form the basis of a closer NATO-Russia relationship embodied in the new NATO-Russia council. The Administration should engage in this conversation with the Russians as soon as possible, stressing to the Russians that such a renegotiation is also in their interest given that the threat they face is no longer from the West, but from the South.

Economic Considerations

Financing this project remains an issue. This is precisely why Congress and the Bush Administration should authorize a feasibility study for the restructuring of forces in Europe.

Some have argued that moving bases eastward would be prohibitively expensive. While there are costs involved, the economic costs should not prohibit such a move if it enhances overall national security. Furthermore, by establishing smaller bases set up for rotational forces in Eastern Europe, the U.S. would not incur the same sort of costs that it takes to build bases for soldiers and their dependents in more expensive parts of the world.

It should also be noted that, while the United States already maintains an extensive base network in places like Germany, it still invests billions of dollars in new facilities in countries where it already has a presence. For example, the Army is scheduled to begin construction soon on a $692 million base in Grafenwoehr, Germany, which will house 3,500 soldiers and 5,000 dependents.11 One must ask how many smaller bases could be built in Eastern Europe for that same expenditure when in Qatar, 30 kilometers outside of Doha, the United States recently built the world's largest store of pre-positioned Army equipment for only $110 million.12

If new bases are established in other parts of Europe, they should not be the sprawling complexes that dot the European landscape today. Instead, they should be smaller and more Spartan. America's European bases are not only home to over 104,000 troops, but also home to 125,000 dependents. This is because troops are stationed at these bases for periods of years rather then on a rotational basis as they are in the Balkans, where U.S. forces rotate in and out on six-month rotations. The result is that the U.S. government needs to provide support services for their entire families for most of the troops permanently stationed in Europe.

In South Korea, on the other hand, troops are deployed on annual assignments. The equipment and infrastructure stays while troops rotate in and out. Families are not brought along because the troops are there for a relatively short period of time. Although over 37,000 troops are stationed in South Korea, there are just over 4,000 dependents. In Germany, the U.S. maintains 68 schools to educate the children of its 70,000 troops, but in South Korea, the U.S. maintains only eight schools. The result of a rotational deployment strategy is a much smaller infrastructure footprint because fewer support facilities are required.

The size of the bases and the services they provide to dependents will have a long-term economic impact. The Pentagon can save significant resources by minimizing support infrastructure on foreign bases. Base operations support13 is a significant line item in the Pentagon budget, accounting for a little over $18 billion in 2003. While there are sound reasons at some installations for maintaining a family support structure, with support requirements in Europe reduced, more military dependents could stay stateside, thus reducing the overall support costs as military families are able to take advantage of new programs that encourage them to seek housing and other services in the private sector.


There would be no logic behind redeploying forces in Europe if it were not a win-win situation for all parties involved. The reality is that Western Europe prospered greatly in the post-World War II years in large part because of the stabilizing presence of U.S. forces. Similarly, the United States could never have won the Cold War if it had been unable to establish a credible military presence in Western Europe. Additionally, America's presence in Europe facilitated positive, long-term relations with those nations.

The same results would flow from establishing a presence in Eastern Europe. Those countries still have vivid memories of oppression by vicious dictators. A credible American presence in those countries would allow them to put the Cold War behind them once and for all. The security provided by this close military relationship would allow these nations to fulfill their economic potential.

An American presence would also be hugely positive from an American point of view. The relationship would solidify a long-term friendship with many past adversaries and have a positive economic impact on the U.S. economy. Most important, however, is that it would advance America's national security.

For the political, military, and strategic reasons outlined above, base restructuring is certainly in America's interests. The world has entered a new era; it is well past time for U.S. force structure in Europe to reflect this seminal fact.

Jack Spencer is Senior Policy Analyst for Defense and National Security and John C. Hulsman, Ph.D., is Research Fellow in European Affairs in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

1. Condoleezza Rice, "Our Coalition," Opinion Journal from The Wall Street Journal Editorial Page, March 26, 2003, at

2. "Speculation in Eastern Europe on the US Military Move to the Region," Agence France-Presse, March 4, 2003.

3. Vernon Loeb, "U.S. Looks Eastward in New NATO," The Washington Post, May 28, 2002.

4. Steven Komarrow, "Ex-Warsaw Pact Nations Now Key to U.S.," USA Today, February 3, 2003.

5. "V Corp Deploying for Victory Strike III," ArmyLINK News, September 25, 2002.

6. Elizabeth Williamson, "Poland's Rent-a-Battlefields Bring in the War Games," The Wall Street Journal, December 16, 2002.

7. Komarrow, "Ex-Warsaw Pact Nations Now Key to U.S."

8. The first of these letters was published in The Wall Street Journal on January 20, 2003, and was signed by the leaders of Spain, Portugal, Italy, the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Denmark; the second was signed by Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia.

9. Peter Finn, "War Boosts NATO Hopes of Two Nations," The Washington Post, March 26, 2002.

10. Ian Traynor, "Threat of War: NATO Allies in Eastern Europe Line Up to Offer Services," The Guardian, January 24, 2003.

11. Brian Whitmore, "US-German Friction Grows with a Plan to Redeploy Troops," The Boston Globe, March 16, 2003.

12. "Backgrounder: US Military Bases in Qatar," Xinhua General News Service, March 20, 2003.

13. According to the Department of Defense, base operations support includes the resources to operate the bases, installations, camps, posts, and stations of the military departments and the Defense Health Program. These resources sustain mission capability, ensure quality of life, and fund personnel and infrastructure support. Personnel support includes food and housing services, religious services, and recreational services for members of the military and their families. Infrastructure support services include utility systems operations, installation equipment maintenance, engineering services, and law enforcement.


Jack Spencer
Jack Spencer

Vice President, the Institute for Economic Freedom

John Hulsman

Former Senior Research Fellow