The Sustainable Defense Task Force report published in June 2010 has called for the number of U.S. troops stationed in Europe to be cut by more than 30,000, leaving a routine U.S. force presence in Europe of just 35,000 servicemen. The report also proposes ending an ongoing study to refurbish the B61 tactical nuclear bombers—200 of which are estimated to be stationed in Europe. When presenting the report, task force co-organizer Congressman Barney Frank (D–MA) stated: “I do not know what we are protecting Europe from—or why they can’t defend themselves.”
Frank’s statement is shortsighted and misplaced. As The Heritage Foundation’s Baker Spring states, curtailing America’s security commitments in the ways suggested by the task force would see America unable to prevent a hostile power from dominating Europe—and the potential rise of the European Union as a counterweight to American global power.
The U.S. forward-deploys its troops for the purposes of defending America and its allies and to deter potential aggressors. The task force’s recommendations would gut Washington’s defensive and deterrent capabilities, undermine America’s commitments to its European allies, irretrievably damage the NATO alliance, and ultimately harm American strategic interests.
U.S. servicemen and assets stationed in Europe serve a genuine military purpose, including directly deterring those who seek to harm America and its allies. For deterrence to be truly effective, assets and commitments must be clearly visible.
Conventional deterrence capabilities are especially important in reassuring America’s allies in the Baltic States and the former satellites of the Soviet empire. Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 has demonstrated that the threat of traditional military confrontation in Europe has not disappeared. America’s presence in Europe represents a willingness to stand with its NATO allies in the face of intimidation, which undoubtedly factors into the calculations made by NATO’s strategic competitors and enemies.
Similarly, the presence of U.S. tactical nuclear bombers in Europe deters the growing number of aggressive actors that threaten the U.S. and its allies. Furthermore, the vast majority of America’s allies in Europe have not sought to join the club of nuclear weapons powers precisely because they sit under Washington’s nuclear umbrella. Unilateral nuclear disarmament or an unreasonable degradation of America’s forward-deployed nuclear forces would change this equation as European nations seek alternative security insurance either in the form of nuclear weapons or alliances with other nuclear powers. The destabilization brought to the European continent from a premature removal of American nuclear weapons, or an unacceptable degradation of its force, would be a major setback to global security and stability—and would undermine President Obama’s nonproliferation goals.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks provided a startling demonstration that many of America’s most dangerous threats lie far beyond its borders and require a proactive posture to defeat them. Today’s strategic threat environment, including the proliferation of ballistic missiles and nuclear technologies, requires the deployment of missile defenses capable of protecting the U.S. and its NATO allies. U.S. European Command (EUCOM) is pursuing the possibility of an interoperable missile defense architecture and has recently carried out joint exercises with Germany and the Netherlands to identify areas for future integration.
Furthermore, deploying American troops in multinational contingents such as in Afghanistan makes sense in practical and financial terms. Adequate joint training missions are critical to this function. The last place the U.S. wants to identify shortcomings in multinational coordination is on the battlefield. The number of joint exercises carried out between America and its NATO allies has already been vastly reduced since the war on terrorism began due to large numbers of Europe-based U.S. troops being deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. Further cutting the number of troops available for substantial training exercises would only undermine the prospects for future multinational engagements.
Cost savings, as well as greater interoperability, can also be realized through multinational procurement projects, such as NATO’s Strategic Airlift Capability (SAC) consortium and its AWACS program. The primary obligation of SAC’s three C-17 military transport aircraft is to support the NATO mission in Afghanistan, and NATO AWACS patrolled the skies in the wake of 9/11. American leadership was undoubtedly central to bringing both of these projects to fruition. Unless Washington is willing to sacrifice future joint projects as well as greater interoperability, it should not seek to reduce its presence in Europe.
Building Enduring Alliances
America has found its closest and most reliable allies in Europe, specifically within the NATO alliance. Forged on the beaches of Normandy and underpinned by the Anglo–American Special Relationship, the transatlantic security alliance stands as the most successful and lasting alliance structure of modern times. An effective strategy for maximizing America’s national security and reinforcing the indivisibility of transatlantic security should therefore emphasize U.S.–European military relations.
America’s force structure and its nuclear forces in Europe must be commensurate with its treaty obligations, including Articles IV and V of the Washington Treaty requiring NATO allies to stand ready to protect the security of any threatened member and to consider an armed attack against one member as an attack against them all. It is impossible to reconcile a degraded U.S. presence in Europe with these treaty obligations.
The Obama Administration and Congress should support:
- Maintaining a credible nuclear deterrent capability. In consultation with its allies, the U.S. should design its nuclear forces in Europe and in the U.S. around holding at risk the means of strategic attack on the U.S. and its allies.
- Modernizing the nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal, including their delivery systems.
- Deployment of robust defensive systems, including ballistic missile defenses with European partners.
- Maintaining credible conventional deterrent capabilities, including adequate troop levels and assets for pre-9/11 levels of joint training activities.
- Maintaining U.S. leadership in NATO by keeping at least one alliance headquarters on American soil and maintaining a four-star U.S. officer as the supreme commander of the Allied Forces in Europe (SACEUR).
Visible Manifestations of U.S. Commitment
Former NATO SACEUR General Bantz Craddock has stated that America’s forward-deployed troops and installations are “visible manifestations of U.S. commitment and enable us to apply influence, assure access when and where needed, and preserve a leadership role in NATO.” Since 2003, the U.S. has already significantly reduced its military presence in Europe, and tens of thousands of European-based servicemen have had to be deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Any further reduction of U.S. troop strength in Europe would significantly curtail joint training exercises, joint procurement programs, and America’s strategic options in addressing future threats.
EUCOM is responsible for America’s military relations with NATO and 51 countries, and it is vital that the Obama Administration adopts policies that bolster U.S.–European military relations rather than undermine them.
Sally McNamara is Senior Policy Analyst in European Affairs in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.