While the US is withdrawing combat troops from Europe, the center for NATO's missile defense shield will be based in Germany. New security threats and budget cuts are paving the way for a new military strategy.
The US state deficit is forcing Washington to reduce military spending by $487 billion (370 billion euros) over the next decade. Some $525 billion is still earmarked for the US defense budget this year. The missions in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost the American taxpayer dearly. These operations are either over or drawing to a close, which means the US will need less combat troops on the ground. As a result, the army is to be downsized from 570,000 to 490,000 personnel. During the NATO summit in Brussels, US Defense Secrety Leon Panetta once again briefed his partners on Washington's military plans.
Withdrawal of US brigades not 'dramatic'
The US wants to downsize two combat brigades, notably in Germany. Further details are to be announced in April, according to a Pentagon spokesperson. German Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière emphasized in Brussels that the US still views NATO as the most important military alliance: "The withdrawal of some 35,000-40,000 US soldiers from Germany is not dramatic. Europe remains the biggest base for US soldiers abroad. There is no reason whatsoever to doubt NATO's commitment and America's bond with Europe."
After the end of the Cold War ended, or the confrontation between NATO and the communist Warsaw Pact in Europe, the US reduced the number of their troops in Europe from 230,000 to 81,000. Europe mainly serves as a logistics and supply base for US forcers operating in the Middle East and western Asia. The German defense minister says the withdrawal has by no means lessened Europe's security and is in response to new military threats. Other NATO states, including Germany, are also downsizing their armies and closing military bases. "You can hardly criticize the Americans for doing the same thing," said a NATO diplomat in Brussels.
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta underlined that Europeans will likely see more US soldiers in future because the two large bases in the German towns Baumholder and Grafenwöhr will continue to be used for preparing troops ahead of missions. "A lot of money was spent to establish and supply these bases with expensive logistics. The Americans would be unwise to give that up," said a NATO diplomat. "The region's mayor need not worry." But one difference is that in future, the families of the constantly rotating troops will no longer be living in Baumholder and Grafenwöhr.
Ramstein is no surprise
Establishing the center for NATO's planned missile defense shield in Ramstein, in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, was not meant as a compensation for the planned troop withdrawal, say NATO officials. US Air Forces in Europe and NATO's Allied Air Command already had their headquarters in Ramstein and it was therefore only logical to base the missile defense shield there as well. A spokesperson for Ramstein Air Base said personnel would most likely be raised from 400 to 500 and that the expansion would take at least two years.
The new NATO command structure, which was created out of pressure to cut costs and to better serve new NATO tasks, was approved in the summer of 2011. In order the keep the NATO command in Ramstein, a similar base is set to be closed in Izmir, Turkey. No new rocket firing systems will be installed in Ramstein; instead, there will be new computer systems capable of linking and evaluating data from early warning radar systems from all over Europe.
By withdrawing combat troops from Europe, the US is focusing more strongly on Asia and the Pacific region. The need to rise to new challenges is perfectly understandable, according to German Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière. The US is particularly concerned about China, which has beefed up its military significantly over the past years. The Pentagon wants to modernize its Pacific fleet and boost its military presence in Australia, among others. The European fleet will also be reinforced, notably in Spain, which will be home to new US vessels - a decision that was made months ago.
US President Barack Obama announced ahead of a NATO summit in Chicago in May that the US military was pursuing a new, so-called “smart defense” strategy which would enable forces to react "more flexibly and faster." Defense Secretary Panetta and his NATO colleagues agreed in Brussels that in future they would have to focus more strongly on cyber warfare, unmanned drones, special units and a highly mobile air force and navy. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said all 28 partners supported this concept.
The new strategy would turn out to be very smart indeed if it helpedreduce defense budgets in light of the ongoing European debt crisis. Rasmussen added that smart defense would force the Europeans to improve their cooperation regarding armament plans, as it was unnecessary for every army to be able to perform all tasks. Rasmussen highlighted the joint use of unmanned drones for air reconnaissance as a good example.
With cuts in the US defense budged, NATO diplomats are expecting that Europeans will be confronted with new tasks and will no longer be able to rely on the Americans stepping in automatically with regard to security issues in future. US Defense Secrety Leon Panetta, however, stressed that cost saving measures would not impede the US’ ability to provide security around the globe and fight two potential adversaries - Iran and North Korea, should it come to that - at the same time.
Author: Bernd Riegert / nk
Editor: Sarah Berning