UK Defense Secretary Philip Hammond was willing yesterday to say what President Obama and Secretary Panetta wouldn’t: Pivoting toward Asia means fewer U.S. forces in Europe. Specifically, “my understanding is that there will remain two brigades.”
Presuming the Secretary has been briefed correctly, this revisits a Pentagon decision from last April. Eight months ago – ancient history for defense strategy and spending – Secretary Gates determined that one of the four BCTS forward stationed in Europe should return home in 2015.
So the draw-down is doubling – 2 BCTs staying, 2 coming home – right? It depends. Specifically, it depends on how deep of a historical comparison you want to draw.
Going back to 2004, Rumsfeld planned to take the then-5 brigades we had in Europe down to two. But Gates froze the draw-down in 2007 with four brigades still forward stationed. So, depending on which benchmark you use, going to two brigades doubles the plan or restores the plan.
History has more to offer here than just comparison points. The Pentagon vacillated about the proper footprint in Europe for years. It may well continue to do so, not least because we’re also trying to reassure our allies. Indeed, the most important figure may be the date of the drawdown rather than its size – smaller changes made immediate are more significant than bigger changes scheduled for a date so far away that it never comes.