This year was the second in a row in which the Pentagon modified its plan for U.S. forces in Europe. Last year the scheduled withdrawal of Army Brigade Combat Teams was reduced from two to one; this year it was increased from one back to two. And these are just the latest moves in a long sequence of adjustments and the recalculations that follow.
Amid all this shuffle, it’s easy to lose sight of the facts. Bloomberg reported, for instance, that the drawdown would leave the U.S. with just 30,000 service-members in Europe. And the Economist wrote in troubled tones about “seemingly bleak future for American forces in Europe,” substantiating its concern by citing that “the number of European-based American soldiers has already fallen from 213,000 in 1989 to only about 41,000 today.”
Against this sort of backdrop, it’s important to remember that cuts to Army combat structure are limited in impact by maintaining the presence of our other services and our considerable non-combat footprint (headquarters, commands, and other infrastructure). An exchange between Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) and Admiral James Stavridis, EUCOM’s commander, during a House Armed Services Committee hearing is insightful:
SMITH: How many troops do we have [in Europe] now, and what will we have once we implement the strategy that the president has put in place as a starting point?
STAVRIDIS: Sir, we have about 80,000 uniformed personnel. We're going to withdraw about 12,500, so we'll be down in the 68,000 range. And I can break those [presently there] down by service very quickly. There's about 35,000 Army, 25,000 Air Force, 10,000 Navy and Marine Corps, roughly, and 10,000 dedicated to NATO.
Note that halving the Army Brigade Combat Teams stationed in Europe is only projected to reduce our overall presence by 14 percent, from 80K to 68.5K. Secretary Panetta put even that change in perspective last Friday:
A few years ago, there was an effort to bring down two of the four brigades. Then, obviously, we got involved in 9/11 and the impact of that, and so we maintained those four brigades… Out of the four brigades, two were pretty much involved in both Iraq and Afghanistan… We're going to be taking down two of those brigades.
In other words, halving the Army’s combat force structure in Europe will have a relatively small impact on the number of soldiers actually there, much less the total number of service-members there. These plans are always subject to change but, for the time being, the picture should be pretty clear.