January 16, 2012
By Marcus Weisgerber
Governments across Europe have mixed feelings about the U.S. decision to withdraw two combat brigades from the continent, but the concerns seem particularly acute in countries that border Russia.
“I don’t think that we have direct threats emanating from any of our neighbors, but the absence of U.S. troops in Europe might create some problems in the future,” Gen. Mieczyslaw Cieniuch, chief of the general staff of the Polish Armed Forces, said in a Jan. 9 interview.
“We are not very happy that the U.S. military involvement in Europe will be smaller than today’s, especially from the Polish point of view, because we are a border country of the [NATO] alliance,” Cieniuch said.
The general took pains to say Moscow should not be considered a threat.
One week after a new Pentagon strategy document said the U.S. military posture in Europe would evolve over the coming decade, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced Jan. 12 that two permanently stationed Army brigades, a total of about 7,000 soldiers, will leave Europe.
During a Jan. 6 meeting with ambassadors and defense attachés at the Pentagon, Kathleen Hicks, deputy undersecretary of defense for strategy, plans and forces, tried to calm the concerns of Eastern European nations.
The meeting was “part of a comprehensive outreach effort on the part of the whole department to ensure broad and deep understanding of the content of the new strategic guidance document,” a Defense Department spokeswoman said.
The importance of having U.S. forces on the ground in Europe is the same as it was back in 1949, but the number of troops is another issue, Gen. Stéphane Abrial, NATO Supreme Allied Commander Transformation, said during a Jan. 11 taping of “This Week in Defense News.”
“In my mind, it’s possible in the modern ages to compensate numbers by more political engagement and by other ways of reassuring,” said Abrial, noting this could be through exercises or giving more visibility to the troops on the continent.
Still, the alliance must take allies’ views and sensitivities into account, the French general said.
“You’re right to say that some have different perceptions about the possible risks around our nations,” he said.
While Western European nations, much like the United States, worry about terrorist attacks, Eastern European nations still have concerns about a conventional Russian attack. Many of these counties have joined NATO as an insurance policy against Russia.
“I think it depends a little bit where you live,” Netherlands Defense Minister H.E. Hans Hillen said during a Jan. 12 speech at the Atlantic Council in Washington.
“I think if you live in the Baltics, you think about this different than [if] you live in Holland,” Hillen said. “We don’t think this is a major problem, but [as] a matter of fact, troops can be transported quite quickly all over the world and we don’t need any troops in Europe to have peace maintained in Europe.”
Panetta told Hillen during a Jan. 12 meeting at the Pentagon that even after the troop withdrawal, more U.S. troops might be in Europe than there are today since soldiers are expected to return from deployments to Afghanistan in the coming years.
Some believe a U.S. troop reduction in the region is a signal that nations’ military cooperation will have to increase.
More Cooperation Needed
“Europe, for its part, also needs to take more responsibility, and security problems are within its own periphery,” Hillen said.
He said he believes European nations need to substantially deepen defense cooperation.
“This involves exploring radically new avenues for cooperation and a more practical approach to the issue of national sovereignty,” he said.
Countries should cooperate more in acquisition, maintenance and possibly even operations, Hillen said. The defense minister has proposed cooperation in these areas with Denmark and Norway on the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
“This is one example of how far the Netherlands is prepared to go in cooperation with other countries in order to keep up NATO military capabilities,” he said.
The concept of “smart defense” — which calls for European nations to pool their resources to become a larger buyer of a particular system, lowering the unit cost — is gaining ground in Europe as defense funding levels decline and other economic problems mount.
However, Norway Defense Minister Espen Barth Eide said he is not optimistic that the concept could be achieved in the near term because there is an upfront cost. Moreover, it could take more than a decade for the concept to yield dividends, he said during a Jan. 12 speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Despite the DoD withdrawal from Europe, the power and nimbleness of the U.S. military will still provide a deterrent, European officials said.
“For us, it’s better to see U.S. troops in Europe,” Cieniuch, the Polish general, said. “But we understand that the U.S. military potential is significant enough to maintain the capability to project power of forces to any region of the world.”
Cieniuch, who met with U.S. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during a visit to Washington last week, said Poland would welcome U.S. troops.
“The best military bases for U.S. troops are in the Polish territories, of course,” he said. “But I understand that if you have existing military bases, it’s difficult to change.”
Cieniuch said, “Germany is a good enough location for American troops. The Polish territory is good as well, but we don’t have American bases in our territory.” Maybe in the future, he said.