October 5, 2020 | Policy Brief

Plan to Reposition U.S. Forces in Europe Needs More Work

October 5, 2020 | Policy Brief

Plan to Reposition U.S. Forces in Europe Needs More Work

The House Armed Service Committee (HASC) expressed concern last week about the Department of Defense (DoD) plan to reposition U.S. forces based in Europe. In its present form, the plan lacks sufficient detail to reach a final conclusion about its merits, yet its broad outlines suggest that budgetary and other costs may outweigh uncertain operational benefits.

Announced in July, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper’s proposal seeks to realign “our forces in Europe to be better-situated for great power competition.” The initiative reduces the number of military personnel stationed in Germany by 11,900 – roughly 6,400 of whom would return to the United States, with the rest relocating to other NATO countries.

HASC Chairman Adam Smith (D-WA) made his views clear at the hearing’s start: “I don’t think this plan was particularly well thought out, and I’m worried about a number of aspects of its implementation.” Likewise, Ranking Member Mac Thornberry (R-TX) said, “My concern is … the underlying strength and unity of the alliance has not been a foremost consideration.”

One subject of HASC concern is DoD’s plan to shift U.S. European Command headquarters from Germany to Belgium. While this move may provide some benefit by co-locating command leadership with NATO’s Allied Command Operations, the cost of moving an established headquarters appears excessive. This is especially true when one accounts for a flattening or declining defense budget and the millions of dollars in infrastructure needed elsewhere in the European and other theaters.

Moving U.S. Africa Command from Germany would also prove costly. However, it is difficult to assess potential drawbacks or benefits associated with such a move until DoD selects an alternative site in Europe, Africa, or the United States.

Still, it should be clear that relocating Africa Command to America does not make sense. With the headquarters’ service components located in Europe and its warfighters deployed to Africa, creating a significant separation in time and space would be unwise. Doing so may negatively impact staff communications, resulting in less synchronized responses to emerging threats. The terrorist attack on Manda Bay in Kenya this January serves as a prime example of an event requiring timely, coordinated actions across all echelons.

Several committee members conveyed the need for further information on cost, timeline, and other factors related to repositioning the headquarters. Chairman Smith commented, “[T]he level of detail that we’re getting here is just not acceptable for us to exercise our oversight.”

The committee levied similar inquiries and concerns about DoD’s plan to keep U.S. Air Force units at Mildenhall while displacing others from Spangdahlem.

Retaining forces at Mildenhall in the United Kingdom – a base previously expected to close – is one of the more defensible components of DoD’s plan. As Russia’s missile capability grows, DoD is right to avoid consolidating mobility assets in a single location. Keeping tankers in the United Kingdom and cargo aircraft in Germany would maintain dispersal of assets and complicate Moscow’s targeting calculus.

By contrast, shifting forces from Spangdahlem to Aviano in Italy would result in greater consolidation. While the move may reinforce the U.S. presence on NATO’s southeastern flank, the small increase in proximity would likely be outweighed by the increased risk that Italy-based fighter jets will be one of the first targets of Russia’s missiles.

Without a more detailed plan, Congress and DoD are unable to validate whether these moves, or others, would result in “better-situated” forces – especially at an acceptable cost. In order to prevent posture missteps, DoD’s current plan requires maturation. It should consider cost, timeline, capability, readiness, and risk. Above all, the plan must bolster NATO unity and adeptly deter Russia.

Major Scott Adamson is a visiting military analyst with the Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Views expressed or implied in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Air Force or any other U.S. government agency. For more analysis from Scott and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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