FPI Bulletin: U.S. Forces in Europe Protect America’s National Security and Prosperity

December 20, 2012

From FPI Senior Policy Analysts Patrick Christy and Evan Moore

As the White House and Congressional Republicans continue negotiations to avoid the approaching “fiscal cliff,” isolated corners of Capitol Hill are, once again, floating proposals to further slash U.S. military forces in Europe.  However, these proposals are deeply misguided, and if they were enacted, it is likely that they will be ultimately harmful to America’s national security.

To begin with, even though U.S. troops based in Europe have already been reduced from roughly 285,000 personnel at the Cold War’s end to less than 75,000 personnel today, proponents still incorrectly believe that further dramatic reductions will achieve immediate and large cost-savings for the military.  For example, the Obama administration announced in January 2012 plans to remove roughly 10,000 troops from Europe in the coming years—in particular, two of the U.S. Army’s four Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs) stationed on the continent, as well as other military personnel—and replace the two BCTs with a single U.S.-based battalion that will rotate back-and-forth to Europe.  The extent to which this move will actually reduce costs, however, remains in doubt, as Luke Coffey of The Heritage Foundation explained in a July 2012 analysis:

“Proponents of reducing U.S. military bases in Europe use cost savings as their main rationale.  However, they do not consider the costs associated with building new infrastructure in the U.S. for returning units, the costs of rotating units between the U.S. and Europe, and the strain this would impose on the smaller Army that the Obama Administration is proposing.”

What’s more, proponents of completely “bringing home” U.S. troops based in Europe fundamentally fail to appreciate the critical role that these troops play every day in protecting America’s security and prosperity.  In particular:

First, U.S. forces based in Europe provide Washington with rapid response options to strategic threats and international crises throughout the world.  Europe’s periphery is immediately surrounded by areas of instability and emerging threats—namely, the Middle East and North Africa.  As illustrated by the deadly September 11th attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, terrorism and militant extremism continue to pose direct dangers to the United States, as well as its allies and partners.  Faced with these and other strategic pressures, the presence of U.S. forces in Europe helps to actively defend both American and allied security and interests.

In essence, proponents of further deep U.S. troop withdrawals from Europe are advocating a retrenchment of America’s national security strategy, even as events in Libya, Syria, and Iran reiterate the need for sustaining and strengthening U.S. power projection.  In recent years, U.S. forces stationed in Europe have played key operational roles in Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo and the Balkans.  Indeed, U.S. Army Europe notes that approximately 33 percent of soldiers based in Europe have been deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq, or other critical locations in recent years.  Europe’s central location also serves as a major launching point, as well as a logistical and support center, for the U.S. military’s Central Command (CENTCOM), a combatant command with an area of responsibility that includes the Middle East and South Asia, and for Africa Command (AFRICOM).

Second, U.S. forces in Europe help to train and build the military capacity of allies and partners—who, in turn, are better able to cooperate with the United States in military operations and other collective actions.  As John R. Deni recently wrote in monograph for the Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute:  “…Washington believes it will need highly capable allies to address the expected future security challenges, characterized by hybrid warfare, protection of access to global commons, and mitigating the threats posed by failed or failing states.”

As a result of military-to-military cooperation, America’s European allies are continuing to play key roles in meeting regional and global security challenges.  To take a key example, Admiral James Stavridis, who serves as both Commander of the U.S. military’s European Command (EUCOM) and NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), notes that roughly 90 percent of the 40,000 non-American troops serving in Afghanistan come from Europe.  Moreover, as U.S. Army Europe notes, 87 percent of NATO European troops deployed to International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan in 2011 were trained by the U.S. military’s Joint Multinational Training Command (JMTC).

Third, America’s military presence in Europe is the most visible pillar of Washington’s commitment to the Transatlantic Partnership.  The United States and Europe collectively form the world’s largest trading bloc and are engaged in nearly $700 billion in trade annually.  What’s more, they are bound together by history, common interests, and shared values.  Indeed, European allies remain, to quote the Secretary of State, partners of “first resort”—countries that the United States works with in concert on key international matters.  Washington has also forged close ties with the former Soviet satellite states in Central and Eastern Europe in recent years, and has found them to be eager partners Afghanistan and Iraq who often punch far above their weight.  What’s clear, in turn, is that the presence of U.S. forces in Europe represents arguably the single largest and most tangible demonstration of America’s commitment to protecting the security of itself and its allies on the continent, and to preserving the credibility of NATO’s collective defense.


In 1999, British Prime Minister Tony Blair warned that the United States should “never fall again for the doctrine of isolationism.  The world cannot afford it.”  While those who advocate further steep U.S. troop reductions from Europe cloak their arguments in fiscal responsibility, they are moving America more towards isolationism.  The bottom line is that the United States stands to lose much more—especially in terms of national security, strategic advantage, and global leadership—than it will monetarily save if it militarily disengages from its many allies and partners on the European continent.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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