Europe Requires More than Symbolic Defense

Russia’s aggressive behavior in Crimea, eastern Ukraine, and elsewhere in Europe is a reminder that European security remains a vital U.S. national interest, but we are sending mixed messages.

In early April, the U.S. Army completed a dramatic 1,200-mile road march across six European countries in a symbol of U.S. capability, resolve and commitment. By the end of April, the Army announced it would once again reduce the number of soldiers in Europe, this time by 1,900 troops, because our military is getting smaller.

Many Americans wished away the Russian threat to NATO and greater Europe when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Nowhere was this more evident than in the posture of U.S. military forces on the continent. As the Soviet Union collapsed, U.S. forces, rightly, were reduced throughout the 1990s. In the early 2000s, the need to surge forces to Iraq and Afghanistan led to an even steeper decline. The strategic assumption was that Europe could or should mostly fend for itself while a token presence of American soldiers would be sufficient to maintain alliance commitments.

U.S. troops levels in Europe have reached record-low levels, slightly more than 27,000 soldiers, before the newest cut was announced. Some of our NATO partner nations recognize the risks. France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland and Sweden are increasing their military spending, a reversal of a post-Cold War trend that still means most European countries have flat defense budgets.

President Vladimir Putin has been flexing Russian muscle through hybrid warfare—a diabolical combination of conventional military operations, criminal acts, terrorism, and political intimidation—to reassert claims to some sphere of influence he feels was taken away by the collapse of the Soviet Union. His actions pose a clear and present danger to NATO, and fuel wider division within the alliance as to how to respond.

My NATO friends were very clear in their assessment that the modest nature of these events and the American forces participating in them is readily apparent to both our European partners as well as to the Russians. In short, we’re not fooling anyone – we just don’t have enough there.

With only two combat brigades permanently stationed in Europe and a few other forces periodically rotating in from the Unites States for exercises, the U.S. presence is negligible in the grand scheme. American commanders are stretching that force as far as they can, but it is a thin line of defense to be sure. At some point—possibly very soon—the symbolism of U.S. support loses credibility.

I am troubled by continued efforts to reduce the size of America’s land forces and especially the U.S. Army. Sequestration has set us on a dangerous downhill trajectory that will send the U.S. Army to strength levels not seen since the opening days of World War II. This must be stopped, and stopped now, with some balance achieved in active, Guard and Reserve forces to providing us a combined fighting strength of 1 million or more soldiers, at least half in the active forces and half in the Guard and Reserve.

I am not convinced that the United States has or will have the wherewithal to demonstrably reassure allies and deter further aggression in this vital part of the world. For some reason, we seem to presume demonstrations of latent power will be sufficient. I remain skeptical.

Full article: Europe Requires More than Symbolic Defense (Defense One)

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