Commander says troop cut call "shortsighted"
The head of the U.S. army in Europe has criticized as shortsighted the arguments in favor of closing U.S. bases in Europe to save money at a time of sweeping budget cuts.
Lieutenant-General Mark Hertling defended existing plans to keep about 37,000 U.S. Army troops in Europe, down from 40,000 at present, and said the U.S. deployment was "pretty damned cost effective," representing about seven percent of army numbers, but consuming less then seven percent of the budget.
He said any further troop reductions after President Barack Obama announced plans in April to withdraw one of the current four combat brigades by 2015 would be "damaging" and could end up costing more than they saved.
"I think it would be significantly more expensive in the long run and that is how I think the shortsightedness of the current debate could hurt us," Hertling told Reuters during a U.S. military staff training exercise that involved a tour of the 1944 Battle of the Bulge battlefields in the Ardennes region of Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium.
"In my view, it would be a poor strategic decision."
With pressure mounting on the U.S. Defense Department to make across-the-board cuts of some $600 billion to help ease the U.S. budget crisis, the three U.S. combat brigades that would stay in Europe are seen by some as susceptible to further cuts.
Republican Congressman Mike Coffman, a military veteran, is among those who have called for the closure of some U.S. bases in Europe, given that the Cold War ended more than 20 years ago and the overall U.S. presence was projected to cost around $8.6 billion this fiscal year.
Coffman says European countries are relying on U.S. protection and are not pulling their weight in defense: only four meet the NATO requirement to spend at least two percent of Gross Domestic Product on defense.
The debate comes at a time of waning American interest in Europe -- the Transatlantic Trends survey in September showed most U.S. citizens thought China and Japan more important to the national interest. U.S. politicians are also keen to see U.S. troops spending money back at bases in their constituencies.
Hertling argued that the U.S. presence in Europe since World War Two had helped ensure the longest period of peace in European history, and added: "preventing war is a whole lot cheaper than prevailing in war."
He said U.S. forces were carrying out an invaluable task in helping to train European forces that took part in operations with U.S. forces elsewhere in the world, such as Afghanistan, and currently had training or partnership arrangements with 42 states in his area of operations.
"(To) the neophytes who would say 'there is no longer a Soviet Union and a Warsaw Pact -- why are you still fighting the Cold War?'; what I would suggest is that it was a whole lot easier fighting the Cold War than what we are doing right now."
Many of the 40,000 European troops now in Afghanistan have trained with U.S. forces beforehand, he said.
"That 40,000 is 40,000 forces the United States does not have to provide for Afghanistan, so I would say there is a significant cost-saving associated with fighting wars with our allies and allowing them to contribute forces and equipment and national treasure instead of us."
Hertling, a former U.S. commander in northern Iraq, said it would have been "hugely more difficult" for NATO to conduct its operation in Libya without the U.S. presence in Europe.
"Having the stationing benefits within Europe, in Italy, Germany and the Netherlands, gives us the ability to project power to some places in the world ... where threats have bubbled up - Africa, the Southwest Asia theater, Israel, the Levant, the Caucasus, several other places.
"Just the fact that we are here I think contributes to the kind of national security the United States is looking for."
Hertling said the U.S. presence had allowed provision of vital support to ensure success in Libya, including logistics, battlefield coordination and intelligence for target selection.
The general said that if one more combat brigade were cut, there would be questions about the need to maintain the "world class" multinational training center at Grafenberg in Germany.
He agreed with a report by Republican staffers in the U.S. Armed Services Committee last week saying that cuts could also delay refurbishment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. Some might need to be withdrawn, reducing their effectiveness as a deterrent and delaying U.S. missile defense plans for Europe.
Hertling said many European ministers and diplomats, some from former Warsaw Pact countries who see the U.S. presence as reassurance against Russian intentions -- had also argued strongly against further U.S. cuts.
[Source: By David Brunnstrom, Reuters, Clervaux, Luxemburg, 30Sep11]
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