March 27, 2009

The commander of U.S. forces in Europe is urging keeping two heavy brigades in Germany rather than sending them back to the United States, citing the benefits of training with NATO allies and logistical advantages for regional deployments.

AP's David Rising reports on yesterday's conversation with the commander of U.S. Army Europe:

Gen. Carter Ham said keeping the brigades — which are currently deployed in Iraq — in Germany puts them in position where they can be more quickly moved to places like Iraq and Afghanistan if needed. "Just because a force is based in Europe doesn't mean it's not available for global deployment," Ham told the AP.

Having personally deployed from Germany to Southeast Asia eighteen years ago, I can personally vouch for that fact.

More importantly, however, the troops in Europe are able to train regularly with NATO allies, which is especially important for deployments such as Afghanistan, where they work closely together. "That way when we do an operation together we're not doing it for the first time," he said.

There were some 250,000 U.S. troops stationed in Germany and elsewhere in Europe at their peak during the Cold War, but Ham said he is not suggesting an expansion beyond current levels.  "I think that what we have now is about right," he said.

European ports and airfields are important for the U.S. to move equipment and personnel to both Iraq and Afghanistan, and the American troop presence at its current levels makes it easier to sustain the infrastructure, he said.  "Being in a sustained engagement with European countries makes it easier," Ham said.

In a more general sense, Ham said it has also proved beneficial to expose troops to other cultures by having them based overseas.   "That's how they're going to operate — they're not going to operate in the United States, they're going to operate in a foreign environment," he said. "I believe it's helpful."

Ham's proposal has been approved by U.S. European Command leader Gen. Bantz J. Craddock but a final decision rests with the U.S. Defense Department.

Based on the needs in Europe, Ham said the military should retain both brigades and either a corps or divisional headquarters for a total of about 42,000 troops instead of the planned reduction to 32,000. He said that he expected a "late summer decision" though said he hoped it would come earlier.

A Reuters report from February 18, when Ham first floated this suggestion, quotes him saying, "We talk a lot about building partner capacity. Sometimes the only way you can really do that is to have U.S. forces that can partner with our European (allies') forces."

An Army Times report from March 2, before Craddock had formally signed off on the proposal, notes that the units in question are the "2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, at Baumholder; and the 172nd Infantry Brigade, with battalions in Schweinfurt and Grafenwoehr."  They are otherwise scheduled to relocate to Fort Bliss, in El Paso, Texas, in the 2012-13 timeframe. The moves were ordered pursuant to the 2005 Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC) report.

Also noteworthy from that report, at least for old Army hands:

Another major event for the Army in Europe is the conversion this year of USAREUR headquarters and V Corps headquarters into the command-and-control element of 7th Army. Under the new alignment, 7th Army headquarters will be deployable and capable of serving as a joint task headquarters for land-centric operations conducted within the European Command area of responsibility.The new headquarters will be located at Wiesbaden and will require the closure of most facilities in Heidelberg, where the Army has been headquartered since the end of World War II.

It should be noted that a major impetus behind redeploying most of the force from Europe, especially Germany, to the United States was the fact that the host nation governments wanted their land back to convert to more profitable uses.   As best I can determine, there's been no German reaction to this proposal one way or the other in the six weeks since the idea was made public.  One presumes, however, that they were consulted with ahead of time and agree with the move.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. 

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