U.S. military in Europe: The Pentagon’s Eastern obsession

The following article is from the director of national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, an influential think tank in the U.S. The author was also previously an assistant secretary of defense in the early 1980s. In this article originally in the New York Times, the author suggests that economic reasons for moving bases from Western Europe to Eastern Europe are suspect, and that instead it might be to pay back opposition to the Iraq war. That may be possible, though that would also seem a costly decision just because of opposition to the Iraq war. There may be instead, or as well, other geopolitical objectives, which the author also hints towards, which may play out as part of a war on terrorism, or as part of a repositioning of U.S. forces in a post Cold War era. The original article can be found at http://www.nytimes.com/2003/07/30/opinion/30KORB.html.

U.S. military in Europe: The Pentagon's Eastern obsession
Lawrence J. Korb
New York Times
August 2, 2003

The Pentagon is smitten with Romania. And Poland. And Bulgaria, too. The Defense Department is considering closing many, if not all, of its bases in Western Europe - which are primarily in Germany - and to shift its troops to spartan new sites in the former Soviet bloc.

Already we are told that the 1st Armored Division, now on the ground in Iraq, will not return to the bases in Germany it left in April. And General James Jones, head of the European Command, said last month that all 26 army and air force installations in Germany, except for the air force base at Ramstein, might be closed. In effect this could mean transferring five army brigades, about 25,000 troops, to the East.

Supporters of this proposal argue that this has nothing to do with pique at longtime U.S. allies for their opposition to the Iraq war, but that the move would save money and enable American forces to move more rapidly to remote hot spots in the Middle East and Central Asia. Both of these claims are unfounded.

It costs the Pentagon about $7 billion a year to maintain its German bases. Ramstein, the biggest, costs about $1 billion - so the others average only about $240 million each, or the same as a single F/A-22 fighter jet. Moreover, the costs of constructing these bases were paid long ago - most were built during the cold war with German money.

To move its forces to Eastern Europe the United States will still have to build bases or upgrade existing ones - these facilities, built in the Soviet era, are crumbling and out of date. Many have severe environmental problems like unexploded ordnance and toxic waste, including old chemical weapons.

Moreover, although the cost of living in East Europe is lower than in Germany, it is unlikely that these countries will contribute to the maintenance of U.S. bases - as Germany has been doing to the tune of $1 billion a year. Finally, as we have seen with American domestic efforts at downsizing, closing bases takes time and money - in America it has taken at least five years and as many as eight to recoup the costs of the shutdown.

Some supporters of the plan also say that the move would save money because soldiers who have wives and children in Germany would not bring families along to the East. This is a poor argument on two grounds. For one, expensive new housing and schools would have to be built in the United States to accommodate the families and, more important, it would have a dreadful effect on morale.

Soldiers sent to Eastern Europe on a routine six-month deployment may well end up being deployed to the Middle East or Central Asia for extended periods, and could then be separated from their families for as long as 18 months. This would lower retention and thus substantially increase training costs.

The strategic rationale behind the move is as spurious as the cost-efficiency one. Yes, Eastern Europe is a bit closer than Germany is to the Middle East and Central Asia, and thus soldiers there could fly to the hot spots more quickly. But this is an advantage only for the very lightest of military operations.

Most heavy armaments like tanks and artillery have to be moved by ship from the United States. And any such equipment America might have at the Eastern European bases would have to move by rail or truck to seaports on transportation networks far inferior to those the United States can use now in Western Europe.

If the proximity to the Middle East is the rationale for the move, why does the military still plan to keep 12,000 troops in Britain, which is even farther from these volatile regions?

Since moving to new bases would not save money or improve America's strategic flexibility, there must be another motive. If it is being done to punish "Old Europe" over Iraq, it will be a case of the Bush administration cutting off its nose to spite its face.

The writer, director of national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, was assistant secretary of defense from 1981 to 1985.

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  • Posted: Saturday, August 16, 2003

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