Shifting U.S. units from Western Europe makes readiness, fiscal sense
As the U.S. military prepares to trim its 80,000-strong force in Europe by 10,000 soldiers, it’s a good time to rethink a basing structure still yoked to Cold War needs.
The Army’s two remaining conventional brigades — the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team and the 2nd Cavalry Regiment — are based in Vicenza, Italy, and Vilseck, Germany, respectively, while the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center is near Ramstein Air Base. These locations, set up as part of a tactical tripwire that Warsaw Pact forces had to cross to invade Western Europe, no longer reflect the best positioning for training, operations, cost-effectiveness or strategy. The 173rd ABCT, the 2nd CR and the Lanstuhl organization should be moved eastward, to Szczezin, Poland, and Constanta, Romania.
Proposals such as this have been drafted in the past. In 2003, Gen. James Jones, then-commander of European Command, hinted at closing all bases in Germany, except Ramstein, and moving east. Opponents argued that his proposal was meant to punish Western Europe’s lack of support for Operation Iraqi Freedom and that its estimates of cost savings were unsound. The smaller number of troops involved in today’s force posture makes the proposed moves less controversial, the benefits clearer and the costs more predictable.
In crowded Western Europe, U.S. and allied forces face restrictions on and even obstacles to training. Noise limits in Germany and Italy restrict various activities — firing live or even blank ammunition, setting off explosives, flying military aircraft, etc. — to certain hours of the week. The 173rd ABCT, for example, has inadequate training areas in its immediate area and must conduct most of its high-intensity training six hours north in Germany.
The Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfehls, the crown jewel of U.S. Army European Command training areas, offers about 165 square kilometers, along with an additional 216 square kilometers at nearby Grafenwoehr. It is designed to serve as a central training area for all allied military forces on the continent. Yet it does not offer a high degree of freedom of maneuver, nor does it have the capacity to meet the continent’s needs. About 60,000 soldiers from 51 countries within USAREUR’s area of focus train at the center each year, a small fraction of the millions of active-duty soldiers eligible for training in Europe.
These restrictions affect readiness. In 2002, the Government Accountability Office reported that U.S. combat units in Europe and the Pacific were more likely not to meet training requirements for maneuver operations, live ordinance practice, and night and low-altitude flying.
By contrast, exercise grounds in Romania and Poland offer far more space with far fewer restrictions. The Babadag training area near Constanta, Romania, offers 270 square kilometers. Conventional forces in Europe, along with some U.S.-based units, have been training there for several years. Under the oversight of the Joint Task Force East, the U.S. built a combined base in the area, as well as one in Bulgaria, to house rotating units. The area offers one of the largest maneuver training areas in Europe and serves as an important sea and air logistical hub for operations in the Middle East.
Similarly, the Drawsko Pomorskie training area, 100 kilometers east of Szcezin, Poland, has 350 square kilometers and has been in use by NATO troops for some years.
These locations are in remote areas where military training will disturb a smaller population. Grafenwoehr has a population of 70,000, compared with 12,000 in Drawsko Pomorskie and 10,000 in Babadag. The experience conducting training in Poland by Adm. James Stavridis, supreme allied commander, Europe, suggests that restrictions, particularly in regards to environmental consideration, are far more lenient than in Germany.
Shifting bases eastward would also improve U.S. forces’ ability to carry out today’s mission set, defined by Stavridis as conducting military operations (such as in Afghanistan or Libya), consequence management (such as disaster response or humanitarian aid), international military engagement and interagency partnering. The move would also help assuage Eastern European confidence in U.S. security commitments and signal to would-be aggressors that the U.S. will underwrite state sovereignty. The criticism that the proposed force would be too small to deter conventional aggression has tactical merit, but the forward-deployed U.S. troops on the Korean peninsula attest that size of the force is not what matters; it is that they are there.
Units dispersed on the continent and co-located with capable logistic hubs would speed responses to consequence management operations. For example, the 2nd CR would be poised for maritime transport over the Black Sea and through the new Northern Distribution Network through Russia to Afghanistan.
The conventional brigade combat teams are not the only forces that could do their job better farther east. The medical facility at Landstuhl serves the needs of U.S. forces in Europe, but its more important role is a stabilization facility for wounded personnel in the Middle East and from operations in East Africa until they are fit for transport to U.S. hospitals. This it could do better in Constanta, where medical evacuation flight times would shrink by a precious two hours.
There are economic benefits to these moves as well. The lower cost of living farther east is reflected in data from the joint federal travel regulations and current rates for cost of living expenses and overseas housing allowances in Germany, Italy, Poland and Romania. We can estimate that the moves would save $5,000 per soldier per year. With roughly 12,000 soldiers in the two BCTs and medical units, this would save about $60 million per year. More savings — perhaps two or three times as much — would come from reductions in base operating costs and logistical efficiencies.
The question then becomes: How much would it cost to ready the Polish and Romanian facilities for the new arrivals, and how much to pack up the troops and move? The physical feasibility of moving about 12,000 U.S. soldiers from Germany and Italy to Poland and Romania is straightforward. The existing bases in Szczezin and Constanta are geographically appropriate and have the necessary terrain requirements for infrastructure development and training areas.
There are a few models we can look at. It cost about $50 million to create facilities in Constanta for temporary rotations, but would require much more to permanently support a BCT. In South Korea, where the U.S. military is moving 30,000 U.S. troops south of Seoul, the price tag is estimated at nearly $10 billion over nine years. But with training areas and some infrastructure already in place in Poland and Romania, a more relevant example is the 4,000-person Wiesbaden project, a three-year, $481 million construction effort whose efficiencies will be realized in just four years.
Depending on choices about base housing versus private housing, we can conservatively estimate that our proposal to move 12,000 troops would cost between $1 billion and $3 billion over five to 10 years, and pay for itself in 10 to 15 years. DoD might also wait to move until current bases in Germany and Italy are no longer suitable and need upgrades themselves, thereby decreasing the comparative fixed-cost investment in Romania and Poland. Of course, much more fidelity on requirements and operating cost would be needed before a final decision is made.
If the benefits to this proposal are so great, what’s stopping it?
For one thing, it would change the regional dynamic. Current host nations are likely to be divided on the move, which would shrink the local economies of Grafenwoehr and Vicenza. Half of the German city’s GDP can be attributed to the U.S. military in some manner. On the other hand, today’s pacifist German public would hardly object to reducing the U.S. footprint, especially since more than 20,000 soldiers would remain. Indeed, a German official has intimated that perhaps the U.S. overestimates German anxiety. Italy may object also, but should be placated by U.S. Army Africa remaining in Vicenza and other air force and naval bases. More importantly, the U.S. does not owe a military presence to either of these host nations.
For their parts, Poland and Romania have both indicated interest in U.S. basing. As former satellite states of the Soviet Union, both have a complicated relationship with Russia, in which the benefits of economic partnership are balanced with a reluctance grounded in history and mistrust. A U.S. tripwire in these countries would give them credible assurance of NATO’s Article 5 security guarantee, a concern since the Russia-Georgia war of 2008. Moreover, the Polish and Romanian militaries are likely to welcome permanent training partners that will foster interoperability and share tactics, techniques and procedures.
The most vociferous objections would come from Moscow, where officials would look upon this basing as infringement upon Russia’s sphere of influence, viewing the positioning of U.S. forces farther eastward as a challenge and insult to its resurging regional role in Belarus and Ukraine. To fight it, Russian officials will cite two international agreements: the Two Plus Four Agreement and the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty. The Two Plus Four Agreement — a pact between East and West Germany, France, Britain, the U.S. and the Soviet Union — prefigured the unification of Germany by introducing confidence-building measures, including transparency requirements for troop and equipment moves. The CFE treaty set limits on the number of conventional arms — tanks, armored combat vehicles, artillery and attack helicopters — that NATO and former Warsaw Bloc countries may put in various zones. A modification was negotiated in 1996 but remains unratified, and in any case, the treaty is in suspension. Russia declared in 2007 that it would suspend observance after the U.S. began considering deploying missile defenses in Poland, and the U.S. declared in 2011 that it would no longer observe the treaty’s provision that allows both sides to inspect each other,s forces.
In fact, the proposed moves would violate neither agreement. Nonetheless, a rebuff to Russia would affect other efforts, such as support for the Northern Distribution Network, which supports operations in Afghanistan, as well as cooperation on Iranian sanctions and measures taken with respect to the Syrian crisis. To assuage Russian concerns, the U.S. would have to take pains to describe the operational and fiscal benefits, offering proof of its nonhostile intentions.
But U.S. policymakers should also consider that operations in Afghanistan are not indefinite. In fact, by the time U.S. units are ready for repositioning eastward, the NDN is likely to be used for moving supplies out of Afghanistan back to the U.S. It is in Russia’s interest to facilitate a reduction of the U.S. footprint in Central Asia, but the country will still attempt to exact a price in doing so. The same reasoning holds with regard to Iran: Russia does not have an interest in seeing a nuclear Iran, but it does have an interest in perpetuating U.S. dependence on Russian cooperation.
The U.S. must consider the consequences of aggravating Russia, yet ultimately will find it beneficial to persevere despite Moscow’s threatening rhetoric.
U.S. domestic opposition to this proposal is likely to be weak. No affected U.S. stakeholders would sway congressional support toward the status quo. The sources of debate over this proposal in America will stem from a reluctance to allocate the required funds as budgets tighten and concerns over the diplomatic consequences with Russia. As well, some policy makers advocate a larger drawdown from Europe to bring U.S. military forces home or move them to Asia. Ultimately, the central theme of this proposal is to reposition existing conventional forces eastward in Europe, not to advocate maintaining 70,000 U.S. troops there. If the U.S. were to reposition some of its forward-deployed forces from Europe to Asia, the priority should be naval and combat air units in the U.K., Germany and Italy.
The long-term economic benefits of the proposal should satisfy fiscal hawks. The question is whose budget should fund the initial investment. DoD does not run a surplus in its budget and must continue to maintain its operational readiness with operations in Afghanistan. Because this proposal will save money, its funding should be programmed into EUCOM’s Installation Management long-term budget analysis. This means anticipating the reduction in future funding and allocating the projected savings upfront and during construction.
The tactical case for moving the remaining BCTs and regional medical center to Poland and Romania is strong. The operational units would better meet their training needs in less restrictive areas at a reduced cost. They would also be closer to areas of likely deployment. The locations also preserve the strategic dispersal necessary to deter focused strikes by an aggressor.
The moves also would reflect updated strategic regional goals. EUCOM would more effectively meet its stated mission of increasing interoperability and capacity with NATO allies eager to develop partnerships with U.S. units and to respond to threats or disasters — all at lower cost. The shift of troops would render further ballistic missile defense deployments to these areas more politically defensible, as a reasonable means to protect their military assets and their families from threats.
The U.S. must weigh the regional and extra-regional consequences — Russia’s reaction, in particular — but the demonstrable fiscal and strategic benefits render them manageable. This proposal delivers efficient security commitment and an appropriate strategic posture.
MAJ. MICHAEL WISE is an Army foreign area officer specializing in European affairs. He is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy and is pursuing a master’s degree from the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. The views expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position or policies of the Defense Department or the U.S. government.