Opinion: US military presence in Europe matters

NEW YORK — The US is contemplating a change in strategy, away from our current defense posture in Europe.

Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta released a defense strategic guidance, “to articulate priorities for a 21st century defense that sustains US global leadership,” as the Pentagon chief put it.

Although few commentators noticed, the guidance alludes to a subtle policy shift away from US security and interests in Europe.

Personally, as a US Air Force colonel and commander of the Royal Air Force Station Mildenhall, England from 2009-2011, I find these pronouncements vexing.

The changes should not be taken lightly, particularly at a time when trans-Atlantic economies, capabilities and military presence are more inextricably linked than ever.

The guidance includes mixed messages, beginning with sentences expressing Washington’s wholehearted support for the continent. It states, “Europe is our principal partner in seeking global and economic security, and will remain so for the foreseeable future.” It adds, “The United States has enduring interests in supporting peace and prosperity in Europe as well as bolstering the strength and vitality of NATO, which is critical to the security of Europe and beyond.”

Shortly thereafter, however, are statements implying a US withdrawal from the continent: “Most European countries are now producers of security rather than consumers of it,” and “…this has created a strategic opportunity to rebalance the US military investment in Europe.”

What does this mean? Is it a polite way to part company with our close Allies of over 60 years?

Here is one more: “We will also work with NATO allies to develop a 'Smart Defense' approach to pool, share and specialize capabilities as needed to meet 21st century challenges.”

Read more: Right-wing ball on Holocaust Rememberance day unleashes fracas.

What is a Smart Defense? Is it akin to Smart Power but in a ‘defense’ sense?

First, many who read these statements firmly believe US bases and forces in Europe are part of an outdated Cold War construct because of a lack of direct threats to European security. They feel the US should bring its forces home and see our current domestic fiscal crisis in isolation rather than tied to Europe.

Having trained and exercised with NATO Allies over the past two years, and having waged a NATO-led conflict over Libya, I have a different perspective.

Critics do not recognize that we have significantly reduced our forces and installations in Europe since the end of the Cold War. Of the 1.4 million current US military personnel, only 90,000 are in Europe, or about 6.4 percent. That’s less than one-third the number stationed in Europe in 1991.

What remains are forces sufficient to meet our interests and fulfill our NATO Article 5 obligations — namely, that an attack on one member of the alliance is considered an attack on all, and is to be defended as such.

Read more: Anti-Semitism widespread in Germany

Our installations in Europe provide necessary waypoints and proximate access to trouble spots in the Middle East, where other US interests lie. Without these intermediary stops to troubled regions, the military would be forced to expend more time and money, and mission risk would be heightened. The US Air Force commander in Europe, Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, recently remarked, “The intent of forward-based forces is to provide an option to the president of the United States to respond to a contingency situation.”

Additionally, US forces in Europe are fully engaged with NATO Allies and partner nations performing military-to-military engagements, training and exercises every day — fulfilling a readiness mandate should war break out.

There are more than 1,400 individual annual military engagements within the US European Command (EUCOM), of different sizes and scope. Each helps strengthen the partnership, resulting in successes like last year’s NATO-led Operation Unified Protector over Libya.

Lastly, EUCOM conducts over 100 exercises and operations aimed at enhancing transatlantic security and defending US interests forward.

Why would we retreat from these substantial investments?

In my own experience, our wing in England forged meaningful partnerships with: the Royal Air Force at RAF Brize Norton; the Italian Air Force’s 14th Wing at Pratica Di Mare; and the French Air Force’s air-to-air refueling unit at Base Aérienne 125, Istres, France. We built each relationship over time with trust and understanding and each partnership integrated exchange, training and education opportunities of different levels.

Read more: US to slash 13 brigades, 80,000 troops.

Exercises such as Austere Challenge, Combined Endeavor, Jackal Stone and others further strengthened bonds by which participating nations can plan militarily, execute operations with minimum preparation time and understand the strengths and weaknesses of one another, more easily mitigating the stresses of future operations.

US policy makers need to think carefully about the costs and risks of reducing forces and capabilities in Europe as a function of our interests and commitments regardless of what the defense strategic guidance states.

Now is not the time to retreat from Europe.

Chad Manske, a colonel in the US Air Force, is a visiting fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. He was the commander of Royal Air Force Station Mildenhall, England from 2009-2011. The views expressed here are his own.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.