Military leaders seek larger-than-planned force in Europe

The Pentagon plans to maintain only two combat brigades in Europe, but officials are rethinking that strategy.

Senior U.S. military commanders in Europe are urging Pentagon leaders to keep four Army combat brigades on the continent because they believe their strategic location makes them critical to responding to situations around the world.

The Pentagon, which has dramatically scaled back the Army's presence in Europe since the end of the Cold War, plans to maintain only two combat brigades there as part of a larger effort to redeploy forces in Europe and Korea to the United States.

But continuing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, coupled with unresolved issues in the Balkans and elsewhere, drove military commanders to propose rethinking the military's long-term strategic presence in Europe.

"These forces are positioned forward, they are globally available, they are not dedicated just to Europe," Gen. David McKiernan, commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe, said during a breakfast with reporters Thursday. "And we feel that geographic positioning gives us an advantage. They can get to certain places in the world faster."

The Army has 45,000 soldiers based in Europe, including four combat brigades and associated support units. Three of those four brigades are deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, with the fourth preparing to return to Iraq for another tour. Of those four brigades, the two heavy brigades are expected to relocate to the United States, leaving roughly 28,000 soldiers in Europe.

McKiernan said he and Gen. Bantz Craddock, head of U.S. European Command, have proposed maintaining roughly 40,000 soldiers on the continent, including four combat brigades and necessary combat support units.

"That gives us the right capabilities for what we need to do not only today but in the future," McKiernan said.

The Pentagon has yet to decide on the proposal, but a congressionally mandated commission reviewed the Defense Department's overseas basing plan two years ago and raised concerns about taking all of the Army's heavy brigades out of Europe.

"We believe one heavy brigade should be kept in place for a variety of reasons that include demonstration of our commitment to [NATO], our resolve in Kosovo and elsewhere in the Balkans, and to hedge against future uncertainties regarding planned rotational units in Eastern Europe," the commission's August 2005 report said.

McKiernan did not specify the precise mix of brigades he wants to keep in Europe, but cited the need for stationing U.S. forces to monitor and potentially respond to "fault lines" on the continent, including in the Balkans.

McKiernan noted that a "resurgent Russia" provides some uncertainty. But he emphasized that he sees Russia as a coalition partner, not an adversary.

"I want to engage the Russian military; I want to train with the Russian military. I want to have personal contacts with their leaders," McKiernan said. "I want my units in Germany and Italy to develop interoperable tactics and procedures with the Russians so that if we have the opportunity to serve together again... we're ready to do it."

Aside from Russia, McKiernan emphasized the importance of training with other militaries, such as Romanian and Bulgarian forces.

"You can't do that without forces," McKiernan said. "You can't do it from back in the United States real well."

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