U.S. Army Shrinking in Europe as Tasks Grow ; Commanders Improvise to Train Allies in Face of Continuing Pentagon Cuts

By Huetteman, Emmarie | International New York Times, October 19, 2015 | Go to article overview

U.S. Army Shrinking in Europe as Tasks Grow ; Commanders Improvise to Train Allies in Face of Continuing Pentagon Cuts


Huetteman, Emmarie, International New York Times


American commanders in Europe confront new threats not only from an aggressive Moscow but also from rising militancy and chaos in the Middle East.

Less than three years after the United States Army sent home the last of its tanks that were permanently based in Europe, American commanders have been forced to rely on weapons shipped back temporarily or hardware borrowed from allies in its expanding effort to deter the latest threats from Russia with a fraction of the forces it once had deployed across Europe.

That is part of an evolving mission for American commanders here, who are preparing for a new set of threats -- not only from an aggressive Moscow but also from rising militancy and chaos in the Middle East. But with across-the-board spending cuts squeezing the Pentagon's budget, and a war-weary nation showing little eagerness to sustain a global, war-ready crouch, one of the main targets in recent years has been the Army in Europe, a heavy land force in an increasingly digital combat zone.

Mustering the necessary troops and equipment to carry out the mission here can be a challenge, said Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the Army's commanding general in Europe. The number of permanently stationed soldiers on the Continent has dropped by 35 percent since 2012, and the Army has reduced and relocated to other bases some of its vehicles, weapons and support equipment.

The Black Hawk helicopters used in a NATO exercise at the training center here in August, for instance, were rotated in for nine months from Fort Stewart, Ga., General Hodges said -- and bringing over more helicopters requires either the multiple weeks to bring them by ship or the extra money to bring them by cargo plane. So he has to go borrowing.

"I don't have bridges, I don't have the trucks that can carry tanks, we don't have enough helicopters to do what we need to do," General Hodges said. "Practicing with British helicopters here is an essential part of it. Using British and German bridges, using Hungarian air defense is part of it."

The late-summer exercise was the largest multinational airborne drill in Europe since the end of the Cold War, a time when the Army had about 300,000 people stationed on the Continent at the peak of tensions with the Soviet Union.

More than 4,800 service members from 11 NATO countries participated in the month-long exercise, which military leaders said was a demonstration that allied forces remain deployable despite the strain of budget cuts, the toll of wars in the Middle East -- and public exhaustion with overseas missions.

As dozens of soldiers parachuted behind them, American, German, British and other senior allied officials lined up shoulder to shoulder in the Bavarian countryside with a message for the country whose observers watched the exercise nearby: Russia, do not misjudge us.

Even so, the Defense Department faces the challenge of managing a growing mission with a shrinking force, as the Army in Europe must train allies and deter any enemies with a tenth of the soldiers it once had. "The mission's still the same," General Hodges said, watching his troops join German and Italian soldiers rushing out of two V-22 Osprey aircraft. "So we have to figure out how you make 30,000 feel like 300,000."

The transformation started more than 20 years ago. The number of soldiers permanently stationed in Europe in 1990, as the Cold War was nearing its end, was about 213,000, plummeting to more than 63,000 troops a decade later in a reflection of the reduced need for troops there.

Some question why soldiers are still needed in Europe at all, and why Washington should pay so much of the bill. …

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