Are U.S. forces really coming back to Europe?

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The U.S. president Barack Obama’s budget request for 2017 includes more funds for the so-called European Reassurance Initiative (ERI), fueling the debate about the role the U.S. military will be playing in Europe in the next few years. In 2016, the program’s budget stood at USD 789,3 million. For the next year, president Obama asked for some USD 3,4 billion.[i] To Russia and to some Western European countries, this figure seems excessive, while Eastern European NATO members believe it is not enough. The truth lies in the middle.

To better understand to what extent the U.S. will come back pledging money to European security, it is fundamental to address what Europe will represent for U.S. strategic posture in the near future. As of today, Europe represents the most stable place in the world where the United States maintains an active engagement. As a consequence, Washington keeps assessing that Europe is the least likely potential theatre of war that could directly involve the U.S.. [ii]Therefore, the continent can serve Washington’s “lead from behind” approach by providing safe bases and useful strategic strongholds from which U.S. military action can be organized and directed. The U.S. European Command (EUCOM) and the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) share many facilities, forces, and assets. In effect, before 2014, the U.S. had taken several step off Europe, concentrating its forces in Germany, Great Britain, Italy, and Spain only (previously U.S. forces were stronger and more distributed amongst NATO countries). The U.S. has created a kind of center of gravity from which departing to the Balkans, Africa, and Middle East – which are seen as the main theatres of future U.S. operations. European territorial defense, instead, has become a secondary mission. This view has changed little after the Ukraine crisis. The U.S. is required to defend its European allies, yet Washington believes it will no longer take charge of the whole European security dilemma, including facing Russia, managing instability in the Middle East, protecting European trade routes.

Russian renewed protagonism in international relations dates back to the early 2000s. Yet, since then, the U.S. presence in Europe has decreased. In the 1990s, U.S. forces dropped from 213.000 to some 122.000.[iii] In the 2000s they decreased further, and today there are some 62.000 servicemen across Europe (52.500 assigned to EUCOM, 9.500 to AFRICOM, TRANSCOM and other commands).[iv] Since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, U.S. troops in Europe have not increased.[v] In response to Eastern European concerns, U.S. reassurances have implied some re-deployments – some of which periodical – of assets already present in the European theatre. [vi]Troops and aircraft came from their bases in Italy, Germany, and the United Kingdom to Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, and  Poland . Hence, the U.S. has continued considering Russia a serious threat, yet not existential to the country and/or its allies. Therefore, Washington has confirmed through its reassurance initiatives it is still willing to defend its allies against a rising existential threat, but it does not foresees any at the gates. Rather, a war scenario would have a local or sub-regional size and it is unlikely it would concern NATO countries (Belarus, Ukraine, Finland, or Moldova are more likely theatres of Russian operations). For those cases, the U.S. expects European countries to provide for their own defense. Washington would lead from behind or support European initiatives, but it is no longer willing to pledge too much political, financial, and military capital into the European theatre. Furthermore, NATO’s Response Force is seen as sufficient to cope with the foreseeable scenarios Washington assesses to be most probable. Should that kind of operation occur, the U.S. would mentor allied countries, yet it would not take the lead nor consider such an operation as a strategic priority, unlike in the past. If Europe’s perception of Russia’s aggressive attitude is different from Washington’s, then European countries have to take charge of political-military alternatives to the U.S. vision and strategy.

However, given European unpreparedness, president Obama has assessed some additional concrete help is needed in the short term to improve NATO’s credibility. In effect, today, European countries are able to deploy between 60.000 and 100.000 troops – depending on estimates – half of which are British and French, and most of which are already deployed in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.[vii] Therefore, for fiscal year 2017, the ERI initiative will see 5.100 additional U.S. troops in Europe, part of which will be present through rotations and exercises only.[viii] Most of the funds will go to the U.S. Army, which is required to provide an additional  Brigade Combat Team (BCT) available for the European theatre and to upgrade its prepositioned warehouses and sites.[ix] A consistent part of the ERI program goes to infrastructure, maintenance, and training. Strategic and power projection assets will not increase, nor receive significant extra-funds for Europe.[x] In the same time period, the overall manpower of U.S. forces will drop by 42.415 servicemen – an unexpected move for a country which some analysts believe may soon be at war with Russia.[xi]

The ERI program is funded within the budgetary request for OCO (Overseas Contingency Operations). The choice of keeping it out of the base budget of U.S. defense has been criticized by several Eastern European countries. According to them, the U.S. reassurance initiative funded by OCO represents a temporary propping up measure rather than a long term commitment to their security. Furthermore, in 2017, OCO funds are expected to account for 58,8 billion USD, 5,7% of which will be spent in Europe (71% in Asia and 12.7% in the Middle East).[xii]

To sum up, U.S. rising military spending for Europe is not a strategic move, nor a change of Washington’s strategic posture, at least for the year ahead. Therefore, its overall impact on the continent’s security domain is limited. Nevertheless, misperceptions of such a move can amplify its effect on Europe’s geopolitics. Russian complaints against U.S. redeployments eastward – although limited – feed the narrative of a new Cold War that several NATO members seem to have adopted. Today, Eastern and Northern European countries denounce, on the contrary, that the U.S. commitment to Europe is largely insufficient to guarantee their security, as they do not trust Western European NATO members’ capabilities and their promises to provide for their defense.[xiii] However, if the “new Cold War” narrative proves effective at obtaining more from the U.S., these members may find it useful to adopt this narrative rather than simply highlighting today’s gaps in military capabilities. Finally, misinterpreting – perhaps consciously – a tactical move might have the immediate effect of prolonging the U.S. military’s commitment to Europe (this may also be influence by which candidate wins the U.S. presidential race). Being that the theme of Europe’s strategic independence is highly unpopular, European politicians would not regret postponing it once again and continuing to rely on the United States. Nonetheless, such a dynamic has the potential to raise the tones of the strategic confrontation between NATO and Russia regardless of the fact that both parts would have much to lose because of it. In short, misunderstanding – or taking advantage of – a U.S. tactical move in the following months might mean achieving a short-sighted political goal for several European countries and losing an opportunity to disengage for the U.S. Worse still, such political myopia could bring about a midterm major strategic failure at the regional level for all of the stakeholders.


[i] Office of the under secretary of defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer, Department of Defense Budget, European Reassurance Initiative, February 2016, p.1

Available at http://comptroller.defense.gov/Portals/45/Documents/defbudget/fy2017/FY2017_ERI_J-Book.pdf

Office of the under secretary of defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer,  Defense Budeget Overview, February 2016, pp.71-72

Available at http://comptroller.defense.gov/Portals/45/Documents/defbudget/fy2017/FY2017_Budget_Request_Overview_Book.pdf

[ii] [ii]2016 Index of U.S. Military Strength – Assessing America’s Ability to Provide for the Common Defense, Davis Institute For National Security and Foreign Policy/The Heritage Foundation, p. 93

Available at https://s3.amazonaws.com/ims-2016/PDF/2016_Index_of_US_Military_Strength_FULL.pdf

[iii] Breedlove, P., U.S. European Command Posture Statement 2015, February 25, 2015 p.19

[iv]Breedlove, P., U.S. European Command Posture Statement 2016, February 25, 2016
http://www.eucom.mil/media-library/article/35164/u-s-european-command-posture-statement-2016

[v] Comparing the U.S. European Command Posture Statements since 2014, there were 75.000 U.S. troops in Europe in 2014 and 65.000 in 2015. There are 62.000 servicemen deployed in Europe in 2016. In 2017, according to ERI-related documents, the number will rise again by 5.000 troops, half of which only periodically present in Europe, depending on rotation.

[vi] 2016 Index of U.S. Military Strength – Assessing America’s Ability to Provide for the Common Defense, Davis Institute For National Security and Foreign Policy/The Heritage Foundation, pp. 77-94, 143-158

Available at https://s3.amazonaws.com/ims-2016/PDF/2016_Index_of_US_Military_Strength_FULL.pdf

[vii] European forces’ overall efficacy is estimated as very poor. European countries are able to deploy 4% to 5% of their overall manpower of 1,5 million servicemen. France and Great Britain are an exception; as a consequence, there are a number of European countries with even lower capabilities. London and Paris are able to deploy 30000 troops each for eventual major operations. This means they actually provide most of the European firepower. The other countries have been experiencing difficulties in projecting much smaller contingents abroad and supporting their operations, despite of the big number of servicemen available in theory. Therefore Europe’s military bodies are little impacting/relevant – even joint – when it comes to coping with Europe’s defense and security matters.

See Biscop, S., Peace Without Money, War Without Americans, Ashgate, 2015, pp. 79-84.

See also Whitney, N., Re-Energizing Europe’s Security and Defence Policy, European Council on Foreign Relations Policy Paper, July 2008, pp.12-13

Available at http://ecfr.3cdn.net/678773462b7b6f9893_djm6vu499.pdf

[viii] Office of the under secretary of defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer, idem, pp. 1, 2, and 24

[ix] Office of the under secretary of defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer, ibid.

Note: the U.S. Army Brigade Combat Team (BCT) is the basic unit of manoeuvre capable to carry out and sustain combined arms operations, within or without its parent division (infantry, mechanized/Stryker, armoured).

[x] Office of the under secretary of defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer, ibid.

[xi] Hicks, K., Cancian, M., Harrison, T., Hunter, A., Defense Outlook 2016 – What to know, what to expect, CSIS, January 2016, p.18

Available at http://csis.org/publication/defense-outlook-2016

[xii] Office of the under secretary of defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer,  Defense Budget Overview, February 2016, pp.71-72

Available at http://comptroller.defense.gov/Portals/45/Documents/defbudget/fy2017/FY2017_Budget_Request_Overview_Book.pdf

[xiii] Small Eastern European countries are afraid that Article 5 might not work, as French, British, Italian, and German troops might not be willing to defend them. If Russia got the impression that political fragmentation in Europe might lead to the failure of the Article 5 mechanism, then the likelihood Russia could act against a Eastern NATO member would rise considerably.

See for instance Examining Latvia’s Challenges and Opportunities – A conversation with Edgars Rinkevics, Council on Foreign Relations, available at http://www.cfr.org/latvia/examining-latvias-challenges-opportunities/p37564

See also Rubin, J.P., Reassuring Eastern Europe, The New York Times, June 11. 2014

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/12/opinion/reassuring-eastern-europe.html?_r=0

Photo credit: Wikipedia

About Author

Marco Giulio Barone

Marco Giulio Barone is contributor at the International Security Observer (ISO). Marco Giulio is Contributing Analyst and subject matter expert at Wikistrat, Counter-Terrorism and East Asia divisions. He is also project leader and columnist at “Il Caffè Geopolitico”, an Italian online journal about geopolitics. His research and analysis activities focus on counter-terrorism, geopolitics, East Asian and MENA countries defence and security matters. Marco Giulio holds a Master in International Science from the University of Torino. He is fluent in Italian and English, working knowledge of French, elementary in Spanish and Arabic.

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