As many as 10,000 soldiers — and as many as 25,000 dependents — are expected to withdraw from Europe as the U.S. juggles shrinking budgets and force reductions with maintaining strong relationships with its allies, officials said.
On Jan. 12, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that two brigade combat teams — instead of just one BCT as originally planned — will be withdrawn from Europe.
Panetta is quoted in a press release on the Defense Department website as saying two of the four BCTs that are permanently stationed in Europe will be replaced with rotational units, similar to the way Marines and Special Forces units staff their European requirements.
Gen. Peter Chiarelli, Army vice chief of staff, would not go into detail regarding the withdrawal because the services are not allowed to comment on the president’s budget until it is released.
But he said senior Army leaders are “excited about the capabilities and the ability to do rotational forces into Europe.”
Details on how and when these rotational units will begin training in Europe are still being worked out, but Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, commanding general of U.S. Army Europe, said he anticipates the rotations could be anywhere from three weeks to two months long.
“This is a guess on my part,” he said. “And the size of the unit that would be rotating, I don’t know, probably a battalion at a time. The development of the course of action that Mr. Panetta referred to is still in the early stages of development by the Army staff.”
About 41,000 soldiers and about 100,000 dependents are now in Europe, most of them in Germany. Three of the four BCTs in Europe are stationed in Germany; a fourth is in Vicenza, Italy.
Officials refused to name the departing units, but two of the units — the 170th BCT and the 172nd BCT — seem the likely targets.
Three-year tours in Europe are much-sought-after assignments for soldiers and their families. Many of them seek to go back again and again.
Soldiers in Europe live in American-style garrisons that have all the amenities of home — shopping centers and other MWR facilities, Defense Department schools with interscholastic sports, churches and movie theaters. Many soldiers enjoy living and traveling in Europe. The proposed cutbacks would greatly reduce the number of family postings in Europe.
Hertling said he and his staff have been involved in discussions to possibly reduce the brigade combat teams in Europe by two instead of one.
“We know there’ll be additional force structure changes and we have made some recommendations on that, but I can’t confirm or deny that because I have not been given permission to speak on that,” he told Army Times on Jan. 13.
In addition to possibly cutting two BCTs, Hertling also has offered up the departure of about 2,200 other soldiers. These personnel, along with those from two BCTs, would total about 10,000 soldiers.
“I have also offered to the Army some other smaller organizations that I don’t think contribute as much to our mission here as they would in the United States,” Hertling said.
These include “a couple of [military police] companies, an engineer brigade headquarters, a couple of truck companies, [and] some logistics units,” he said.
However, “Those are all in discussion. What we want to do is refine the force to the point where what we have over here is contributing to the combatant commander’s missions as opposed to just being stationed here,” he said.
ADJUSTING THE EUROPE MISSION
Losing 10,000 soldiers would bring the number of soldiers in Europe to 31,000.
“I can adjust my mission to be OK with that number,” Hertling said. “When you think about all the other things that are going on, force reductions, budget deficits, equipment challenges, this is our contribution to what the Army is being asked to do.”
In addition, Hertling said, the brigade combat teams are just part of the overall Army force in Europe.
“Everybody’s really focused on brigade combat teams, [but] we’ve got 40,000 people over here,” he said. “We already knew we were losing 4,000 [soldiers], but we still have the training command, sustainment command, air defense, engineers, MPs, signal, intelligence, all those things that fall under the big category of enablers.”
And those units support not only European Command but Africa Command, Special Operations Command, Cyber Command and Transportation Command, Hertling said.
“There are a lot of combatant commanders that we support,” he said.
Army spokesman George Wright said that “at this time, the units [that could be withdrawn] have not been identified [and] there is no timeline for their withdrawal.”
Hertling said his initial recommendation of which brigade should be removed from Europe is still pending, and he would not say which unit he proposed should be removed.
However, all signs point to either the 170th BCT, which is in the process of redeploying from Afghanistan to its home station in Baumholder, Germany, or the 172nd BCT, which is scheduled to come home from Afghanistan in the spring. The 172nd is based in Grafenwoehr, Germany.
Both brigades were scheduled to begin conversion to the modular heavy brigade combat team upon redeployment. After initial delays, the Army announced that the 172nd would go ahead with its conversion in 2013. The 170th’s conversion remains on hold.
The other two BCTs in Europe are the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment in Vilseck, Germany, and the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team in Vicenza, Italy.
SOONER RATHER THAN LATER
Hertling also has said he has recommended the withdrawal of the BCT be done sooner than the original deadline of fiscal year 2015. No decisions have been made about the timeline, but Hertling has recommended it be completed “long before” 2015, possibly beginning as soon as fiscal 2013, which begins in October.
If a second brigade is removed from Europe, it likely will happen within a year or so after the first brigade is withdrawn, Hertling said.
As discussions continue, Hertling is concerned about making sure affected soldiers and their families are the first to know.
Moving soldiers and families from Europe presents unique challenges, Hertling said.
“It’s not like being at Fort Hood, where you can move across the street to another unit,” he said. “This challenge in Europe is truly like a Rubik’s cube. It’s not just bring a unit back from combat, tell everyone they’re leaving, send some across post, send some to other units, send some to school and take the flag away. You can’t just do that in Europe. Every time you think you’ve got one part of the cube right, there are three other parts of the cube you’ve got to consider.”
Panetta said Jan. 12 that the change in the Army’s presence in Europe is part of a new 10-year defense strategy announced last week by President Obama.
It’s an obvious attempt to save money because rotating troops will not be accompanied by families.
“We will continue to maintain our presence both in the Middle East and Asia,” the secretary said. “Yes, we’ll have the Navy and the Air Force, but in my experience, in any conflict you need to have the potential use of ground forces.”
“Getting the Army to deploy to areas conducting exercises providing, most of all, a partnership with countries in Latin America, Africa, other countries where we can show the flag” is important, Panetta said.
As the Army replaces the two brigade combat teams with rotational units, the Europeans actually will see more U.S. forces because the American forces in Europe have more often than not been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, Panetta said.
DoD officials have spoken to European leaders about the withdrawal, and they understand why the change will be good for the U.S. military and NATO allies, senior defense officials traveling with the secretary said.
The DoD release said that Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno is “particularly excited about the ability to develop that rotational capability,” Panetta said. “It will keep the ground forces very meaningful in the future.”
When the units do start rotating into Europe, Hertling anticipates the Joint Multinational Training Center in Grafenwoehr will play a key role.
“We started the redesign of JMTC in 2005, and we started advertising to the Army that we have a unique facility here,” he said.
Today at JMTC, seven countries provide observer/controllers to train with American troops, Hertling said. Multinational partners train alongside U.S. troops on any given rotation, and the facility is where about 30 percent of the operational and police mentor and liaison teams train before they deploy to Afghanistan to work with Afghan forces, he said.
“We have evolved significantly here in Europe,” Hertling said. “We are not a Cold War force. We are really geared toward asymmetric warfare, full-spectrum operations, while training our troop and coalition partners in counterinsurgency. We will train the Polish brigade, the Georgian battalions, the Romanian counter-[improvised explosive device] folks. We had 11 countries here the first week in December for OMLT and POMLT training.”
U.S. Army Europe works with 51 partner nations — 33 of them closely — and having units rotate in from the U.S. will give more soldiers the opportunity to train with their allies, Hertling said.
However, the downside is that these units will only be in Europe for short periods of time, he said.
“You build trust through relationships, and relationships occur not just through individual training events,” he said. “If you’re a unit coming out of someplace in the U.S. to do a set rotation, it is a huge opportunity to learn something you might not learn in the U.S., but the downside is you’re not here long enough to develop the kind of trust and relationships you do if you’re living here.”