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While the recent Russian aggression in Ukraine is deeply disturbing, decreased stability in Europe is occurring as America’s military presence is declining. The current crisis comes decades into a prolonged withdrawal that has seen U.S. forces in Europe shrink by well over 80 percent since the height of the Cold War. Much of this was for good reason, but the overall effort has gone too far.
Even before the Russian invasion, Air Force General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s supreme allied commander, Europe and head of the Pentagon’s European Command, was trying to forestall additional cuts in American military forces in Europe. Breedlove has increasingly warned that rotational forces in Europe are no substitute for permanently forward-deployed units. According to Breedlove, “A diminished posture, in terms of capabilities and personnel, means diminished access, and diminished ability to influence outcomes favorable to the interests of the United States. ‘Virtual presence’ by U.S. forces will be translated by both friends and adversaries as ‘actual absence.’”
As the crisis in Ukraine has continued, the U.S. has responded by sending limited numbers of a variety of forces into eastern Europe, including some F-16 fighters and C-130 transporters in Poland, four rotating Army companies and several American destroyers to patrol the Black Sea. Most of these additions are on a limited, rotational basis, however.
There is an important if unspoken difference between forces with an expiration date and permanently forward-stationed troops when it comes to U.S. policy and the intent to signal, assure, deter or influence. Although rotational deployments are designed to address the short-term crisis, Breedlove is already thinking about restoring a more robust American long-term presence in Europe. In testimony that was later postponed, he wrote, “the actions of Russia may require us to re-look our force posture in Europe and our requirements for future deployments, exercises, and training in the region.” The good news is that there is no shortage of countries looking for a bolstered U.S. military presence in Europe, including Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and Poland.
Retired Navy Admiral James Stavridis, Breedlove’s predecessor at European Command and NATO, similarly predicted that the crisis would cause a re-evaluation of the American exodus from Europe and the U.S. might bring back several combat brigades that had been removed as part of the drawdown.
In the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, the 1993 Bottom-Up Review found, “the presence of U.S. forces deters adventurism and coercion by potentially hostile states, reassures friends, enhances regional stability, and underwrites our larger strategy of international engagement, prevention, and partnership. It also gives us a stronger influence, both political as well as military, in the affairs of key regions.”
In Ukraine, policymakers have seen the opposite situation. Declining U.S. military power in Europe has given way to decreased American diplomatic influence in continental affairs. Since forward-deployed military forces play a critical role in deterrence and other desirable outcomes, reversing course should be an easy and obvious choice for Washington.
Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies.
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