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The puzzle of European posture

AEIdeas

One of the persistent puzzles emanating from the White House has been Trump’s failure to withdraw troops from Europe — while doing so elsewhere — and to continue the Obama Administration’s plans to rotate beefed-up heavy armored forces to the Eastern Front. For more than five years, Army tank and mechanized brigade combat teams have been continuously based in Poland and deployed to Romania and other southern European frontline states. And now — or, more precisely, next May — the Army has planned a far larger exercise, “Europe Defender 2020,” that will rapidly move the 20,000 soldiers of the 1st Cavalry Division from Fort Hood, Texas, to various ports and parts of Europe. The exercise, variously described as the largest or third-largest in the theater since the end of the Cold War, invariably recalls the giant, annual “Return of Forces to Germany,” or REFORGER, maneuvers of the late 1980. 

To be sure, those war games were an order of magnitude larger, involving not only the deployment of several US-based divisions but the five US divisions then based in Europe as well as the far larger NATO armies of the time. “Defender” may not be a “return to REFORGER,” but it’s a step in that direction. “[T]o do this with a large force at scale,” says Lt. Gen. Chris Cavoli, commander of US Army Europe, “is a very big deal for us. So what it’s going to do is really exercise the Army and our joint systems to deliver that force.” Alas, and also unlike REFORGER, it does not appear that the US Air Force will play much of a role. Other NATO land-force contingents will almost double the size of the exercise, however.

US Army Europe Commander Christopher Cavoli and US Army Europe Director of Public Affairs Joe Scrocca attend a media briefing after deployment of US troops from 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division for military exercises in Drawsko Pomorskie training area, Poland March 21, 2019. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

Reassuring allies, particularly in such a traditional, “deep-state” fashion, has not exactly been the signature trait of the Trump administration. The president has not only made much of troop drawdowns in the Middle East and on the Korean peninsula, but has reserved special venom for the perfidious Europeans. Prior to June’s “G-20” summit in Japan, Trump complained that America’s European allies “treat us worse than Japan. … European nations were set up in order to take advantage of the United States.” And, even while planning for the Defender exercises moves forward, the administration has raided the Pentagon’s military construction budget for upgrading forward bases in Europe for funds to pay for the “border wall.”

So it’s hard to know which actions really represent Trump’s strategy and which the president’s Twitter-verse. It may be that the exercises and the creeping posture growth in Europe — the Army would very much prefer to have a larger and longer-term structure there — are simply things that haven’t caught the president’s eye, or whether beneath his abusive rhetoric the traditional US interest in the European balance of power endures.