Don't Abandon Europe

The new Defense Strategic Guidance implies U.S. withdrawal from the Continent. This would be a big mistake.

The recently released Defense Strategic Guidance delicately points to a subtle policy shift away from U.S. security and interests in Europe. But Western economies and capabilities are more inextricably linked than ever. Other than a commentary by The Economist on January 14 suggesting U.S. neglect of Europe, few if any writers or publications noticed the mixed messages in the strategic document regarding the future of the U.S. military’s relationship with its European counterparts.

The mixed messages begin with a couple of sentences expressing America’s wholehearted support of Europe: "Europe is our principal partner in seeking global and economic security, and will remain so for the foreseeable future," and "The United States has enduring interests in supporting peace and prosperity in Europe as well as bolstering the strength and vitality of NATO, which is critical to the security of Europe and beyond."

Shortly thereafter, however, are statements implying a U.S. withdrawal from the Continent: "Most European countries are now producers of security rather than consumers of it," and "This has created a strategic opportunity to rebalance the U.S. military investment in Europe." What does this mean? Is it a polite way to part company with close allies of over sixty years? Here is one more: "We will also work with NATO allies to develop a ‘Smart Defense’ approach to pool, share, and specialize capabilities as needed to meet 21st century challenges."

What is a Smart Defense? Is it akin to smart power but in a "defense" sense? As a recent installation commander in Europe for the last two years who trained and exercised with NATO allies and waged a NATO-led conflict over Libya, I find these pronouncements vexing for a number of reasons.

Many believe that because of a lack of direct threats to European security, U.S. bases and forces in Europe are part of an outdated Cold War construct. They feel the United States should bring its forces home and see its current domestic fiscal crisis in isolation rather than as tied to Europe. But since the end of the Cold War, the United States has already significantly reduced its forces and installations in Europe by roughly 80 percent.

What remains are sufficient forces prepared to meet U.S. interests and fulfill its NATO Article 5 obligations. U.S. installations in Europe provide necessary waypoints and proximate access to trouble spots in the Middle East, where other U.S. interests lie. Without intermediary stops to troubled regions, U.S. forces will incur greater time and expense, heightening mission risk. The U.S. Air Forces in Europe commander, General Mark A. Welsh III, recently remarked that "The intent of forward-based forces is to provide an option to the president of the United States to respond to a contingency situation."

Additionally, U.S. forces in Europe are fully engaged with NATO allies and partner nations performing military-to-military engagements, training and exercises every day—a readiness mandate should war break out. There are more than 1,400 individual annual military engagements within the U.S. European Command (EUCOM) of different sizes and scope. Each creates lasting partnerships, resulting in successes like last year's NATO-led Operation Unified Protector over Libya. And EUCOM conducts over one hundred exercises and operations aimed at enhancing transatlantic security and defending U.S. interests. Why would Washington retreat from these substantial investments?

In my own experience, our wing in England forged meaningful partnerships with the Royal Air Force at RAF Brize Norton, the Italian Air Force's 14th Wing at Pratica Di Mare and the French Air Force's air-to-air refueling unit at Base Aérienne 125, Istres, France. We built each relationship over time with trust and understanding, and each partnership integrated exchange, training and education opportunities. These exercises further strengthened bonds between participating nations, promoted understanding of respective strengths and weaknesses, enabled planning and execution with minimum preparation time, and mitigated the stressors of future operations.

Regardless of what the Defense Strategic Guidance states, Washington needs to think carefully about the costs and risks of reducing forces and capabilities in Europe, particularly as they address U.S. interests and commitments. Now is not the time to retreat from Europe.

Chad Manske is a colonel in the U.S. Air Force, is a visiting fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and was the commander of Royal Air Force Station Mildenhall, England from 2009-2011. The views expressed here are his own.