America"s military shift sends different messages at home and in Europe

US-Kaserne in Katterbach

The Pentagon's announcement to phase out US military installations in Europe to cut costs should not come as a much of a surprise. After all, the US defense department must slash projected spending by close to a trillion dollars over a decade, as mandated by Congress.

The decision to close 15 military bases across Europe - amid ongoing Western tensions with Russia over Ukraine - will not have a major effect on America’s military posture in Europe. But it sends several strong signals.

The process of evaluating which US military facilities can be closed has been going on for almost two years, said Gustav Lindstrom, head of the emerging security challenges program at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy. "We are just seeing the culmination of this."

The scheduled return of US bases in six European countries to their host nations will not have a major impact on Washington's military presence and readiness in Europe. They are slated to be offset by a stronger rotational force, with the total US troop levels in Europe is expected to remain steady around 64,000.

In June 2014, the White House announced the so-called European Reassurance Initiative (ERI), slated at roughly a billion dollars to be spent this year on training, exercises and capacity building in Europe.

"Overall the impact of America's ability to project force in Europe and in the outskirts of Europe is not going to be significantly affected certainly in numbers terms," said Xenia Wickett, head of the US project at British think tank Chatham House.

Washington is reshifting its focus from a more permanent and broader-spread US military presence in key Western European countries, to rotating troops in and out more quickly across Europe. Affected by the base closings are America's traditional allies: Britain, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Portugal. Beneficiaries of the new rotational model could be Washington's newer allies in Eastern Europe.

"The US is sacrificing regular day-to-day engagement, but gaining flexibility with a broader group of European forces," noted Wickett. "There is a cost, but there is also a benefit."

She added that the challenge will be for the "stronger central European forces like the Germans, the British to some extent, the Italians for whom there are bases that will be cut, to recognize that there is an expectance there that they will be able to fill in their own needs," she added.

Russia tensions

Eastern European countries - who have repeatedly called for a stronger US presence in the region after the annexation of Crimea by Russia - are likely to benefit from the new arrangement. But this may not be the message received everywhere in Europe, simply because the headline 'US base closings in Europe' might send the wrong signal, amid the continued crisis over Ukraine with Russia.

"Many would argue that the timing of this announcement is not ideal," said Lindstrom. "It would have been better if this would have happened before all the issues we have now in the neighborhood of Europe. But this process started even before the crisis over Crimea and is coming to its conclusion now."

Xenia Wickett strongly rejects the argument that the timing of the announcement might be problematic.

"When is it going to be better? Do we wait a year, two years?" she asked. "Is Russia going to use propaganda to interpret it as it wants? Absolutely, without a question."

But both Wickett and Lindstrom believe if the announcement is viewed in its context - an increase in spending via the ERI and an increase in rotational forces - it can't be construed as a decrease in US military engagement in Europe.

"It does not say that the US is in any way less sanguine or concerned about Russia or about keeping NATO together and strong and its concerns about the Ukraine," argued Wickett.

Why were Europe's bases shut first?

The announcement of US base closings will not just be registered in Europe and Russia. It also sends out a clear message to Congress members in Washington.

The Pentagon has long been under pressure to finally start slashing spending as mandated by Congress. “It has been resisting those cuts now for a good 18 months”, said Wickett. "And these cuts are now upon it."

While Pentagon experts favored cutting US military bases instead of overseas installations, fierce opposition by local politicians means it would be very difficult to implement. Shutting bases an ocean away is politically a lot easier and less costly. That's why European bases came first.

But the projected savings of $500 million dollar per year are just a drop in the bucket towards the mandated cut of $1 trillion. Much more will have to come. The writing is now on the wall.

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