The U.S. military will continue to close buildings and bases in Europe, the top American commander there told Foreign Policy. But U.S. troops should remain on the continent in about the same numbers they are today.
Gen. Philip Breedlove, who is both commander of U.S. European Command and Supreme Allied Commander, said budget reductions will force European Command to continue cutting back its footprint, closing smaller bases and shuttering facilities. But cutting personnel is another matter.
If the command is to continue working with America's European allies -- and responding to potential missions in places like North Africa -- the military must maintain the boots on the ground to do it, he said. Maintaining personnel means being able to build and maintain relationships that are as critical now as they ever have been. Breedlove noted that more than 250,000 Europeans have deployed to Afghanistan since the war began. Of those, some 42,000 had been trained by U.S. Army advisers in Germany.
"As I look at the size and type of our Army in Europe, the size and type of our Air Force in Europe, what I'm most keen on is to remain engaged with our military partners so we can train with them across the full gamut because this gives us partners who will go to war with us when we need them," he said.
Breedlove's comments come as the Pentagon has signaled that it may trim the U.S. Army to 420,000 troops by 2019 -- if not faster. That could have an effect on a command like European Command, potentially robbing of it of the kind of training and advising forces on which it has come to rely.
But Breedlove said the debate about the size of the forces each command needs is not about numbers but about the capabilities those forces provide to conduct exercises, collaborate and train from artillery to special forces to infantry and heavy lift logistics training.
"What I need is that capability to train and engage across the force," he said.
Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has trimmed 75 percent of its personnel in Europe, Breedlove said. The amount of infrastructure ahs been reduced by 80 percent.
Breedlove is far more open to more cuts to bases and facilities, however. This spring, a study called the European Infrastructure Consolidation Review will look at the size of the infrastructure the U.S. military needs for Europe. Breedlove wouldn't preview its potential conclusions, but conceded the U.S. could close more facilities and gain efficiencies.
"I'm on the record as saying ‘yes, there is more,'" he said. "There is infrastructure I believe we can still divest."
Breedlove assumed command in May 2013. He was nominated to replace Gen. John Allen, who had been nominated for the military's top job in Europe but declined to pursue confirmation after being cleared in connection with the investigation of e-mails between him and Tampa socialite Jill Kelley. Breedlove, who has had 11 overseas assignments, had been the head of the U.S. Air Force in Europe since July 2012 before being tapped for his current position.
Since he took the job, one of Breedlove's top concerns has been the NATO campaign in Afghanistan. It's a mission that is making America's European allies increasingly nervous, he said. The lack of a decision by the Obama administration and the Karzai government over what the size and role of the post-2014 mission isn't exactly helping.
"Clearly there is concern about where the U.S. is going and what the numbers look like," Breedlove said. "Clearly the nations would love to have those decisions now."
But, he said, there is "relative calm" at the moment. Germany, which operates in Afghanistan's northern region, and Italy, which oversees operations in the West, have coordinated with other countries to give them a sense of what to expect. "The conversations settle expectations," he said.
Currently, there are 37,500 American troops deployed to Afghanistan. Coalition nations are contributing more than 24,000 additional troops. Although it ebbs and flows, the typical U.S.-to-allied troop ratio is about two to one. Breedlove said when the decisions are made, the U.S.-to-coalition ration would likely stay the same. "We'll see a very similar sizing ration that we see now," Breedlove said.
The Afghan National Security Force is now about 345,000.
The U.S. military is also anxious for a decision about what, if anything, it will do in Afghanistan after 2014. Although the Obama administration had wanted resolution on the matter by year's end, it could now come anytime in the next few weeks - or early spring. Breedlove said the "lion's share of the planning" is in draft form and "the plans are there," documents that reflect "what we might get and what we hope to get."
Breedlove said NATO is at the "peak of its cohesiveness" when it comes to coordinating with other nations over tactics, techniques and procedures and is confident that even though it is a Cold War construct, it is "the alliance we're going to fight with in the future."
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