European Command Looks South and East

Dec. 1, 2003

Things have changed drastically for US European Command. Personnel strength and base facilities are down about 70 percent since the peak of the Cold War.

The old mission, keeping the Soviet Union out of Western Europe, is long gone. In recent years, the focus has been on smaller regional conflicts, notably Operation Allied Force in Yugoslavia in 1999, and on building partnerships with nations that used to be part of the Warsaw Pact.

Now, more changes are on the way for EUCOM as the United States shifts its strategic attention to an “arc of instability” that cuts across Africa, the Middle East, and Southwest Asia.

“The Cold War is over and we’re not expecting the Soviet Union, which doesn’t exist anymore, to launch a major tank war across the north German plain,” Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said on a visit to Iraq in September. “So we need to adjust our footprint. One of the places we’re looking at adjusting it is in Europe.”

“The current disposition of our forces reflects a positioning in keeping with the symmetrical threats of the last century,” the EUCOM commander, Marine Gen. James L. Jones Jr., told the Senate Armed Services Committee in April.

“The missions have moved to the east and south,” Air Force Gen. Charles F. Wald, Jones’s deputy, said at a breakfast meeting with reporters in Washington in September.

Even though EUCOM’s force structure has shrunk, its geographic boundaries have expanded. Its responsibilities now extend as far as the Caspian Sea and into Africa. “European Command is not the right word anymore,” Wald said. “I don’t know what it is, … but it is something other than European Command.”

Rumors have been circulating for the past year that the United States might pull out of bases in Western Europe and move its forces closer to the war on terrorism. That would have considerable impact on several European nations, particularly Germany, where some 70,000 US troops are currently based.

In February, Deutsche Welle reviewed the potential effect on the German state of Rhineland Palatinate if the US Air Force left Spangdahlem Air Base. The base, which employs 800 Germans, is the region’s biggest employer, and 20,000 more jobs in the area depend on the US presence there.

One rumor said that the 1st Armored Division, deployed to Iraq, might not be returning to its posts in Germany.

“There is some talk about an Army division never coming back here [to Germany] and going directly back to some unspecified location in the States,” Jones told European Stars and Stripes in September. “That’s simply not going to happen.”

Congress is interested in European bases, too. One reason is that the next base realignment and closure round is coming up in 2005, and the elimination of overseas bases and the possible relocation of units could take the pressure off the need to close bases at home.

Looking ahead to possible base closures, Raymond F. Dubois, deputy undersecretary of defense for installations and environment, said in October, “The Secretary of Defense promised the Congress of the United States that he would arrange his overseas footprint before he began to re-arrange his domestic footprint.”

Forward Bases and Operating Locations

The EUCOM infrastructure of the future will be a combination of main operating bases, forward operating bases, and forward operating locations.

“We won’t be building any more little Americas,” Wald told the Boston Globe in July, referring to the large overseas bases of the Cold War, complete with American schools, shopping areas, and McDonald’s restaurants.

Some of the main operating bases will remain. Jones told German reporters in July, “We would like to operate Ramstein for as long as we’re welcome in Germany,” but added that “I don’t want to talk about the others.”

Ramstein, located in western Germany, about 85 miles from EUCOM headquarters at Stuttgart, is headquarters for US Air Forces in Europe.

Wald, interviewed by the Air Force’s internal information news service in August, said, “Ramstein was critical to the success of the Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom missions. A lot of airlift aircraft landed at Ramstein” which “has significant infrastructure, and we have a great relationship with the Germans. It makes a lot of sense to keep places like Ramstein and Spangdahlem and Moron [AB], Spain, open because they have large ramps that can handle large numbers of aircraft.”

Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo is an example of a forward operating base. It has some wooden buildings, medical facilities, and an airfield for helicopters. It has some basic amenities, such as a theater and a post exchange, but it is a semipermanent installation, built and run for a fraction of the cost of a main operating base.

When Bondsteel is no longer needed by the peacekeeping force now stationed there, EUCOM hopes to keep the facilities and access, which might be useful for some future operation, Wald said.

Another example of a forward operating base is Thumrait in Oman. The access agreement has been in place for more than 20 years. Air expeditionary forces have used the base periodically, and enough equipment and fuel were pre-positioned there to support several elements of deploying airpower.

During combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Air Force was fortunate to have forward operating bases like Thumrait and Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. It also made use of forward operating locations in such places as Bulgaria and Kyrgyzstan in central Asia.

EUCOM is constantly scouting for good forward operating locations. The command hopes to put small investments into such locations. That could include such assets as buildings, security fences, fuel storage, and even communications capability. “Some of the investment may be just the fact that there is a relationship with the United States,” Wald said.

Bases farther south and east could open up training opportunities, which are presently a problem for EUCOM forces.

“The training ranges we have used historically, mostly in Western Europe, have diminished utility due to increasing restrictions on operating hours, costs, limitations on the weapons that are authorized to be employed, and the size of forces that can maneuver on these ranges,” Jones said in his testimony to the Senate in April.

Several nations in Central and Eastern Europe and in Northern Africa have expressed interest in providing suitable training ranges, he said.

Last year, the Pentagon floated a proposal to eliminate service components and their four-star commanders within the unified command structure, replacing them with standing joint force headquarters headed by three-star commanders.

Jones and Wald do not believe that arrangement would work in Europe, where, for example, the commander of US Air Forces in Europe is one of seven four-star airmen from NATO and European countries. The United States is the clear leader in airpower, but to believe that the senior American airman could be a three-star general and that the six European four stars “would come to a meeting and defer to the senior US guy is a little bit naive,” Wald said.

“In Europe, it is rank, position, and credibility,” Wald added. “In the United States, it is position, credibility, and rank. Rank means a lot there. … General Jones is a strong believer in the fact that we need to retain four-star components, at least in the Navy, Air Force, and Army.”

Eyes on Africa and Asia

The places where EUCOM will try to establish forward operating bases and locations will be influenced by both strategic and economic interests.

There is “an emerging concern, not only for the alliance but for the United States, to our south,” Jones said in a Newsweek interview in October. “Africa is replete with ungoverned spaces for attracting the merchants of terrorism, radical fundamentalism, weapons of mass destruction, and all kinds of criminality, and I think we’re going to see more of that.”

On behalf of EUCOM, Wald has recently visited such places as Sao Tome, a small nation off the coast of West Africa near Nigeria. The United States presently gets about 15 percent of its oil from Africa, with Nigeria a leading supplier.

“The estimate is in the next 10 years, we will get 25 percent of our oil from there. The Europeans will get a lot from there,” Wald said. “I can see the United States potentially having a forward operating location in Sao Tome.”

In some cases, the relative desirability of a forward location is attributable to the range of aircraft.

“One of the things we like about Ramstein, for example, is the footprint of one strategic flight without refueling for an airlifter,” Wald said. “You can take off from the States, no refueling, [and] land at Ramstein.”

The airlifter can refuel in flight, of course, but “we are not always going to want to use refueling,” he said. “We want to use refueling for other things, maybe.”

“The same thing going south,” he added. “You can only go so far unrefueled with a strategic lifter. It turns out it is about in the middle part of Africa. You want to take a look at places you can land.” From Ramstein to Kinshasa (in the Congo) or to Entebbe (in Uganda) is about the same distance as from Washington, D.C., to Ramstein.

At Entebbe airport, Wald said, the US has two K-Span steel buildings—basic construction but clean and dry, with cement floors. “We built those quite a while ago, just in case we ever needed to use something there.” UN peacekeeping forces, as well as the French, have been allowed to operate from the K-Spans at Entebbe.

In Asia, Wald said, “we have an initiative called Caspian Guard. … It will be building surveillance capabilities for both air and sea in the Caspian Sea in conjunction with the Azerbaijanis.”

In the near future, Azerbaijan will substantially increase its production of oil, and Southeast Europe will get a majority of its natural gas from the Caspian Sea.

“That becomes a significant strategic issue,” Wald said, but noted that “the majority of that economic benefit is going into European capitals.”

Thus, stability of the area around the Caspian Sea should be of keen interest to the Europeans. “I asked the Germans yesterday, ‘Why should the United States ensure the oil flow out of the Caspian Sea if it is all going to go to Europe?’ ” Wald said. “To me that is a NATO mission. … They agreed.”

The same applies to the Persian Gulf.

“There isn’t any reason why the United States should have been the guarantor of the Middle East for all those years, along with Britain,” Wald said. “We should have had other participants helping us all along. … Europe benefitted from the oil from the Middle East just as much as the United States.”

European Challenge to NATO

Changes are also sweeping through NATO, of which US European Command is the leading in-place military component. (Jones, the EUCOM commander, is Supreme Allied Commander, Europe as well.)

NATO continues to expand. Membership, which stood at 15 nations for many years, is now headed for 26 as seven more countries—Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia—join in 2004.

For most of its 54-year history, NATO strictly avoided out-of-area operations and kept its attention within the borders of Europe. In August, however, NATO took formal control of the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul, Afghanistan, its first major mission ever outside of Europe.

At the Prague Summit in November 2002, NATO announced that it would deal with threats “from wherever they may come” and “field forces that can move quickly to wherever they are needed.”

The alliance agreed to form a NATO Response Force, with full operational capability in 2006. This force would be tailored for specific operations, as required, based on a brigade-size land element, a joint naval task force, and an air element capable of 200 combat missions per day.

It would be able to deploy quickly and act either in a stand-alone role or as an initial entry force. Its elements would be drawn from the regular NATO force structure.

The latest imbroglio centers on whether the European Union, which pointedly does not include the United States, will field its own military force in competition with NATO.

At a mini-summit of the European Union—formerly the European Economic Community—on April 29, France, Germany, Belgium, and Luxembourg voted to push ahead with a European Union defense force with a command headquarters separate from NATO.

“We consider our commitments within the Atlantic alliance and the European Union as being complementary,” the four nations said in a joint statement.

Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt said the separate headquarters was needed so Europe could “plan and execute European operations autonomously,” meaning without the United States.

An independent military command for the European Union “does cast a doubt about where those countries are headed and what their intentions are,” said US Ambassador to NATO R. Nicholas Burns. “Europe does not need more headquarters.”

Britain, worried about the potential damage to NATO cohesion, tried to head off the idea of a separate headquarters, proposing instead a European Union “planning cell” at NATO headquarters. In September, though, the British joined the French and Germans in a position paper that said (according to a copy obtained by the German magazine Der Spiegel), “We are together convinced that the EU must be able to plan and conduct operations without the backing of NATO assets and NATO capability.”

The director-general of the EU military staff, German Lt. Gen. Rainer Schuwirth said that member states would be expected to cede national sovereignty on issues of war and peace. “National governments would have to give away their authority over their army,” he told the London Financial Times.

“I think the NATO Response Force will be, frankly, much more capable … and probably more viable than, say, an EU standing force,” Wald said at his breakfast meeting with reporters. “Between the European Union and the NATO Response Force, I think the NATO Response Force will be the force of choice.”

His view was that “the EU is pushing too hard” and that “a total separate military capability is a mistake for Europe.”

Earlier this year, 400 soldiers of a European Union force began peacekeeping patrols in Macedonia.

“The EU–NATO relationship is not a problem, but it is a developing relationship,” Jones said in a Defense News interview in August. However, he said that “it is more efficient to have one military organization that can address the security concerns of both the alliance and the European community. I believe that’s the most efficient way. The least efficient and most expensive way is to develop two parallel military structures, neither one of which would probably get the resources required.”

Bernard Jenkin, writing in London’s Financial Times, said a separate European Union military capability “is essentially a French ambition. Most EU countries—including the UK, Italy, Spain, and even Germany—are good NATO supporters. Either they fail to see the anti-NATO, anti-US consequences of ESDP [European Security and Defense Policy], or they believe security policy in Europe is second to European integration.”

European Force Capabilities

The question of a separate command and headquarters does not change a problem of long standing in NATO: the gap between the capabilities of US and European forces and their lack of interoperability.

It has been proposed from time to time that the smaller nations specialize and fill specific niches in the alliance requirement rather than try to maintain modern military capabilities across the board.

Among those taking that approach is Norway, which concentrates on mine clearing and mountain reconnaissance. “Identify what you are good at and concentrate on it,” Norwegian Defense Minister Kristin Krohn Devold told New York Times Magazine in August. “That way, you can play with the big boys even if you are small.”

A “Capabilities Commitment,” adopted at Prague, obliges the NATO nations to improve in areas critical to modern military operations, such as airlift and air-to-ground surveillance. At present, however, the amount of force they can project on their own is limited.

“The 18 countries of NATO’s Integrated Military Structure in principle declare around 240 combat brigades to the alliance, each about 5,000 strong,” the NATO Secretary–General, George Robertson, said in June. “A huge figure. But fewer than half of that number are declared as deployable and therefore usable for today’s real-world operations. And when you subtract the US contribution and those forces which NATO assesses to be undeployable in practice, the number of usable brigades falls to fewer than 50. Factor in the need to train, rotate, and rest your troops, and the absolute maximum NATO’s members, less the US and France, can sustain is around 16 brigades, or some 80,000 soldiers. Even this would require larger European countries such as Germany to be willing and able to keep two or three brigades deployed at any one time.”

Wald said that to be a “real participant” in worldwide missions, Europe “is going to have to have more strategic lift. … I think strategic airlift is going to be one of the keys to this whole NATO viability issue that has to be watched.”

He noted the tendency of European nations to procure European systems. For example, The Airbus A400M airlifter, he said, “is almost a C-130J-class aircraft. That is not what you call strategic lift.” However, he said, “You don’t necessarily have to purchase US things.”

“What you do need to do is make sure that whatever you buy works with our stuff,” said Wald. “Because when we come to the fight, we bring a lot a capability that nobody else will ever have. I used to tell people in the Middle East, you’re not going to buy a B-2, but if we’re allies, you’ll have a B-2 if a fight starts.”

John T. Correll was editor in chief of Air Force Magazine for 18 years and is now a contributing editor. His most recent article, “What Happened to Shock and Awe?,” appeared in the November issue.