Text Browser Navigation Bar: Main Site Navigation and Search | Current Page Navigation | Current Page Content

U.S. Army War College >> Strategic Studies Institute >> Publications >> Reconfiguring the American Military Presence in Europe >> Summary

Login to "My SSI" Contact

Reconfiguring the American Military Presence in Europe

Authored by LTC Raymond A. Millen. | February 2004

Share | |   Print   Email


As the United States prosecutes the war on terrorism, it is also in the process of adjusting its global security posture. Not surprisingly, the American presence in Europe will be profoundly affected by the U.S. calculations, and hence by extension, so will NATO. It is no exaggeration that the whispered conversations within the Pentagon reverberate within the halls of NATO headquarters, so the ultimate decision has the potential to rock the Alliance, no matter how benign it may appear to the United States.

The United States has three basic options regarding its future ground presence in Europe?withdraw completely, rotate divisions, or restructure the Alliance to permit a smaller U.S. presence. Maintaining the status quo in Europe is not a viable option, since it does not rectify the U.S. over-extension of forces or accommodate the dynamics associated with the war on terrorism.

A withdrawal from Europe permits the consolidation of ground forces in the United States for power projection missions globally. Because the United States maintains relatively modern division-sized posts with contiguous maneuver training areas, unit readiness would be much higher than in Europe and certainly more cost efficient. Power projection from the United States provides greater flexibility in that the United States can rely on staging bases in Europe and elsewhere (?Lily Pads?) en route to trouble spots. Unfortunately, a withdrawal will likely result in a European loss of confidence in the United States and a de facto marginalizing of U.S. leadership and influence. More disturbing, the European Union (EU) will fill the void with its Rapid Reaction Force, which will compete with NATO for resources but fail to live up to expectations. In the end, the Alliance will not likely survive the trauma.

The rotation of divisions has the advantage of maintaining power projection flexibility without endangering U.S. commitment to the Alliance. However, given the enormous effort and associated costs for preparation, staging, moving, and reception, this option is incredibly expensive and time consuming. Given that rotations traditionally involve three units (those preparing, those deployed, and those recovering), require extensive organizational reconfiguration for the mission, and present a host of logistical and administrative challenges, this option is impractical. It might look good on paper, but would needlessly distract the Army from more important matters.

Restructuring the Alliance to accommodate fewer and smaller units presents significant opportunities despite the initial challenges and visceral resistance. As opposed to the dozens of ill-equipped and undermanned divisions and brigades currently comprising NATO, a restructuring to nine integrated multinational divisions is in order. (See Table 2, page 17.) Organized into three permanent combined joint task forces with three divisions each, along with an allotment of specialized units at the CJTF level (NATO 3-3 Force Structure), Alliance members would contribute fully modern and manned forces in accordance with their capabilities and wealth. Because of the relatively small size of the new force structure, each member would contribute only four to five battalions or brigades to the Alliance.

In connection with restructuring, NATO should modernize its concept of unit stationing. Rather than relying on the 19th century concept of small casernes scattered throughout Europe, the Alliance should establish nine division-sized posts at geostrategic locations. Because each post would also require a contiguous maneuver training area as well as modern facilities, NATO should solicit members to compete for the contracts giving relative value to location, available land, and potential for modernization. Sufficient time is required for member states to hold referendums and select sites for the bases. The construction and other associated costs for new bases will be offset by the closures and sales of hundreds of obsolete casernes as well as the energy and maintenance savings with modern facilities.

The NATO 3-3 Force Structure and division-sized bases fits perfectly with the new NATO Military Command Structure and NATO Response Force. Most importantly, the NATO 3-3 Force Structure provides a standing force for force generation, currently a long and tedious process within the Alliance. Integrated multinational divisions permit all NATO members to make a meaningful contribution and increase the interoperability (both technologically and procedurally) between the United States and its allies.


  • Adopt the NATO 3-3 Force Structure.
  • Establish a NATO working group to explore nine division-sized bases.
  • Adopt a public awareness campaign to inform member states of the need for a NATO 3-3 Force Structure and division-sized bases.
  • Withdraw U.S. political support of, and a priori support of, the use of NATO assets for the EU Rapid Reaction Force.

The United States can have its cake and eat it too without appearing unilateralist. The United States needs a power security partner, and any decision which endangers that need will be to U.S. detriment. The implementation of these long-term recommendations will provide the Alliance with a powerful, sustainable expeditionary force and significantly ease the security burden on the United States.


The United States and Europe are approaching a crossroads regarding common security interests. After the world wars of the 20th century, culminating in a cold war, few national security specialists in the United States would argue that the stability of Europe is not an enduring U.S. national security objective. In the same vain, while the European elite may wrinkle its collective nose at U.S. approaches to foreign policy, particularly with regard to the U.S. preference for the Big Stick approach, few in Europe would dispute the stabilizing benefits of American power.

As America defines its new security posture vis-à-vis Europe, the issue of continued U.S. military presence in Europe will have enormous strategic implications within the Alliance. The United States has three basic options regarding its future presence in Europe--withdraw completely, rotate divisions for annual tours, or restructure the Alliance to accommodate a smaller U.S. presence.

The United States could exercise the option of status quo, meaning it maintains its presence more or less intact, even if this includes shifting ground forces farther east and southeast for closer proximity to the Middle East. This option does nothing to address U.S. global security concerns or the war on terror. As the number of these concerns, operations, and missions expand without a concomitant increase in the size of the military, existing regional commitments in Europe and Korea need to be revisited. Sooner or later something has to give, and if the United States missteps in its approach, the whole security apparatus, to include NATO, could collapse. Pragmatically, the status quo approach resolves nothing.

The three options provide the United States with the opportunity to harness existing resources more efficiently. As this monograph addresses these choices, it explores their effect on U.S.-NATO relations, on NATO readiness, and on long-term cost benefits. Naturally, a failure to strike a balance among these issues may result in unintended consequences, causing irreparable damage to the Alliance. The intent of this monograph is to explore the pros and cons of the first two options as a lead in to the third and preferred option. This option intentionally ignores existing U.S.-European Union (EU) initiatives, agendas, and frictions to get to the heart of the argument. Most of the obstacles go beyond the scope of this monograph and tend to obfuscate the basic need for change.

In discussing the reconfiguration of U.S. ground forces in Europe, the reconfiguration of NATO must also occur. Both go hand-inhand and represent the most profound way to redress U.S. strategic concerns as well as enduring problems within the Alliance.


As it reconfigures its ground forces in Europe, the United States must consider the ramifications of its decisions. If reconfiguration results in a military divorce between the United States and Europe, the Alliance will be doomed. Prominent figures on both sides of the Atlantic would like nothing better than to see the demise of the Alliance in pursuit of their own agendas. A rash decision regarding the basing of U.S. ground forces would only serve the purposes of NATO?s opponents.

A withdrawal of U.S. ground forces would create the impres- sion that the United States is no longer serious about the Alliance. Alleged pan-Europeanists would use this action as a pretext to replace the United States with the EU RRF. It would only be a matter of time before the SACEUR is replaced by a European commander. The rotation of U.S. divisions on a yearly basis would likewise create the impression of a diminished U.S. commitment to the Alliance. Worse, the execution of this scheme would be too disruptive to the U.S. Army to be practical. The United States experimented with a similar rotational system during the Cold War, and it was discontinued due to the difficulties in implementation. The proposed NATO 3-3 Force Structure permits the United States to downsize its presence in Europe without undermining the Alliance.

The proposed NATO 3-3 Force Structure permits the development of a long-term plan for dealing with the lingering problems of collective contributions, force generation, and basing. Downsizing the Alliance to nine integrated multinational divisions not only makes budgeting and burden-sharing sense, it also permits all Alliance members to make meaningful contributions and take shared risks in security matters. This initiative also permits the United States to downsize its ground presence to about four brigades, a Special Forces component, and two major headquarters ? a size of about 10,000-12,000 personnel.

If the Alliance does not adopt the integrated multinational division concept, the European side of the Alliance will continue as a junior partner with diminishing contributions. Moreover, without these divisions, Europeans will view the downsizing of U.S. ground units as another example of U.S. disengagement from Europe. The NATO 3-3 Force Structure provides an immediate source for force generation, particularly combat support and combat service support units, which the Alliance lacks in sufficient numbers. Moreover, NATO can conduct long-term deployments without over-extending itself or over-using key units and personnel.

As a long-term initiative, NATO needs to realign its basing concept to permit swifter access to out-of-area regions and the consolidation of land and resources. Division-sized bases with living, working, and training facilities, as opposed to hundreds of small casernes scattered throughout Europe, enhance unit readiness, interoperability, and cohesion within the Alliance.