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(Updates with comment from German defense spokesman in 16th paragraph.)
Jan. 6 (Bloomberg) -- The Obama administration plans to revert to a Bush-era plan to cut the number of U.S. Army combat brigades in Europe in half as part of the Pentagon budget cuts to be announced within weeks, U.K. Defense Secretary Philip Hammond said.
The decision is a retreat from the administration’s previous determination, announced last April, to leave in place three of the four brigade combat teams now stationed in Europe, three in Germany and one airborne brigade in Italy. A brigade combat team usually has 3,000 to 5,000 soldiers.
“My understanding is that there will remain two brigades,” Hammond said in an interview yesterday in Washington after meeting U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta for their first talks at the Pentagon since they each took office. “But in addition to that, there will be some rotating presence” for training and exercises, he said.
The Obama administration’s April announcement had reversed a 2004 decision by the administration of President George W. Bush to cut the number of brigades in Europe from from four to two, or by 6,000 to 10,000 troops.
As of December 2010, the U.S. had almost 80,000 military personnel stationed in Europe, more than 54,000 of them in Germany, according to the Defense Department’s website.
Panetta and other Pentagon officials who unveiled a revised U.S. defense strategy yesterday refused to give specifics about future force size or weapons systems.
“We’re not going to discuss details of any specific programmatic or force-structure decisions right now,” Navy Captain John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said in response to Hammond’s comment.
‘Adapt and Evolve’
Panetta told reporters at the Pentagon yesterday that the U.S. military’s force posture in Europe “will of necessity continue to adapt and evolve,” citing “emerging strategic priorities that we face elsewhere.”
A reduction of forces in Europe may limit the ability of the U.S. to deploy combat troops rapidly to hot spots in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere. Many of the Americans sent to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past 10 years have come from bases in Western Europe.
“The reason why they’re still in Germany has less to do with Europe than it has to do with the fact that it’s a lot easier to get to the Middle East from Europe” than from the U.S., said Gary Schmitt, director of advanced strategic studies at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Senate Intelligence Committee staff member.
Air Force Capability
The U.S. still plans to keep facilities available and maintain “significant Air Force capability in Europe,” Hammond said. That element may protect the U.K. from too much impact of American cuts because it hosts mostly U.S. Air Force units.
Returning the soldiers to the U.S. may not save much money because they’ll require facilities at home, and deploying them for meaningful exercises abroad is costly, Schmitt said.
European members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will need to “respond in a mature way” to the U.S. plans, Hammond told an audience at the Atlantic Council policy group earlier yesterday, before his meetings.
“Reductions in U.S. troop numbers are not going to be welcomed by European allies in the alliance,” Hammond said. “But I think we all understand the budget pressure the U.S., like all of us, are under.”
Germany Not Surprised
The German Defense Ministry said it doesn’t have information on possible U.S. base closings and isn’t surprised by Pentagon force-reduction plans.
“It’s understandable, and we’re following it with interest,” Stefan Paris, a ministry spokesman, said in an interview in Berlin today. “We are engaged in a similar process in Germany.”
Hammond said in the interview that he felt reassured by his meetings at the Pentagon that the U.S. is sensitive to allies’ concerns about weapons systems. The U.K. is among the partner nations in Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which the country intends to use on two new aircraft carriers it is building.
Joint Strike Fighter
“What I’ve heard today is reassuring on that score,” Hammond said. “We’ve had a confirmation of an in-service date for the carrier variant.”
He said he doesn’t see anything that would “drive a significant increase in unit cost either.”
Pentagon officials also expressed recognition that such programs are crucial to their allies, he said.
“If we’re going to have more programs in the future where we’re working collaboratively across a number of nations, then it’s very important that people can be confident that things that happen domestically politically or budgetarily won’t undermine those programs or undermine the position of the allies,” he said.
Panetta and his staff also gave “very clear assurance” that “nothing that’s being proposed by the Pentagon or the Navy is going to impact” the completion dates for a new class of American nuclear ballistic missile submarines, Hammond said.
The U.K. also is building a new submarine, and the two nations are collaborating on a missile compartment for their vessels. Falls Church, Virginia-based General Dynamics Corp. and Newport News, Virginia-based Huntington-Ingalls Industries, Inc. are building the new U.S. submarines, while BAE Systems Plc., based in London, is building the British version.
“There will be no slippage in the design program” for the compartment, he said, adding that it’s too soon to say whether the compartment would be built in the U.S. or in the U.K.
--With assistance from Tony Capaccio in Washington and Tony Czuczka in Berlin. Editors: John Walcott, Terry Atlas
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