WASHINGTON – President Obama and European leaders pledged Wednesday to bolster the NATO alliance and vowed that Russia would not be allowed to run roughshod over its neighbors. But the military reality on the ground in Europe tells a different story.
The United States, by far the most powerful NATO member, has drastically cut back its European forces from a decade ago. European countries, which have always lagged far behind the United States in military might, have struggled and largely failed to come up with additional military spending at a time of economic anemia and budget cuts.
During the height of the Cold War, U.S. troops in Europe numbered around 400,000, a combat-ready force designed to quickly deploy and defend Western Europe – particularly what was then West Germany – against a potential Soviet advance.
Today there are about 67,000 U.S. troops in Europe, including 40,000 in Germany, with the rest scattered mostly in Italy and Britain. The Air Force has some 130 fighter jets, 12 refueling planes and 30 cargo aircraft. At the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, it had 800 aircraft in Europe.
The U.S. Navy, meanwhile, has dropped to 7,000 sailors and Marines, down from the 40,000 sailors who were stationed at nine major Navy bases during the height of the Cold War. Today, there are no U.S. aircraft carrier groups based in the Mediterranean, although the Navy does have one destroyer deployed at Cádiz, Spain.
In other words, “the limited ground forces in Europe are not designed to suddenly project power against Russia in a number of days,” said Anthony H. Cordesman, a military analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Basically, the most constructive thing you can do is not create such a challenge that Russia would feel compelled to respond.”
Pentagon officials will not make public precise details about the U.S. arsenal of weapons and equipment in Europe for security reasons. But an official with European Command, which is responsible for U.S. military operations in Europe, said Wednesday that the U.S. military presence there was 85 percent smaller than it was in 1989.
In recent years U.S. officials have sharply criticized NATO nations as not spending enough on their militaries and in effect subcontracting their defense to the United States. Obama returned to that theme at a news conference with European Union officials in Brussels on Wednesday, when he professed “concerns about a diminished level of defense spending among some of our partners in NATO.”
In part to force European nations to pay more, Obama has continued the most recent drawdown of U.S. forces from Europe that started in the George W. Bush administration.
But Obama is cutting the forces to new lows. Citing budget constraints, he recently announced plans to reduce the Army to its smallest level since before the World War II buildup.
European officials, who are balancing their own budget cuts, have made clear their distaste for engaging militarily in Ukraine. So far NATO has taken a series of relatively modest military steps to reassure its East European members, including sending two NATO surveillance planes to patrol Polish and Romanian airspace.
Obama, meanwhile, is getting low marks for handling Russia’s incursion into Ukraine and that took a toll on his overall job approval in a new Associated Press-GfK poll released Wednesday. Fifty-seven percent said they dislike Obama’s handling of the Ukraine situation.