The Pentagon announced plans on Thursday to close 15 military bases in Europe in an effort to save around $500 million dollars a year.
While there will only be a slight reduction in overall force levels, critics are concerned that this decision is coming at exactly the wrong time — when Europe is facing the prospect of further Russian aggression in Ukraine.
Over the past 10 years, U.S. military presence in Europe has slowly declined, and the recent European Infrastructure Consolidation review is an attempt to accelerate the process in light of fiscal concerns. The closed bases will be returned to their host governments, Bloomberg reports.
“We have continually sought efficiencies in installations worldwide,” said John Conger, acting deputy under secretary of defense for Installations and Environment, at a Department of Defense briefing on Thursday morning.
In the briefing, defense officials attempted to address worries by saying that over the past two years, they’ve taken pains to ensure base closures will not reducing fighting capabilities.
“In this fiscal environment, it would be irresponsible of us not to look for such savings. We used a process very similar to the U.S. BRAC process when looking at the bases in Europe. The bottom line was we wanted to preserve our operational capabilities while reducing the costs of supporting them. We did not contemplate changes that removed fighting capabilities,” Conger added.
But despite the reassuring words, Defense Secretary Hagel stated clearly that there will be job losses. To start, major Air Force base RAF Mildenhall in the U.K. will close, resulting in 2,000 lost jobs for military and civilian personnel. Currently, there are 64,000 U.S. military troops stationed throughout Europe, with the greatest concentrations in Germany, Italy and Britain. Out of the cuts, Germany will see a net increase in troops, while the U.K. and Portugal will see net losses.
The DOD is planning to add 1,200 personnel to a new base in the U.K., RAF Lakenheath, which is due by 2020 and will be the only base in Europe capable of stationing F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets. F-15 fighter jets are on the outs. According to Hagel, Lakenheath will be home to two permanent squadrons.
The cuts have been a long time coming. The Pentagon was tasked with reducing defense spending by $1 trillion over 10 years. Congress has pushed back against the plans, refusing to close bases in the domestic arena for fear of losing popular support. But closing overseas bases does not require congressional support, so with some prodding from Congress, the Pentagon shifted its gaze abroad. It will take approximately five to six years to complete the closures.
To assuage the concerns of allies, the White House in mid-2014 announced a $985 million European Reassurance Initiative to help bolster NATO activities in Eastern Europe, as well as providing support to Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova in light of tension in the Crimean region and the prospect of further Russian aggression.
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