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U.S. Expedites Reshuffling of Europe Troops

The Pentagon pursues a leaner, faster force at new bases in the former East Bloc. Publicly, officials deny any link to Iraq war politics.

May 01, 2003|Esther Schrader | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Fueled by resentment over the opposition of "Old Europe" to the war in Iraq, the Pentagon is accelerating plans to move tens of thousands of U.S. troops out of Germany and to establish new bases in the former East Bloc countries of Hungary, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria.

The first concrete evidence of the shift is the movement of the Army's 17,000-strong 1st Armored Division, which deployed to Iraq mostly from bases in Germany but will not return there, senior military officials said.

The plans represent the most significant reshuffling of U.S. forces in Europe since the end of World War II, when American troops tore the swastikas off hundreds of German army facilities and moved in to protect the emerging West Germany against Soviet ambitions.

With the Pentagon's recent expansion across Central Asia, the move into Eastern Europe means the U.S. military will span the globe as never before.

"If you want to talk about suns not setting on empires, you know, the Brits had nothing compared to this," said John Pike, a defense analyst with, an intelligence and military policy think tank based in Alexandria, Va.

But even as the Pentagon proposes deploying troops to new places, it envisions more temporary assignments, allowing larger numbers of troops to be based in the United States.

More than 112,000 U.S. troops are based in Europe, 80% of them scattered around Germany. But with some Western European nations increasingly reluctant to house U.S. troops and with formerly communist countries signing up for NATO and eager to play host to the Americans, Pentagon officials say change is imminent.

The move is also being driven by the vision of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld -- who coined the dismissive "Old Europe" tag when France and Germany balked at supporting the war in Iraq -- for a leaner, faster military. Moving out of some of the hundreds of small, scattered U.S. military installations in Europe and into countries along or near the Black Sea coast would make it easier to quickly deploy troops to the Middle East and Africa.

"Why do we need a joint force to be in Germany, where there's nothing happening?" a senior military official asked. "You have to have troops close to ports and airfields that are closer to the action. And you also want to have them in a place where people agree with what you're doing, so they don't shut down ports and they don't shut down airfields."

With its clear military supremacy, the Pentagon feels free to flex its muscle with little regard to the diplomatic consequences of moving into Russia's backyard or leaving the impression of snubbing Germany.

"The U.S. is this staggering military power and, the fact is, the Russians lost the Cold War," said Eliot Cohen, a Johns Hopkins University professor of strategic studies who is highly influential with senior Bush administration officials.

Referring to Russia's opposition to the Iraq war, he added, "We were very sensitive to their feelings for quite some time, and I think what might begin to happen is, particularly after their behavior in this conflict, we may begin to be less sensitive."

As for Germany and France, Cohen said: "Whereas there may have been a lot more hesitation about doing this in the past, I think that is now less likely because of where the Germans were on the war and the extent to which they sided with the French."

Initial Pentagon plans call for building U.S. bases at the Sarafovo airfield in Bulgaria and the nearby Black Sea port of Burgas, where U.S. KC-135 refueling tanker aircraft and more than 200 troops were based during the Iraq war.

U.S. facilities will also be built at the Romanian air base of Mihail Kogalniceanu and the Black Sea port of Constanta, both of which were used to ferry troops and equipment into Iraq.

The Pentagon also plans to take over vast military training grounds and firing ranges once used by the Soviet armed forces in Hungary and Poland, including the Krzesiny air base outside Poznan in western Poland.

Major U.S. bases in Germany and Italy, including the largest facilities in and around Ramstein Air Base near Frankfurt, will remain, although they will house fewer troops. Details of how many troops will be pulled out of Germany and where they will go have not been announced.

Pentagon officials publicly deny that the repositioning of U.S. forces in Europe is motivated by the recent politics of the Iraq war. Rumsfeld assigned top aides to study such moves even before he took office.

"We have been examining our posture and presence across the globe," Douglas J. Feith, undersecretary of Defense for policy, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March. "Our decisions about where we want to base, exercise and stage our forces are not being driven by transient considerations of current events."

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