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U.S. Forces in Europe Set Sights East, South

Realignment plan would mean drastic changes for the continent and the troops stationed there.

May 30, 2003|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

STUTTGART, Germany — The talk in U.S. Gen. Charles F. Wald's office here veers from Al Qaeda to oil pipelines to borderless enemies. And the general, who likes to point to the big map on the wall, is less focused on his base in Central Europe than on emerging trouble spots such as resource-rich Nigeria and the Caspian region.

The U.S. military in Europe, with 112,000 troops and once a counterbalance to communist ambitions, is looking south and east. Arguing that the U.S. needs a leaner, quicker military to respond to new threats largely outside Europe, the Pentagon wants to reconfigure American bases overseas, setting up small outposts on the turf of new allies such as Bulgaria and scaling back in long-standing host nations such as Germany.

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld's desire to deploy tens of thousands of troops to smaller, scattered bases would expand America's global reach. But it would drastically alter the U.S. presence in Central Europe that dates to World War II and endured during the Cold War, yet now faces a continent uncomfortable with U.S. military power.

It would also change rotation rules, meaning that many service members may be subject to longer periods away from home and would no longer be permitted to bring their families to Europe, resulting in a huge economic loss for the continent.

"We're not going to build any more little Americas," said Wald, deputy commander of the U.S. European Command. He was referring to the sprawling bases, such as those near Heidelberg and Ramstein that provide 130,000 U.S. military dependents with playgrounds, schools, supermarkets and family housing compounds named for famous Americans such as Mark Twain.

"We'll get smaller," he said of European operations, adding that the goal is "a force that's more mobile, flexible and deployable."

Plans for the exact look and size of the new overseas U.S. armed forces have not been finalized.

Military officials stress that American interests in Central Europe, including its leadership role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, will not diminish. And some long-standing operations such as Ramstein Air Base, which allows quick deployments to the Mediterranean region, are not expected to be affected.

Yet it is clear that Bulgaria and Romania, which are closer to the Middle East and the Caucasus and supported the U.S. war in Iraq, are Washington's newest darlings in Europe. Germany, which houses 84% of all U.S. troops on the continent, has lost much of its strategic cachet. U.S. officials say tens of thousands of troops in Germany may be shifted to Eastern Europe to follow NATO expansion into nations such as Poland and Hungary. Thousands more may wind up in Africa.

Wald poured a coffee and scanned his map. Central Europe, he said, is prosperous and stable and no longer needs a large U.S. military presence. Eastern Europe is desperate for development and a chance to enhance its stature through ties to the U.S. military.

His eyes then shifted south, focusing on Nigeria. "Eight percent to 14% of the [United States'] oil comes from Nigeria," he said, adding that in the future that figure may jump to 25%.

"All of a sudden the west coast of Africa becomes an area of strategic interest ... and you start saying to yourself, 'I'd like to have some forward bases in Africa.' ... The world has changed. We're going to have to make our own security," Wald said. "The halcyon days are over."

The economic and cultural effects of shifting U.S. bases would be enormous.

The U.S. European Command's annual budget is about $13.7 billion. It employs 20,000 civilians. The command's headquarters in Stuttgart -- one of hundreds of U.S. installations in Central Europe -- pumps $150 million to $175 million into the local economy each year. No one has suggested that the overall command will be significantly downsized. But U.S. military dollars and jobs will gradually leave Germany and may become windfalls for economically struggling Eastern European countries that are more politically welcoming and have less strict environmental laws. The Pentagon has long complained of the millions of dollars it spends each year to comply with environmental regulations.

"It's an accidental Marshall Plan," said Wald, referring to the multibillion-dollar U.S. program to rebuild Europe after World War II.

A big man who walks with a swagger, Wald, a career Air Force officer who has flown more than 450 combat hours, said that despite the strained atmosphere between the U.S. and many of its traditional European allies over the war in Iraq, the decision to move positions east is "not vindictive, not a payback."

Rather, he asserted that the plans are a logical progression for the European Command, whose troop deployment extends beyond the continent, covering 93 countries and territories sprawling across 21 million square miles. Since the Cold War ended, he noted, the number of U.S. troops in Europe has fallen from 315,000 to 112,000.

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