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American Forces Press Service

Army in Europe Has ‘Unique Opportunity,’ Commander Says

By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 6, 2011 – While the future number of U.S. forces in Europe remains undecided, the NATO operation in Libya and past contingency events in Africa prove the advantage of basing troops there, the U.S. Army Europe commander said yesterday.

Lt. Gen Mark P. Hertling told reporters at a Defense Writers Group meeting here that Europe-based soldiers numbered 213,000 in 1989; today there are roughly 41,500.

The general acknowledged future strength is uncertain as the military services and Defense Department face more than $450 billion in budget cuts over the coming decade. President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta have said all defense spending is “on the table” when it comes to deciding where to make those cuts, he noted.

“I don’t know what the force size should be in the future,” Hertling added. “It’s too premature in the process to comment on that.”

One of U.S. Army Europe’s four brigades will return to the United States by 2015, he said, and he has recommended a unit and offered a time frame that could see soldiers move back even sooner. Army leaders have his recommendation, but no decision has been announced, he added.

The Army in Europe, like the service overall, is geared toward the primary mission of preparing its forces to deploy, Hertling said. Since 2001, 20 to 40 percent of Europe-based soldiers have been deployed on any given day, with about 11,000 now on missions out of theater, he said.

Between deployments, forces in theater focus on the command’s second priority, which is training with other nations, the general said. His command partners with more than 40 nations in the region.

“We have a very unique opportunity in Europe to train with the kinds of forces we will be deploying with,” he said. “Last April, as an example, one of our brigades, the 172nd [Infantry] Brigade, did their final readiness exercise to deploy to Afghanistan.”

During that exercise, brigade soldiers trained with troops from nine other nations, “the same countries they would be working alongside of in their province in Afghanistan,” Hertling added.

Training with troop-contributing countries and other partner nations extends beyond readiness exercises to noncommissioned officer and officer education courses, as well as multinational military conferences, the general said.

Two weeks ago, U.S. Army Europe participated in the 19th annual Conference of European Armies, Hertling said, which began at the end of Operation Desert Storm as a way for the U.S. Army Europe commander “to pull all of the [European] land forces commanders together in one place and have a three-day sit-down about what we were doing.”

While in past years the conference focused on preparing forces for Iraq or Afghanistan, discussion at this year’s gathering centered on Europe and “post-ISAF” operations, he said, referring to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.

“We’ve generated a lot of momentum in terms of training together and preparing for combat, and [European] forces have improved incredibly,” he said. “When the war in Afghanistan begins to wind down, what do we do then?”

Hertling said conference attendees ranged from colonels commanding small nations’ armies to larger countries’ three- and four-star land force commanders -- all discussing regional exercises, their respective homeland security threats, out-of-area crisis response and humanitarian relief operations, and NATO’s Article 5 mutual support provision, which states that “an armed attack against one or more [member nations] shall be considered an attack against them all.”

During a dinner at the conference, Hertling said, one attendee from the United Kingdom told him the gathering of 38 land force commanders could not have been organized by any other nation.

The general said he had been on the battlefield with many who attended the conference, and with their forces, in 2003 and 2008.

“There is a world of difference in our coalition partners,” Hertling noted. “It is not the same group of guys that came to the battlefield when this fight started. They have used this war to grow a tactically savvy force.”

Europe is a strategically important area for the United States, and is a “hallway” through which terrorists travel between safe havens, the general said. He added that German authorities arrested a suspected terrorist this week who U.S. forces had long tracked and believed was in the final stages of preparing an attack.

Security threats across Europe also include drug and human trafficking, cyber attacks, and radical extremism, Hertling said, as well as “old ethnic threats” such as an ongoing taxation dispute between Kosovo and Serbia that resulted in protests and blockades in recent weeks. U.S. Army Europe has training and oversight responsibility for the National Guard troops deployed to Kosovo, and contributed helicopter resupply support to the Guard when the blockades obstructed ground-based supply routes, he said.

U.S. soldiers in Europe serve as a forward-deployed force, and help build partner militaries’ capacity to prevent problems, Hertling said.

“For the last 10 years, if you look at the four ‘P’s’ of the national security strategy – prepare, prevail, prevent, preserve – we have really been focusing hard on preparing and prevailing; getting troops ready to go, and then making sure they win,” he said.

As military involvement in Afghanistan winds down, he said, the transition focus should be how to prevent future wars. “The best way to do that is building partner capacity – giving them the competence to have their own security forces, knowing who they can partner with, and generating the trust,” he said.

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