WASHINGTON - It makes fiscal and strategic sense for the United States to continue to base troops in Europe, the officer who serves as NATO's supreme allied commander for Europe and commander of U.S. European Command said today.
Together, the United States and Europe make up half of the world economy, Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove said in a discussion with reporters at the Pentagon. And even as force structures change due to shifting economic climates, he said, the transatlantic bond will remain strong.
"We're absolutely connected to these nations militarily," he said. "After 12 years of fighting together in Afghanistan, we are at the pinnacle of our cohesiveness -- at the pinnacle of our interconnectedness.
"Our ability to work together -- our tactics, techniques and procedures -- are all the same and forged around what is NATO-standard," Breedlove continued. "And therefore, it is very easy for us to take the field together and do those missions that our nations want them to do."
The general noted that between 2007 and 2011, EUCOM trained 42,000 NATO and NATO-partner troops to deploy to Afghanistan.
"That's 42,000 Americans that didn't have to go to Afghanistan," he said. "Our ability to remain connected to these armies and these air forces [is] directly related to our force structure in Europe."
The United States has sharply reduced the number of U.S. forces and facilities in Europe, Breedlove said, noting that EUCOM has shed about 75 percent of its infrastructure since the Cold War ended.
"I believe there is more infrastructure that can be cut," he added.
However, he said, he doesn't think there's more room to cut EUCOM's force structure.
"We are down now to the point where I believe we are at the right size for the mission that we are being asked to do currently in Europe," Breedlove said. "If we come down too much more [in] Army structure, that will give us some challenges on the connections that we have to our European partners."
Those connections have forged longstanding relationships built on trust, the general said. Such relationships are essential to guaranteeing that NATO forces can respond rapidly to a crisis, he noted.
"[Those] relationships add up to access.... The bottom line is you cannot surge trust," Breedlove said. "You cannot surge relationships. These are things that are built over time."
Recent conflicts have reinforced the critical global security role played by European partnerships, Breedlove said. During the intervention in Libya, for example, NATO nations -- who have been fighting and training together for years -- were able to quickly become operational, he said.
"It took a little longer to assimilate some of our other partners," the general added.
The access that the United States enjoys in Europe should not be taken for granted, he said. Breedlove noted that in a crisis, all of the forces that operate in North Africa will first come from bases in Europe. Most of the forces that would eventually deploy in such a crisis are shared between EUCOM and U.S. Africa Command, he said, but they are housed on EUCOM bases in EUCOM nations.
"You cannot get to the Middle East without using the lens of the bases and infrastructure in Europe," he said. "Everything I do, and everything European [that] EUCOM forces do in Europe to support [U.S. Central Command] relies on these bases."
And the United States has begun asking more of its European allies, Breedlove said. Support of North Africa requires that the U.S. be able to move and base forces "in different ways and places," he added.
Moving forces around inside sovereign nations is not a trivial matter, the general noted.
"It's those relationships...that allow us to quickly go to an ally and say, 'We need to move this special purpose [Marine air-ground task force] to this location to be more responsive to something that's going on. Can you accommodate?'"
NATO's imminent challenge is to hold on to these hard-fought gains in cohesiveness as force structures change and the mission in Afghanistan draws to a close, Breedlove said. The United States will deploy with its NATO partners for the foreseeable future, he said, and withdrawing from Europe could weaken transatlantic ties.
"I think Europe is incredibly important to America," Breedlove said, "and I think that...the long-standing trust relationships in Europe that allow us to project force into Africa [and] that allow us to project force into the Middle East are absolutely key to the future."