President Bush told the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention on Monday that he planned to move more than 70,000 troops from Cold War-era bases in Europe and Asia to permanent bases on U.S. soil. How many troops does the United States have in Europe and Asia, and why are they still over there?
After the Cold War ended, the United States kept troops in Europe largely for two reasons—to maintain a tangible security commitment to Europe and NATO, and because it foresaw future conflicts in the Middle East and anticipated that it would be useful to have troops stationed in Europe that could respond quickly. American troops were kept in Asia to deter a North Korean invasion of South Korea and to promote stability in East Asia.
Currently, the United States has 116,400 military personnel from all four services assigned to its European Command, an organization that oversees U.S. military affairs in 93 countries spanning Europe, North Africa, and part of the Middle East. Roughly two-thirds of these—56,000 soldiers and 15,000 airmen—live and work in Germany. Turkey, Britain, and Italy each host several thousand soldiers, too. The remaining number in Europe is comprised of small specialized detachments and diplomatic missions; nearly every U.S. embassy in the world has a small Marine Corps detachment and a military attaché. **
Nearly all of the U.S. military presence in Asia remains concentrated in two countries—Japan and South Korea. The U.S. Pacific Command keeps about 37,500 troops in South Korea and 47,000 troops in Japan (including Okinawa). Another few thousand troops are scattered around the Pacific: There is a sizable Air Force detachment on Guam and the U.S. Army operated a chemical weapons disposal detachment on Johnston Island until June of 2004. *
During the Cold War, of course, these troops were stationed overseas as part of a strategy known as “forward deployment.” If the Soviet Union or North Korea were to invade, these units would already be located near the battlefield and would not need to be flown or shipped anywhere the way U.S. forces were before the invasion of Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of troops were stationed during the Cold War in then-West Germany, Turkey, Britain, and elsewhere to oppose the Soviet invasion that never came. After the Cold War, the United States cut these troops by two-thirds, moving many large units back to the United Stated and disbanding others as part of the post-Cold War military drawdown.
So, what have the remaining troops been doing since the Cold War ended? During the 1990s, American units in Asia practiced what they would do in case of a North Korean invasion, conducting major military exercises such as “Foal Eagle” and “Ulchi Focus Lens” with the South Korean army. U.S. Army units in Germany also conducted peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and Kosovo. Air Force units in Europe focused primarily on providing logistical support to the Army units stationed there and on enforcing the “no fly” zones over Iraq between 1991 and 2003. When not deployed, U.S. military units in Europe spent their time training and conducting exercises with other NATO nations.
Today, the military units stationed in Germany spend most of their energy on Iraq. Ramstein Air Base and the U.S. Air Force units there serve as a logistics and transportation hub for operations; the Landstuhl military hospital at Ramstein takes care of serious U.S. casualties from Iraq. The 1st Armored Division deployed to Iraq shortly after the end of major combat operations in April 2003 and just returned home to Germany after more than a year in combat. The 1st Infantry Division is currently in Iraq, approximately halfway through its yearlong tour of duty. President Bush’s proposal calls for these units to remain in Germany through at least 2006, when they will be permanently reassigned to U.S. bases yet to be determined.
Correction: This piece originally stated that the U.S. military operates a chemical weapons disposal detachment on Johnston Island. The U.S. military vacated that facility in June 2004. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Correction, Aug. 20: This piece originally stated that every U.S. embassy in the world has a small Marine Corps detachment. In fact, there are several that do not. (Return to this corrected sentence.)