Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts U.S. Force Structure Changes in Europe: Necessary, but not Sufficient
U.S. Force Structure Changes in Europe: Necessary, but not Sufficient

U.S. Force Structure Changes in Europe: Necessary, but not Sufficient

The recently announced decision to increase the U.S. military presence in Europe by sending 500 additional troops to Germany in the coming months is the right move at the right time in the right place. This announcement implements President Joseph Biden’s goal of improving transatlantic relations, and it will add vitally necessary capabilities to the American presence on the continent at a time when Russia continues to rattle sabers. But there’s more work to do regarding American boots on the ground in Europe, especially in the Baltic region, where small contributions of U.S. troops could go a long way to addressing ongoing shortcomings.

Since entering office, the Biden administration has dramatically shifted the American approach to Europe, following four years of confounding bifurcation in transatlantic relations. On the one hand, the last four years were a period in which the United States and its NATO Allies stemmed the bleeding in terms of the Alliance’s lost collective defense capability and capacity. For example, NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) in northeastern Europe has reassured the Baltic states and Poland to some degree. Similarly, the NATO defense planning process has become far more effective. Allies have awoken to the threat of Russian hybrid warfare; and readiness has moved from the esoteric realm of defense planners to something presidents and prime ministers now discuss at their summits.

On the other hand, NATO stumbled into 2021 like a bruised prize fighter, having endured the left hook of threatened American withdrawal from the Alliance and the right upper cut of hearing Washington might only defend those Allies that paid up. It’s hard to recall a more turbulent time in transatlantic relations.

To the benefit of American and European security, the period of bifurcated transatlanticism is over and with it an era of distrust and dismay. President Biden’s remarks earlier this year at the virtual Munich Security Conference on America’s return to leadership helped get the relationship back on track rhetorically. “America is back,” said Biden, “The transatlantic alliance is back. And we are not looking backward; we are looking forward, together.” And now—with announcements on augmentation, vice withdrawal, of the U.S. presence in Europe—we learn that in practice, too, the administration takes seriously the need to address weaknesses in American military posture abroad.

The announced increases in the U.S. forward-based presence in Germany are not large in number—two units together comprising about 500 troops—but it packs an outsized punch and fills glaring capability gaps. The first of these units is a relatively new one for the U.S. Army: the Multi-Domain Task Force (MDTF), billed as the centerpiece of Army modernization. In addition to artillery and air defense, the MDTF provides intelligence, cyber, electronic warfare, and space capabilities in Europe, which are vitally necessary to defend against and counter ongoing Russian operations below the threshold of an armed attack.

The second element is not a combat unit, but rather a critical headquarters: a Theater Fires Command. As the name implies, this new command and control unit can coordinate long-range strikes across the entire European theater. Given Russian advances—and advantages—in long-range precision-guided artillery, rockets, and missiles, a new command and control mechanism to conduct stand-off attacks is necessary in Europe.

Locating both new units in Germany places them in the heart of Europe, from where they can respond and operate against an array of challenges, including Russia. In Germany, they’ll find mature and robust infrastructure, communications networks, training areas, and transportation nodes.

Announcing this decision now—even though implementation is 5-6 months away—is a timely countermove to Russia’s recent large-scale build-up of forces just north of its border with Ukraine and in occupied Crimea. Along with President Biden’s remarks to Russian President Vladimir Putin on the U.S. commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and additional sanctions against Russia announced the same week, the increase in U.S. forces in Germany signals a clear determination on the part of the United States to push back against Moscow’s intimidation of allies and partners in Europe.

Although these new units and the change in presidential rhetoric are vital, they’re not enough to address other well-known shortcomings in defense and deterrence in Europe today. Foremost among these is the absence of a continuous American military presence in the Baltics.

Under the auspices of EFP, NATO established four battlegroups of roughly 1,000 troops each in Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Born out of NATO’s 2016 Warsaw Summit, EFP provides a vital tripwire against a Russian attack, and it marked the first time NATO based combat forces east of the former East-West German border.

However, only the EFP unit in Poland—which is led by U.S forces but includes British, Croatian, and Romanian troops—has American boots on the ground every day of every month. The other multinational EFP units are led by the United Kingdom (Estonia), Canada (Latvia), and Germany (Lithuania), with no Americans assigned to any of them. Adding a relatively small number of American troops to each of the EFP units in the Baltic states—perhaps a company-sized element of roughly 100 U.S. soldiers—would significantly strengthen both the reassurance these units provide and the deterrence the EFP initiative has against Russia. Placing a small, permanent American presence in the Baltic states, in addition to the Multi-Domain Task Force and the Theater Fires Command in Germany, would go far in bolstering U.S security and interests in Europe. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.