By ROBERT H. REID — Associated Press
WIESBADEN, GERMANY — The end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will give America's ground forces in Europe a chance to review and refocus training at a time of financial cutbacks throughout the military, the top U.S. soldier in Europe said Monday.
Nearly one-third of the U.S. Army units based in Europe fought in the Iraq and Afghan conflicts, and an armored cavalry squadron is due to rotate to Afghanistan this year for what is likely to be a final tour. President Barack Obama intends to withdraw all U.S. combat forces from Afghanistan by the end of next year.
Frequent rotations to combat zones over the past decade have strained U.S. forces and their families, including the nearly 40,000 soldiers stationed in Europe, mostly in southwestern Germany and Vicenza in northern Italy.
Lt. Gen. Donald M. Campbell, who assumed command of U.S. Army Europe in January, said the end of combat rotations will enable his command to "step back and look at training" in more creative ways, including computer simulations and using facilities of other NATO members.
It will also enable the U.S. force in Europe to accelerate its primary mission, which is to train with other NATO members to bolster the alliance's overall military capability.
The U.S. Army's presence in Europe is down dramatically from the Cold War, when about 250,000 ground troops faced off against the Soviet Union and its allies along the Iron Curtain. Although all Soviet forces returned home when the Cold War ended in the early 1990s, the U.S. maintained a force in Europe, in part as evidence of the U.S. commitment to Europe and to hold together the NATO alliance after the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact disappeared.
Forward-based troops also enabled the United States to maintain a credible force near flashpoints in the Middle East and North Africa.
Campbell said recent defense cutbacks so far have not forced the U.S. to scale down faster than planned, but commanders were mindful of the need to control spending. The U.S. will reduce its ground force in Europe to 30,000 by 2017.
It is also moving its longtime headquarters from Heidelberg to Wiesbaden, located west of Frankfurt, and plans to cluster remaining forces around seven towns - five in Germany, as well as Vicenza and Chievres in Belgium.