BERLIN – The U.S. 1st Armored Division lowered its flag this month in a ceremony that signaled the quiet return home of a unit whose tanks first rumbled onto the continent through Italy during World War II.
The Wiesbaden casing of colors ceremony also marked a milestone in the ongoing transformation of the American military. The sending off of the last division deployed in Europe at the height of the Cold War symbolizes the shift in favor of smaller, lighter units that planners say are better poised to meet today's threats.
But the question now being raised is whether the Army's plan to keep some 37,000 soldiers in Europe will survive growing budgetary pressures in Washington. There are increasing concerns in the U.S. Congress that the United States is footing too much of the bill for European defense at a time when some European countries have reduced defense spending.
"An alliance that is so dependent on one ceases to function properly," said Heather Connelly, director of the Europe program for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "You are probably going to see more questions from Congress about getting that balance right."
U.S. troop strength in Europe peaked in 1962 at nearly 277,000 soldiers and was still at around 213,000 in 1989. Current plans call for reducing troops from about 42,000 today to the 37,000 by 2015.
The remaining troop numbers are greater than recommended by Donald Rumsfeld when he was secretary of defense, but smaller than top military commanders had been suggesting.
With Washington's decision now to scale down operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan, however, the target number now seems about right said Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, who took command of U.S. Army Europe in March.
"Given what we're now being asked to do as an army — with a drawdown in the total number of army soldiers that we're going to have overall — I think U.S. Army Europe can get the job done ... with three brigades," Hertling told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from Heidelberg.
The plan is based around brigade combat teams — smaller integrated units that include infantry, armor, artillery and engineers among other troops.
"I would almost call it a mini-division," Hertling said. "It has everything a division used to have but in much smaller portions, and it allows us to kind of maneuver those elements with significant effectiveness."
There are currently four so-called BCTs in Europe — three in Germany and one in Italy, each with about 3,000 to 5,000 troops. Combined that's about the size of a division, though in the case of the 1st Armored, only about 700 soldiers with its headquarters have been in Germany since 2006 as part of its transition back to the U.S.
One BCT — not yet identified — will be sent back to the U.S. under the current plan, announced in April by the Pentagon. The helicopters of the 12th Combat Aviation Brigade will also remain in Germany under the plan.
"The force package that we have over here and will have in 2015 is about right for what we will need to accomplish our mission," Hertling said. "You're talking about a pretty significant fighting force."
Aside from the obvious advantage of having troops stationed an ocean closer to hotspots in the Mideast and Africa, Hertling said soldiers based in Europe also have the an opportunity to train with NATO allies before facing combat together.
Those same allies are also contributing tens of thousands of soldiers to the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan, lessening the burden on U.S. forces there, he said.
There are also intangible benefits such as providing soldiers experience with different cultures, currencies and languages.
All true, said Charles Heyman, a defense analyst and former editor of Jane's World Armies — but maybe not enough to justify the costs of keeping significant numbers of American soldiers in Europe amid a budget crisis in the U.S.
"The whole thing is being driven by the U.S. defense budget and the deficiencies in the American budget as a whole," said Heyman, a retired British Army officer. "The European Union as a whole is 10 percent richer than the United States based on GDP, and that is making a lot of American planners scratch their heads and say 'what are we doing?'"
In a showdown between politicians and military commanders, Heyman said, "the politicians are always going to be right because they hold the purse strings."
"It's going to be no contest," Heyman said. "At some stage in the next 18 months to two years we're going to see a real ax taken to the American defense budget."
Some U.S. lawmakers have already raised the issue. As part of a proposal to reduce overall military spending, one prominent liberal congressman, Democrat Barney Frank, has questioned the strategic purpose of NATO for the United States and said Europe should defend itself.
Perhaps in anticipation of a Congressional fight, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen at this year's Munich Security Conference warned the world's top defense officials of the growing disparity in contributions to the alliance. He said a decade ago the U.S. accounted for about half of the members' total defense spending, and today it is closer to 75 percent.
He blasted the suggestion of some Europeans about a division of labor within NATO, with the U.S. providing the hard power and the Europeans undertaking soft power assignments like training and institution building.
"As a committed European — and a staunch Atlanticist — I find this suggestion at best naive, and, at worst, dangerous," Fogh Rasmussen warned. "It is completely out of touch with today's increasingly complex security environment."
In Washington, the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, expressed concern about any further drawdown of European-based forces in a March 29 letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
He said the forces remain a "principal manifestation" of the American commitment to NATO and also cautioned that once removed, they'd be hard to bring back if circumstances change.
"I believe that it would be risky to announce any withdrawals of U.S. forces at this time," he wrote.
Hertling noted base closures in Europe had already saved the army $8.6 billion over the last eight years. He also said that the three brigade combat teams envisioned in current plans account for only 13,000 soldiers and that he is now assessing whether some of the other support troops could be trimmed.
Still, with the Cold War long over most U.S. politicians are going to be more concerned with votes at home than long-term planning for Europe, Heyman said.
"There is tremendous domestic political pressure to run down not only the presence in Europe but elsewhere if they possibly can," Heyman said. "If you prioritize it from an American political point of view, Europe ... doesn't really figure high on the American priority list."
Butler reported from Washington.