Last month, Congress issued its latest rebuke to Defense leaders’ ongoing request to close unneeded domestic military bases. But there are no legal restrictions on closing bases overseas, and DoD is moving forward to do just that.
The Pentagon will close 15 separate sites and eliminate thousands of support jobs in Europe, the outcome of a two-year restructuring study known as the European Infrastructure Consolidation. DoD will hand everything ranging from large bases to standalone water treatment plants and data centers to the host countries, including the United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, Italy and Portugal, and U.S. military personnel will consolidate into a smaller number of facilities.
“With these decisions, we are consolidating and reducing some existing support infrastructure in order to be more efficient, but we are not affecting our operational capability,” Derek Chollet, the assistant secretary of Defense for international security affairs told reporters Thursday. “The EIC adjustments do not diminish our ability to meet our commitments to allies and partners. In fact, these decisions will produce savings that will enable us to maintain a robust force presence in Europe.”
Altogether, the military expects the closures to save roughly $500 million per year once they are fully implemented in the early 2020s.
As of now, the U.S. has roughly 67,000 troops permanently stationed in Europe. Officials say the number of combat-ready forces won’t change significantly, but the consolidation will mean fewer military and civilian support personnel are needed. DoD will eliminate roughly 1,200 jobs, and relocate another 6,000 elsewhere in Europe. And the department estimates about 1,500 jobs held by European nationals will be either cut or moved elsewhere.
F-35s get a home
The largest closure by far will be the Royal Air Field at Mildenhall in the Eastern U.K. DoD will return the air field to the British government, and most of its 3,200 personnel will be sent to other U.K. bases or to continental Europe.
“The analysis, writ-large, looked at excess capacity and it also looked at military value,” said John Conger, DoD’s top installations official. “So we essentially were trying to make sure that the assets that we needed were at the locations that had the highest military value, based on a complicated numerical calculation and a lot of different factors. The result of that allowed us to collapse the assets from Mildenhall into other locations.”
The Mildenhall closure will be partially offset by another decision DoD announced simultaneously: The department will make the U.K.’s RAF Lakenheath its first European home base for the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Those two squadrons of U.S.-owned F-35s alone will add 1,200 positions to that base.
“This decision is just the latest example of the special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom,” Chollet said. “The presence of U.S. F-35s at Lakenheath will lead to new possibilities for collaboration with the United Kingdom, such as the potential for greater training and wider support opportunities. Taken together, these decisions on our force presence in Europe will enhance our operational readiness and mission posture at reduced funding levels, all toward the objective of maintaining a strong trans-Atlantic alliance and meeting our common security interest.”
In addition to the changes within the U.K., DoD will close or consolidate 16 smaller facilities in Germany — though that country will ultimately end up with more U.S. personnel than it has right now.
In Portuguese territory, DoD will cut its staffing at Lajes Field in the North Atlantic by two-thirds. That decision is expected to save about $350 million over 10 years and has been in the works for years, but Portugal has been pressing the U.S. to stay.
The latest round of facility reductions in Europe are part of a gradual regression from the Cold War-era U.S. footprint there.
In 2012, DoD pulled two Army brigades from the continent. And even before Thursday’s announcement, the Army already had been executing a plan to shrink its European real estate holdings by 57 percent. The Air Force already has cut its European basing by 75 percent since 1992.
In part, those decisions were made because they’re the only bases DoD can close without explicit congressional permission. But Conger said the department hopes the latest decisions will also help to defuse lawmakers’ arguments that the Pentagon should look to close overseas bases first before it even thinks about a stateside base realignment and closure (BRAC) process.
“We used a process very similar to the proven U.S. BRAC process in analyzing the bases in Europe. We looked at capacity and requirements, at military value, at cost and at the diplomatic dynamics involved with each action,” he said. “And the bottom line for us was that we wanted to preserve our operational capability while reducing the cost of supporting it. We did not contemplate changes that reduced our fighting capability. That was a fundamental constraint of the analysis.”
But like a BRAC back home, the European closures the Pentagon announced Thursday will carry some up-front costs: The current estimate is $1.4 billion. Roughly a third of that tab will be spent on new military construction.