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SecDef's olive branch for Europe


You Euro-allies are still our BFFs, Secretary Panetta told attendees at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday, even though the U.S. plans to pull thousands of troops and their families off the Continent.

Panetta emphasized that even with two Army brigades leaving Europe, that still leaves two behind, and the U.S. remains locked into its long-term plans for Europe generally and NATO in particular. Washington is going to help build the Continent's missile defense shield -- complete with Aegis destroyers forward-deployed to Spain and ground-based stations down the road -- and roll out some new efforts as well:

We will employ innovative approaches to strengthen security cooperation, even as we reduce the numbers of U.S. troops and dependents that are permanently stationed in Europe. We will maintain two brigades garrisoned in Europe in addition to moving forward with the missile defense deployments that I’ve already detailed, establishing an aviation detachment in Poland and taking steps to enhance the responsiveness of special operations forces in the region.

As we reduce the end strength of our land forces overall, we will remove two heavy, fixed brigades that are currently garrisoned in Europe – two brigades that, I might point out, have spent most of their time in the war zone and not here. We selected these legacy brigades for transition because they are the least adaptive to the complex challenges we face and we expect to face alongside our European partners. We made this decision only after ensuring that our force posture adjustments will not weaken our ability to meet our commitment to the security of Europe or our Article 5 responsibilities.

Today, I can announce that the United States will make a new commitment to the security of our NATO partners by reinvigorating our contribution to the NATO Response Force that we value so much. The NRF was designed to be an agile, rapidly deployable, multinational force that can respond to crises when and where necessary. The United States had endorsed the NRF but has not made a tangible contribution due to the demands of the wars – until now.

In the coming months, we will identify a U.S.-based brigade from which we will provide the United States land force contribution to the NATO Response Force, and we will rotate a battalion-sized task-force to Germany for exercises and training. Not only will this open up new opportunities for U.S. troops to train and exercise with our European counterparts, it will ensure NATO has the capability to conduct expeditionary operations in defense of our common interests.

In other words, even though everybody says the U.S. is pulling out of Europe, that's not so -- and, in fact, it's planning to increase its commitments in some areas, Panetta said.

All very diplomatic, but as Popeye's frenemy Wimpy used to say, "I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a missile defense system today." There are many things that could happen between now and the future to change the timeline or composition of the missile shield, from an Israeli attack on Iran to a European financial meltdown to next January's budget "sequestration," meaning Panetta's actual guarantee may not pay off as envisioned. D.C. defense journalist Otto Kreisher has even written that anxious lawmakers may fight the U.S. plan to forward-deploy those four DDGs to Spain, so as not to lose their economic boost.

Overall, Congress may end up having quite a bit to say over Panetta's commitments. No one will be eager to give up an aviation unit to send to Poland, and depending on the influence of tea partarians after this November, the U.S. could well scale back even these force levels. It's equally possible that the right mix of new Republican lawmakers and a Republican president could speed up and expand plans for the missile defense shield, as a big middle finger to Russia. The only thing for certain today is that none of this is certain.

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