WASHINGTON — The US Army's lone combat aviation brigade in Europe will be reduced as part of a larger cost saving measure, a move that analysts say will cut back on a counterweight to Russian armor.
The 12th Combat Aviation Brigade (CAB) is the second of three such units expected to be named for closure or cuts under the Army's sweeping Aviation Restructure Initiative. It emerged last month that 24 Apache helicopters would be sent from Germany to Alaska, but it took several days for the military to disclose more details.
The plan is to cut troops while retaining the 12th CAB's headquarters in Katterbach, Germany. The 12th CAB will continue to command all aviation for US Army Europe, including units that would rotate from the US — a total of about 90 aircraft, down from 150, according to the Army.
"Aviation capabilities will be maintained, however, by augmenting remaining aviation assets and personnel through a continuous rotation," DoD's announcement states. "Aviation assets will be augmented even further in the event we need to surge capabilities beyond normal levels."
The plan will end the current mix of three assault helicopter and support battalions in Katterbach, and two smaller units in Stuttgart, all by this fall. Several other units will be restructured or reflagged, with one airfield operations battalion relocating to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and the 24 Apaches and their battalion relocating to Fort Wainwright, Alaska.
Most of the moves will kick in by September 2016. The rotational presence, which began in March, includes an assault helicopter battalion, two medical evacuation teams and an air traffic service company.
Army officials have said the Apaches will join a company, or 12, unmanned Gray Eagles in Alaska, and convert the 6th Squadron, 17 Cavalry Regiment, into an armed reconnaissance squadron. The 6-17 in 2014 lost its Kiowas in the aviation restructure.
The 12th CAB will oversee 800 permanent and 500 rotational military personnel, as well as 64 permanent helicopters: 24 AH-64 Apaches, 10 UH-60 Black Hawks, eight CH-47 Chinooks, 16 fixed-wing and Lakota support aircraft, and six medical evacuation helicopters.
The plan is for nine-month rotations with no gap between them, which will include 26 more UH-60 Black Hawks, with 10 Black Hawks stateside on prepare-to-deploy orders.
US Defense Secretary Ash Carter spoke with German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen by phone about the plan on April 29, according to the DoD announcement. The two vowed to remain closely connected throughout the restructuring process and expressed mutual appreciation for the strong military relationship between their two countries.
The Pentagon, under congressional pressure to cut costs, had been shuttering units and Cold War-era installations, only to reverse course after Russia invaded Ukraine. The Pentagon has since renewed its commitment to Europe with rotational deployments of hundreds of service members to Eastern Europe, under the $1 billion "European Reassurance Initiative."
Analysts say the new budget-driven force reductions are out of step with US efforts to reassure European allies who feel threatened by Russia's actions and key allies who have increased their defense spending. The cuts will be balanced somewhat by rotational deployments, a signal of the US' interest in Europe's security, but the Apaches are a potent weapon to lose.
"This contradicts the messages that have been sent by the US exercises, and it goes against what France and Germany have done to increase their defense budgets in light of the strategic circumstances," said Ben Barry, senior fellow for land warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank in London.
In the reduction of Apaches, the US cuts back on a deterrent to Russia's strong suit — heavy forces — valued for range, reach and anti-armor capabilities, Barry said. In recent years, the US Army has also cut two of its brigades stationed in Europe, leaving two that are not heavy: the 173rd Airborne and the 2nd Cavalry (Stryker). It has, however, announced plans to preposition a heavy brigade's worth of kit in Europe for rotational forces to use.
"Light forces could be rapidly rushed to a threatened area in Europe, but light forces have considerable limitations when they are facing large numbers of conventional heavy forces that are strong in armored vehicles and artillery," Barry said.
The Army announced the aviation restructure in January 2014, a month before Russia's annexation of Crimea. Barry contrasted the move with France's plans to increase its defense budget by close to €4 billion (US $4.42 billion) over four years and Germany's plan to increase defense spending by €8 billion (US $8.5 billion) by 2019.
"Politically, the problem is that France and Germany have said, 'the situation has changed sufficiently, and we've got to put our defense budgets up,' and you have a measure taken by the US based on a decision before circumstances changed," Barry said.
In Russia's war with Georgia and in recent military exercises, it demonstrated its ability to mass and move significant forces quickly, which makes a permanent presence particularly valuable, said Analyst Magnus Nordenman, deputy director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.
"The US is a global power and can lift and move forces over vast distances, but Russia is in the neighborhood already, so that puts a premium on being there as opposed to rotating in," Nordenman said. "The rotations are better than nothing, but you're not getting the relationships, you're not getting a deep sense of the terrain, the environment and conditions that you do when you're home, so to speak."
Though Carter notified his German counterpart of the plan, Nordenman said countries closer to Russia — Poland, Romania and the Baltics — have more cause for concern.
"Germany is not a front line state, and they're not the issue really," Nordenman said. "The Germans may be concerned for jobs reasons, but not security."
In congressional testimony April 30, the US' top military commander in Europe, Air Force Gen. Phillip Breedlove, touted the US military's persistent forward presence in Europe as "the bedrock of our ability to assure allies, to deter real and potential adversaries and to be postured to act in a timely manner, should deterrence fail."
The US' presence in Europe allowed its immediate response after troops invaded Crimea, he said, including the deployment of soldiers from the 173rd in Germany to the Baltic states and Poland within 96 hours. US European Command's permanent presence also supports neighboring commands in Africa and the Middle East, he said.
"Rotational presence is not a substitute for permanent forward presence in building relationships or signaling our commitment," Breedlove told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "But a fully funded rotational presence can play an important role in helping meet the requirements in our theater if it is heel-to-toe and properly resourced."
Breedlove also said rotational forces are key to addressing budgetary shortfalls.
The Army has asserted that it will be able to do at least the same with less.
"US combat capability in Europe will not be degraded by the restructuring of Army aviation in Europe," Lt. Col. Donald Peters, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon, wrote in an emailed response to questions.
"The restructuring of the 12th Combat Aviation Brigade will improve efficiencies, enhance our capabilities, and ensure we are ready and able to address current and future security challenges. The US Army is confident that, with the mix of permanently stationed and rotating aviation assets, US Army Europe will be able to fully meet its commitments to [European Command] and other combatant commands."
These rotational units will support Operation Atlantic Resolve and major training exercises in Central and Eastern Europe.
The 12th CAB provides a range of aviation support, including multinational training support, VIP transport, cargo transport, medical evacuation, and humanitarian mission support to Army Europe, European Command and Central Command.
The plans for the 12th CAB are part of the Army's aviation restructure, billed by the service as means to save $12 billion. The active component would retire the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior fleet and pull Apaches from the National Guard to fill the gap, providing Black Hawks in turn.