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The size of the U.S. military’s footprint in Europe could continue to shrink, the head of U.S. European Command said on Tuesday.
At the height of the Cold War, the U.S. had 450,000 troops and more than 1,200 bases in Europe, Adm. James Stavridis told lawmakers. Since then, the U.S. military has reduced its presence by 85 percent.
“We could conceivably over time draw down a bit further,” Stavridis testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The Army plans to inactivate V Corps and the 172nd Brigade Combat Team in Germany this year and withdraw about 2,500 “enabling forces” and their equipment in the future, Stavridis said in his written testimony. The Air Force also plans to deactivate an A-10 squadron and an air control squadron.
“I believe that that downward trajectory over time will probably continue,” he said.
But Stavridis also stressed the importance of the U.S. military’s presence in Europe, saying the continent offers “forward operating bases” to launch operations in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., asked Stavridis if NATO is making any contingency plans to intervene in Syria, where a two-year civil war is locked in stalemate.
“Sir, we are,” Stavridis replied. “We are looking at a wide range of operations and we are prepared if called upon to be engaged as we were in Libya.”
McCain also proposed that the Patriot missiles that the U.S. military sent to Turkey be used to shoot down Syrian planes to create a safe zone up to 20 miles inside Syria.
“Would you agree that shooting down a few Syrian aircraft would serve as a powerful disincentive for pilots to fly in that area?” McCain asked.
“I think that whenever aircraft are shot down, that is a powerful disincentive,” Stavridis replied.
McCain also asked Stavridis for his personal opinion about whether it was time for NATO to intervene in the Syrian civil war.
“My personal opinion is that would be helpful in breaking the deadlock and bringing down the Assad regime,” Stavridis said.
Also Tuesday, the head of U.S. Northern Command said Hurricane Sandy, which caused cascading power outages that left a large swath of the East Coast without electricity last year, provides a glimpse of what a cyber attack on the U.S. would look like.
“The potential effects of a targeted attack could have severe consequences for U.S. infrastructure and institutions, impede our homeland defense mission, degrade our ability to support military activities overseas, and strain our ability to provide relief to civil authorities,” Army Gen. Charles H. Jacoby Jr. said in his written testimony.
Lawmakers pressed Jacoby on whether the U.S. military’s current missile defense system is able to protect the U.S. East Coast from a nuclear missile launched from Iran.
Right now, the missile defense system based in Alaska protects the entire U.S., including the East Coast, but the military will need to “pace the threat” posed as Iran’s technology involves, Jacoby said. The U.S. may need more missile sites in the future.
Marine Gen. John F. Kelly testified Tuesday the massive budget cuts known as sequestration has forced U.S. Southern Command to cancel exercises and led to confusion among service members.
“They are wondering what the heck is going on,” Kelly said.
Sequestration will also hamstring Southern Command’s efforts to stop the flow of narcotics into the U.S., he said. Last year, between 150 and 200 tons of cocaine was interdicted on the high seas.
“Next year, all of that will make its way ashore to the United States,” he said.