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US Defense Focus on Asia Forces New Thinking in Europe

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Al Pessin

When President Obama announced his new global defense strategy in January, he put the emphasis on Asia, and focused his budget decisions on developing air, sea and special operations capabilities most appropriate for potential security threats in that region.  That raised some questions about the security of Europe, where the United States is the main defense partner.

The change of command ceremony for the U.S. Army corps in Europe last month had all the usual pomp and solemnity.  But the new commander knew that part of his job would be to cut his combat force in half.  The president's new defense strategy calls for removing two of the four U.S. Army combat brigades based in Europe.

With the U.S. defense budget being tightened, the plan is to focus on sea power and air capabilities that are more appropriate for the vast expanses of Asia and the Pacific Ocean, and on Special Forces for counter-terrorism missions.

The United States has gone to some lengths to reassure European allies that the U.S. commitment to their security remains strong. It will rotate troops through Europe for training, and it sent both Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to a security conference in Germany.

Secretary Panetta brought the same message to a defense ministers' meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels.  U.S. officials recognize there are still potential security threats in Europe, including Iran's missile and nuclear programs, but not the kind of threats that would likely require a response by ground forces.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen says he is not concerned about the withdrawal of the two U.S. Army brigades.

But he told VOA European countries need to recognize the importance of the eastward shift of U.S. defense priorities.

"The U.S. defense strategy is a clear signal to European allies that they must take on proper parts of the responsibility for our common security," said Rasmussen.  "We operate against the backdrop of declining defense budgets because of economic austerity.  So we need to make more efficient use of resources through pooling and sharing of resources, through multinational cooperation instead of purely national solutions."

With the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan winding down over the next three years, the new defense strategy raises a different concern for one Brussels-based analyst.  Giles Merritt of the Security and Defense Agenda says European countries must ensure they still have influence in Washington, particularly regarding any future interventions like the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

"I think the Europeans see their interest as really remaining as close to the Americans as possible in order to be a restraining influence if nothing else," said Merritt.  "We must try and make U.S. decision-making much more multi-lateral than it has been."

The full impact of the shift of U.S. defense priorities toward Asia will not be felt for some years to come.  But it has European security officials and analysts thinking about and planning for a future in which their strongest ally, the United States, will increasingly be focusing elsewhere.

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