GARMISCH-PARTENKIRCHEN, Germany — Perched on a glacier known as the Zugspitze above this storied Alpine ski resort, Henry Collarain was having trouble shepherding his three sons toward the ski lodge.
“They just don’t want to go inside,” he said during a break on a snowy ridge. “They just love skiing on a sunny day.”
A contractor from Wisconsin who works at the nearby NATO School at Oberammergau — another mountain town in Germany’s southern-most state Bavaria — Collarain is one of many Americans you’ll bump into here.
US lecturers, administrators, soldiers and their families have lived in and around the German-Austrian border for 60 years — some of them stationed at American military bases, others at institutions such as the NATO School and the larger Marshall Center for European Security Studies in Garmisch-Partenkirchen.
Still others staff a myriad of support facilities such as the Garmisch Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Division, or spend time here as guests at the 338-room Edelweiss Lodge and Resort.
The US military’s gold-plated “footprint” here went largely unquestioned for decades, part of the trappings of America’s superpower status and its victory over Hitler, whose own Alpine retreat is just a quick Panzer ride down the road.
But with Washington alight with talk of the government’s impending automatic spending cuts to everything from Medicare to missiles, some say maintaining a force of more than 88,000 American troops here — along with the accompanying schools, housing, recreation centers and ski resorts — isn’t in keeping with the times.
"In our current budget environment, we must cut spending, particularly where we can find efficiencies, such as reducing overseas military basing,” says Texas Republican Hutchison Kay Bailey Hutchinson, who retired last month after 20 years in the Senate. “By streamlining and downsizing our excessive force structure in Europe, we will save billions in military construction, operations and maintenance and family support costs. In addition to saving billions in taxpayer dollars as well as improving troop readiness, thousands of jobs will be brought back to the United States."
With the cost of every federal expenditure drawing new scrutiny these days, the financial case for a major drawdown of U.S. troops is powerful.
The United States spends $250 billion a year to maintain its forward-deployed military forces, according to a 2011 study by the Institute for Policy Studies. About $100 billion of that gigantic annual sum, which represents more than a third of annual U.S. defense spending, goes to the slowly receding conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another large chunk, however — as much as $100 billion a year — funds American forces, their families, weapons and bases in Germany and other rich countries.
“[M]ost soldiers are stationed in high-wage countries such as Germany and Japan,” the report notes, saying host countries contribute very little toward the presence of US troops on their soil. Total direct patyments amounted to just over $4 billion, on top of another $4 billion in “indirect contributions.” Moreover, 78 percent of direct contributions come from one country, Japan, and are diminishing fast. Other countries make little or no direct contributions to their US bases, the report says.
You might think leaders in Germany and many other European countries that host US forces — including Spain, Italy, Belgium, Portugal and even Britain — would be lining up to join the clamor to shut down US bases. They’ve faced ever angrier electorates whenever Washington has chosen to go to war over the past several decades.
Outside the early days of the Afghanistan campaign — which fell under the Article 5 “mutual defense” clause of the NATO treaty — actions in Somalia, Iraq (in 1991 and 2003) and the involvement of German-based facilities in “extraordinary renditions” of terrorism suspects prompted massive anti-war demonstrations in various European cities.
Nevertheless, none of Europe’s major political parties have demanded that American forces, whose presence on the continent dates to June 4, 1944 (i.e., D-Day), should pack up and leave.
“Frankly, why should they want us to leave?” asks Steven Sestanovich, a Europe expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “With the British slashing their defense budgets, really only Turkey and France continue to make serious investments in military forces. For the rest, the post-war American subsidy of all their defense and deterrence needs has been so complete that the very concept of ‘national security’ has disappeared. As long as the US stations tens of thousands of troops in Europe, nothing is going to change.”
Within Washington, proponents of keeping a large US footprint in Europe are fighting a rear-guard action.
The RAND Corporation, a think-tank partly funded by the Pentagon, is about to release a report that will argue that the cost of redeploying American forces back home or to Asia — as part of the Obama administration’s much discussed “pivot” of US global posture — will cancel any savings.
Although a RAND spokesperson declined to comment on the upcoming report until it’s published, RAND senior political scientist Adam Grissom, who contributed to a July 2012 Brookings Institution report about NATO spending patterns, writes that the idea that closing bases in Europe will save money “is a myth.”
The Army, the force with the highest footprint, was subject to a 2004 Congressional Budget Office assessment that concluded that the cost/benefits of base closings and redeployments are overstated. “There would be limited annual savings to offset the large initial investment needed to re-station U.S. forces, unless U.S. presence overseas was greatly reduced,” the report concluded.
Some analysts suggest that’s like comparing apples to oranges. The last phrase — “unless the U.S. presence overseas was greatly reduced” — wasn’t on the agenda in 2004. Today it most decidedly is.
“The most expensive cost in any military force is the cost of personnel,” says Nick Childs, a British author and analyst of western military forces. “If you assume that troops will just move from Europe to Asia, or to a base somewhere in Florida, then the savings aren’t dramatic. But that’s not what’s on the table today.”
In fact, with American forces out of Iraq and set to exit Afghanistan by the end of next year, the size of the US Army and Marine Corps — both of which swelled to fight the wars of 9/11 — are due to shrink, possibly dramatically. Before he left late last year, US Defense Secretary Bill Gates said cuts to the Army’s ranks of 27,000 would begin in 2015 — the year after the Afghanistan withdrawal.
Other analysts believe the cuts will go far deeper as the debate proceeds over what kind of force is appropriate for an America that is rethinking its global role.
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Amid general foreboding in the military, President Obama made the Navy’s Pacific Fleet admirals happy last November, when he promised staffing forces in the Asia-Pacific would be a “top priority.”
“Reductions in US defense spending will not — I repeat, will not — come at the expense of the Asia-Pacific,” he said.
Those words echoed ominously through Europe’s Alpine ravines. Nor were they welcome in the big East Coast Navy bases at Mayport, Florida, Norfolk, Virginia and the submarine port of Groton, Connecticut.
Nevertheless, the die seems cast — only the numbers remain to be revealed.