Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove became head of U.S. European Command on Friday, assuming leadership at a time of fiscal constraint and growing instability just beyond Europe’s edges in places such as Syria.
During a change of command ceremony at EUCOM headquarters on Patch Barracks, Breedlove replaced Adm. James Stavridis, who served as the senior U.S. military officer in Europe for the past four years. Breedlove also will officially assume command of NATO forces during a similar ceremony on Monday in Belgium.
“I have every confidence that he will represent the Air Force, EUCOM, and soon NATO, with honor, distinction and the highest standards of professionalism,” said Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who presided over Friday’s ceremony.
Breedlove, who until now had served as head of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and U.S. Air Forces Africa, told reporters after the ceremony that the command faces numerous challenges. Chief among those is operating in an atmosphere of budgetary uncertainty brought on by the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.
“We are being challenged hard now,” Breedlove said. “We have training that is stood down in our ground component. We have steaming that has been decreased in our naval component. We still have almost three fighter squadrons grounded here in Europe that have stopped flying for some time. So, we do have a distinct impact on the readiness of this command and that impact will grow over time the longer that forces don’t train or [continue to] stand down.”
Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. force posture in Europe has been steadily shrinking. Down from a high of about 400,000 military personnel, there are roughly 80,000 troops in Europe today. Drawdown plans will put that number at about 69,000 in the coming years.
Breedlove says EUCOM can’t afford to lose any more troops, but there could be room for streamlining the size of the military footprint in Europe by shedding some infrastructure.
“We do need to take a hard look at whether we have infrastructure that is not being fully utilized and whether that infrastructure could then be responsibly turned back over,” he said. “But I don’t think there is room for further troop reductions.”
Friday’s change of command also served as a retirement ceremony for Stavridis, who will leave the service in mid-summer to become dean of the Fletcher School of International Affairs at Tufts University.
During a lengthy speech, Carter talked of Stavridis’s achievements during a 37-year career that included a previous stint as head of U.S. Southern Command, numerous Navy commands at sea and heading up EUCOM and NATO, where he oversaw the alliance’s 2011 combat mission in Libya that resulted in the fall of dictator Moammar Gadhafi. A frequent user of new media tools such as Facebook and twitter, Stavridis has applied innovative solutions to complex security problems, Carter said.
“He has won renown as one of the Navy’s most influential, creative and forward-thinking leaders of his generation,” Carter said. “Jim’s a sailor, a statesman and a scholar, truly a Renaissance admiral, as they call him.”
During his time in command, Stavridis also has been a defender of the military mission in Europe, which some critics have described as a Cold War relic. During his farewell speech he once again talked of Europe’s relevance to global security.
“People sometimes ask me these days if Europe is still important to the United States. It absolutely is. The United states is a global nation,” Stavridis said. “At the moment, we are focusing attention and energy on Asia as we see strategic challenges there. But our strategic partners will remain centered here in Europe, because of NATO, because of that alliance, because of the geography of where Europe sits, because of the wonderful bases here that allow us to move forward, into the Levant, into Africa and into the near Middle East.”
In his parting words, Stavridis noted the legacy of the dual-hatted position of EUCOM commander and NATO Supreme Allied Commander, dates back to Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was the first to hold the position of SACEUR. Stavridis told Breedlove, a fighter pilot and lover of Harley-Davidson motorcycles, that serving at the helm of EUCOM and NATO is a once-in-a-lifetime job.
“Phil, you’ve had a lot of great seats in your life — in high performance aircraft, in your Harley,” Stavridis said. “You’re about to sit at Eisenhower’s desk. It’s a seat of a lifetime.”
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