MUNICH (Reuters) - The U.S. military, which is cutting its presence in Europe, plans to expand its training of European partners to cope with new threats posed by interlinked criminal and militant networks smuggling weapons and drugs, said the U.S. commander in Europe.
The United States is withdrawing two Army combat brigades from Germany, reducing the size of its force by around 7,000 soldiers. The cuts, announced by the Pentagon last month, are part of a new U.S. strategy aiming to create a leaner military costing it $487 billion less over the next decade.
"Even with the loss of two brigades I will have close to 35,000 soldiers here. That is a big force size and bigger than most European armies," Lieutenant General Mark Hertling told Reuters in an interview.
"It is the end of an old era and the beginning of a new one, because the threats these forces were positioned for in the past are not the types of threats we have today," he said on the sidelines of a security conference in Munich.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reassured European allies Saturday that Washington remains committed to their security despite the austerity drive.
At the height of the Cold War, almost a quarter of a million U.S. soldiers were stationed in Europe, as Russia and America faced off across the Iron Curtain dividing the continent.
Since the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, many former allies of the Soviet Union are amongst the most enthusiastic recipients of U.S. military training.
The U.S. base in Grafenwoehr in the southern German state of Bavaria, where one of the combat brigades is slated for departure, will continue to be used as a training site, Hertling said.
"The way we have used it in the past will expand significantly. Every rotation and training event is multi-national," Hertling said, noting the military had just finished an exercise with 11 partners including Bulgarian special forces and Slovakian units.
As many as 51 different partners and allies have trained in Grafenwoehr, which also has mobile training facilities that can be taken to other countries.
Amidst calls from some politicians and strategists at the Munich conference for "smart defence" or a greater pooling of resources, Hertling said the U.S. military was already enacting this with its training.
"We just have to refine our skills in linking partners together," he said.
Current training, Hertling said, concentrated on "hybrid" threats where criminals may work with conventional forces, or with "terrorists," sharing weapons or drugs.
"Those are the kinds of threats we see in the future, not only in Europe but in hot spots around the world," he said.
"Networking between terrorists and criminals, selling of drugs, the trans-national movement of people, or terror, weapons, money - those are the kinds of things we want to train our intelligence forces to really counter and address."
Hertling expressed concern some European partners had failed to pull their weight in defense, both in terms of spending and capability.
"We need to continue discussions and make sure we are all contributing," he said, without singling out any country.
(Reporting by Alexandra Hudson; Editing by Alessandra Rizzo)