STUTTGART, Germany -- The U.S. military will keep a "strong and vibrant" presence in Europe, the top U.S. military commander in Europe said Friday, even as Washington considers plans for a more agile force.
One of Marine Gen. James Jones' first tasks after taking command of the 116,000-strong U.S. forces in Europe in January was to draft plans to transform the defensive Cold War military into a sleeker force deploying more quickly.
Since then, there has been much speculation about the scope of the contraction. But Jones told The Associated Press in an interview that Europe would remain a significant forward base.
"It remains important to have a strong and vibrant footprint in this part of the world," said Jones, who also serves as NATO's top military commander.
"Virtual presence is actual absence. You have to be there to make a difference. Nobody is talking about retreating to fortress America in this concept."
Under Jones' draft plans, now in the hands of Washington policy-makers, the military would reduce its presence in western Europe by shifting forces back to the United States and the U.S. European Command areas of eastern Europe and Africa.
The new concept is rooted in 21st century realities: unpredictable threats and greater troop efficiency.
It envisions a three-tier system of strategically significant existing bases, such as the Ramstein Air Base in southwestern Germany; forward operating bases, such as the semi-permanent Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo; and a bare-bones forward operating position, which could be just an airstrip and barracks closer to a trouble spot.
"What we've tried to do is to create a new basing concept that is more efficient ... and reshapes the basic footprint without altering the fundamental requirement that our presence here is very important," Jones said.
The war in Iraq, while sharpening the view that the military needs to be more streamlined to respond to new threats, also underscored Europe's strategic significance, Jones said.
Two-thirds of cargo and 80 percent of personnel bound for the war either originated in or passed through Europe.
"When you look at the percentage of cargo and personnel that came through Europe to get to Iraq, you can see that you need that way point," Jones said.
But he said the job can be done with fewer troops and without the post-World War II-style bases built for long-term deployments with families.
Today's infantry, for example, is at least three times more efficient than previously, Jones said, meaning that 1,000 Marines or soldiers can do the work of 3,000 from the Cold War era.
An initial proposal called for reducing Europe's nearly 500 installations -- including locations as compact as an antenna surrounded by a fence -- by 20 percent.
Jones declined to discuss which bases and installations might close, saying those decisions will be made in Washington.
Ramstein, headquarters of the U.S. Air Force Europe, played a critical role in ferrying troops and supplies to Iraq and would be difficult to replace, Jones said. He also said the Grafenwoehr training grounds in southwestern Germany remained unique.
"Those kinds of bases will continue to serve a great utility for the foreseeable future," Jones said.
Still, existing training areas may eventually give way to sites in eastern Europe under the plans. While Grafenwoehr boasts state-of-the-art technology, Jones acknowledged that training restrictions imposed as the civilian population expands toward the base has made it more difficult to run exercises.
"Obviously we are going to be attracted to going to areas that are more welcoming in that context," Jones said.
The military held major training operations in Poland heading into the Iraqi war and the conflict in Afghanistan, but Jones said under the new model it was unlikely that the military would establish new permanent training bases.
"Just because we train there doesn't mean we will build a giant base there," Jones said.