April 10, 2013: For the first time in 69 years, there are no American tanks in Europe. On March 18th the United States shipped home 22 M-1 tanks, bringing to an end seven decades of American armor in Europe.
First appearing in combat during World War I (1914-18), the tank became a decisive weapon during World War II (1939-45) and continued to dominate battlefields to the present. The first American tank to see wide service in Europe was the 29 ton M-4 with its 75mm gun. By the end of World War II the 42 ton M-26 and its 90mm gun showed up. By the 1950s there was the 44 ton M-47, also armed with a 90mm gun. By the end of the 1950s the 46 ton M-60 and its 105mm gun showed up. While the M-60 underwent several upgrades, it was not replaced by the 60 ton M-1 and its 120mm gun until 20 years later. During that 20 years NATO tank strength reached its peak, with about 6,000 in service with the U.S. and other NATO units in Europe. Most of those are now gone, either withdrawn (as with British, Canadian, and American ones) or disposed of (sold or scrapped). Less than 2,000 remain, none of them American.
American military forces in Europe have been shrinking ever since the end of World War II. By the end of the decade there will only be 30,000 American troops left in Europe. That’s a tenth of what it was when the Cold War ended between 1989 (when most communist governments in East Europe collapsed) and 1991 (when the Soviet Union dissolved). The last 22 M-1s were part of two American mechanized combat brigades that were being disbanded.
American troops won’t completely disappear and most Europeans want it that way. The American troops are hostages, to help keep the peace in a part of the world that has brought us some of the most destructive wars in history. While the Russians complain that the continued presence of U.S. forces in Europe is a threat to Russia, most Europeans have a more justifiable fear of Russian aggression. The Europeans pick up most of the cost of keeping the American troops there and it’s not a bad place to be stationed for a few years, despite the fact that Russia still has more tanks in service than all the rest of Europe.
All this began after 1952 (when the occupation of Germany ended). In 1945 there were three million American troops in Europe, equipped with over 5,000 tanks. In the next few years that troops and tank strength was reduced by over 90 percent. The Cold War began in 1948, but the forces in Europe did not grow much until the 1950s.
During the Cold War American troops in Europe grew to include 300,000 troops, two corps, and over six divisions (18 combat brigades), plus thousands of warplanes and helicopters, hundreds of ships, and over 1,500 tanks. Now there are no more tanks and mostly support troops. There is some infantry and paratroopers but not much in the way of armored vehicles.