US Defense Secretary Mark Esper outlined plans on Wednesday (29 July) to take thousands of US troops out of Germany by shifting some of the forces to Italy and Belgium, ending weeks of uncertainty over US troop withdrawal strategy in Europe.
The move was designed to “strengthen NATO” and “deter Russia” and would retool the US military for a “new era of great power competition,” Esper said, detailing a Pentagon plan that will cost billions of dollars and take years to complete.
In June, US President Donald Trump announced his intention to cut the number of US troops in Germany to 25,000, faulting Berlin for failing to meet the military alliance’s 2% GDP defence spending target and accusing it of taking advantage of America on trade.
Most troops are currently stationed at the Ramstein Air Base in southwestern Germany, the largest American military base outside the US.
According to the withdrawal plan, a total of 11,900 personnel will be withdrawn from Germany, reducing the contingent to about 24,000 troops in the country “in a manner that will strengthen NATO, enhance the deterrence of Russia, and meet the other principles I set forth,” Esper announced.
The Pentagon had already been carrying out a review of US forces globally before Trump’s long-running dispute with Germany bubbled over.
“Of the 11,900, nearly 5,600 will be repositioned within NATO countries, and approximately 6,400 will return to the US, though many of these or similar units will begin conducting rotational deployments back to Europe,” Esper added.
General John Hyten, vice-chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said the troop reallocation would bolster US commitment to its allies because it would “better distribute forces across Europe and increase the use of rotational forces”.
Around 4,500 of them would be members of 2nd Cavalry Regiment, while similar Stryker units will head further east and around the Black Sea on a rotational basis, reinforcing NATO’s presence in a key area between Russia and continental Europe.
A fighter squadron and elements of a fighter wing will also shift from Germany to Italy, positioning those fighters closer to the Black Sea Region.
Another 2,500 airmen based in Mildenhall, UK, who were scheduled to re-base to Germany, will remain in the UK.
At the same time, both officials also confirmed that the US Africa Command (US AFRICOM), also headquartered in Stuttgart, “might soon relocate to a location to be determined”, but here “discussions are a long way to go”.
Washington’s initial announcement to reduce the contingent of US troops in Germany drew criticism from the host country and took NATO allies by surprise.
The Pentagon has been tight-lipped on how it would carry out the Trump administration’s plans, which constitute a singular rebuke to one of Washington’s closest trading partners and military allies.
The minister-presidents of the four German states that host US troops have appealed to members of the US Congress to block Trump’s withdrawal, which current and former US officials have criticized as politically, rather than strategically, driven.
Several NATO defence ministers have also expressed concern about the withdrawal, particularly since Trump has repeatedly talked about bringing troops home and getting the US out of “endless wars.”
US Ambassador to NATO, Kay Bailey Hutchinson, told EURACTIV in June that “most certainly, there is no sign of American retreat from Europe, America is deeply committed and more committed than ever in Europe. No one should ever think that America is walking away from Europe in any way.”
Poland had been quick to offer to host some of these forces with Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki saying in June he hoped that some of the US troops will be reassigned to Poland, something also supported by President Andrzej Duda.
Since the conservative PiS (Law and Justice) government came to power, Poland had presented a vast plan to modernise its army and revived the calls for a permanent US base in the country with “boots on the ground”, dubbed ‘Fort Trump’.
The current plan does not foresee a permanent troop re-assignment to Poland but, according to US officials, could result in the “possibility to reassign more troops to Poland and the Baltics” on a rotational basis.
“Once Warsaw assigns a defence cooperation agreement and burden sharing deal as previously pledged, there are may be other opportunities as well to move additional forces into Poland and the Baltics,” Esper added.
However, the final decision on the implementation of the planned partial deduction might go to the US Congress, where resistance has formed among both Democrats and Republicans, who through a law on the upcoming military budget could adjust any of such plans.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]