The United States is cutting back its deployments in Germany by nearly 12,000 troops and shifting some of those forces around the continent, including relocating some units to Belgium and Italy, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper announced on Wednesday.
About 6,400 troops are set to return to the United States.
The move is certain to rankle European leaders and anger both Democratic and Republican lawmakers who see the United States troop presence on the continent, especially in Germany, as a cornerstone of post-World War II order.
“I am confident that the alliance will be all the better and stronger for it,” Mr. Esper told reporters. “We can see some moves begin within weeks.”
The Pentagon’s decision to cut American troops in Germany from roughly 36,000 to about 24,000 is in keeping with President Trump’s “America First” approach and his deep-seated drive to bring home U.S. forces from wars started after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
He has also vigorously demanded that European allies carry more of the burden for their own protection. In particular, he has long criticized Germany for being “delinquent” in meeting its commitment to spend 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense. The plan announced by Mr. Esper on Wednesday will affect American deployments to Germany more than any other NATO ally.
“This is so clearly a punitive move against Germany that its hard to see any benefit from this,” said Rachel Rizzo, the director of programs at the Truman Center for National Policy, who focuses on European security issues. “It really puts future administrations in a bind; it gives them no room to maneuver and will stick in Europeans’ mind well into the future.”
Mr. Trump addressed the issue when he spoke to reporters on Wednesday, stressing that Germany had not paid its full share for defense under NATO commitments.
“Germany is delinquent,” Mr. Trump said.
The outlines of the move, reported in June by The Wall Street Journal, blindsided German officials and some American military officials, who have long seen the U.S. presence in Germany as the bedrock of the American commitment to NATO.
Mr. Esper said the change was part of an ongoing review of U.S. troop presence around the world that was “accelerated” by Mr. Trump’s announcement to cut forces in Germany. Mr. Esper sought to explain to reporters that the move was not a punitive action prompted by the president.
“I’m telling you that this is going to accomplish what the president said with regard to getting us down to a lower number in Europe, and it meets those other objectives I outlined with regard to the strategic piece,” Mr. Esper said.
Repositioning the troops will cost “several billion dollars,” he added. The withdrawal and shifting of forces is likely to take months, if not years.
Several hours later, Mr. Trump undermined his defense secretary’s already shaky position.
“Germany pays Russia billions of dollars a year for Energy, and we are supposed to protect Germany from Russia,” he wrote on Twitter. “What’s that all about? Also, Germany is very delinquent in their 2% fee to NATO. We are therefore moving some troops out of Germany!”
About 5,600 troops leaving Germany will move elsewhere in Europe, including an F-16 fighter squadron to Italy and an armored unit that will return to the United States and start a rotational deployment in the Black Sea region. The military’s European Command headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, will move to Mons, Belgium. The Africa Command headquarters, also in Germany, will probably move, although Defense Department officials did not name a location.
The shift of forces will reduce the American presence at some U.S. bases in Germany, but none are expected to close. The more remote town of Spangdahlem, where the F-16 jet squadron is based, depends on the American presence there and will experience economic fallout from the withdrawal.
“It is a bitter day,” the German politician Roger Lewentz told the public broadcaster SWR in Rhineland-Palatinate, the southwestern state where the Spangdahlem Air Base is home to about 4,000 U.S. Air Force personnel, many of whom are stationed there with their families. About 670 Germans are employed at the base, in one of the country’s economically weakest regions.
“Unfortunately, this decision by the U.S. administration will mean the loss of German jobs,” Mr. Lewentz said. “The German employees didn’t deserve this.”
The governors from the four German states that host American troops sent a letter this month to more than a dozen U.S. lawmakers, pushing them to urge Mr. Trump not to scale back the troop presence in Germany.
“For decades, Americans and Germans have worked together to build and develop these unique and highly capable structures,” the letter said. “They provide the necessary foundation for a partnership-based contribution to peace in Europe and the world, to which we all share a common commitment.”
Tobias Lindner, a lawmaker from Rhineland-Palatinate who sits on the defense committee of the German Parliament, called the announcements “sweeping.” But he echoed the hope of the four governors that Congress would possibly prevent all of the movements from going through.
“Germany is grateful to the United States and its guarantee of European security. This signal from Washington is therefore even more unsettling to bilateral relations,” Mr. Lindner said. “What is clear is that Donald Trump is not a friend of Germany. I am counting on Congress and the ties of trust built up over many years and hoping that they will be able to withstand the shadow cast by the president’s decision.”
In 2012, the Obama administration withdrew two combat brigades from Germany to a mostly muted response, though it was opposed by many officials in Europe.
But that was two years before Russia invaded Crimea and fueled an insurgency in eastern Ukraine with weapons and troops, prompting European and American officials to call for a reinvigorated NATO and a harsher stance against Russia.
American bases in Germany span the gamut of missions, such as training areas like the one in Grafenwoehr and the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, often one of the first stops for U.S. troops wounded in combat in places such as Iraq or Afghanistan as they return stateside for medical care.
Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah and a former presidential candidate, called Mr. Trump’s plan to cut troops in Germany a “grave error” in a statement Wednesday.
“It is a slap in the face at a friend and ally when we should instead be drawing closer in our mutual commitment to deter Russian and Chinese aggression,” Mr. Romney said. “The move may temporarily play well in domestic politics, but its consequences will be lasting and harmful to American interests.”
The Kremlin has long seen American troops in Europe as a threat to Russian borders.
Mr. Esper did say that some American forces could increase rotational deployments to the Black Sea region near Russia, as well as to Poland and the Baltic States.
At the height of the Cold War, when military officials planned for armored blitzes through the Fulda Gap, a patch of land in Germany long seen as a flash point for a shooting war with the Soviet Union, the U.S. military had nearly 300,000 troops stationed in Europe.
Melissa Eddy contributed reporting from Berlin.
Published at Thu, 30 Jul 2020 00:02:20 +0000