June 15, 2020

Reducing US Troop Numbers in Germany Would Undermine NATO’s Capability and Credibility

US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump greet members of the US military during a stop at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, on December 27, 2018.
US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump greet members of the US military during a stop at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, on December 27, 2018.

President Donald Trump ordered preparations for reducing considerably US troops numbers in Germany. A formal decision has not been made yet, and Trump may ultimately decline to sign it due to mounting political pressure, including in the Republican Party, but political damage to NATO’s credibility has been done. The whole construction of collective defence would be significantly weakened because of less rapid reinforcement capability from Germany to NATO’s eastern flank.

Germany hosts about 34 500 US troops, as well as their families and civilian employees, most of them in five large garrisons and two major air bases. These forces are stationed in the southern federal states of the former West Germany (Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate and Hesse) where, during the Cold War, they and other NATO forces stood ready to defend the most probable route of a Soviet and Warsaw Pact invasion—through the Fulda Gap, stretching from the former East Germany towards Frankfurt am Main and France. Headquarters US European Command is located in Stuttgart, from where it coordinates America’s military activities in 51 countries, including virtually all European countries, as well as Russia, Turkey and Israel. The US African Command is also based in Stuttgart. Germany is a hub for US rotational air deployments to the Middle East, including Afghanistan, and provides hospitals for American soldiers medically evacuated from different theatres of operations.

Germany thus hosts the second largest US military contingent in the world (after Japan) and facilitates American military activities, deployments and presence in more than 100 countries on three continents.

European Allies Support US Military Presence

The role of Germany and its US troop contingent changed with NATO’s enlargement to the east. The Baltic states and Poland became the Alliance’s new first line of defence, while Germany was transformed into a hub for America’s rapid reinforcement of NATO’s north-eastern and south-eastern flanks, alongside the NATO Response Force (including the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force). Poland, meanwhile, hosts about 5 000 US troops under the US European Deterrence Initiative (EDI) and NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence. US EDI forces in Poland routinely move around and train throughout the eastern flank.

The US exercise, Defender Europe 20, was to bring 20 000 US troops to Europe between February and July to rehearse large-scale deployment across the Atlantic Ocean and defensive actions in theatres from Germany to Estonia together with host nations and other Allies, but was substantially cut due to the Covid-19 pandemic. European Allies, particularly Germany, Poland and the Baltic states have made great efforts during the past years to support US military presence, whether rotational or temporary, on their territory. Poland and the Baltic states spend at least 2% of their GDP on defence, while Germany sharply raised its defence budget by a tenth (5 billion euros) in 2019 and has reached the level of 1.35% of GDP, pledging to achieve the 2% target by 2030.

Trump’s Decision Shocked Europe

Information recently leaked from the White House indicates that as early as September 2019 President Donald Trump ordered the Pentagon to start preparing to bring home about 9 500 US military personnel from Germany (a reduction of 27.5%), and to impose a maximum limit of 25 000 on the contingent. Although Trump has not yet formalised his decision, last week’s announcement of these plans shocked not only European Allies, particularly Germany, but also US politicians and opinion leaders who care and are knowledgeable about European and transatlantic security.

Trump’s decision and its implications for collective defence were not discussed at NATO HQ in Brussels, nor were Allies, including Germany, informed of the preparations, damaging the Alliance’s political and military credibility. Furthermore, the planned move very clearly implies that the American President neither values nor understands the defence of Europe and the transatlantic bond, and underestimates or ignores the Russian threat. Russia surely detects potential new cracks in the Alliance and will try to exploit them.

The current US presence in Europe could be regarded as—at best—the bare minimum necessary for NATO’s effective deterrence of and defence against Russia. Poland has expressed a readiness to receive some of the US troops that might leave Germany. While a larger American presence in Poland might appear to strengthen NATO’s eastern flank, the whole construction of collective defence would, in fact, be significantly weakened by the larger reduction of rapid reinforcement capability from Germany. The gap that would be created by the removal of 9 500 US troops from Europe could perhaps be filled in the long run by other Allies, but no one would be able to remedy the blow to NATO’s political credibility.

Potentially Disastrous Political and Security Consequences

Trump’s decision is, of course, driven by political considerations, including his displeasure with Germany and the EU’s approach to China, Iran, Russia, climate change and other important matters, as well as his pre-election campaign promise to bring home more American troops.

Practical considerations, however, suggest that the relocation of 9 500 military personnel and their families—altogether about 25 000 people—will not be possible in the four months or so before the US presidential election. Opponents of the decision will certainly highlight the cost of redeployment, and the additional costs that will fall to the US once Germany’s present share of the administrative and other costs related to the US military presence is removed. But the more persuasive arguments will be the potentially disastrous political and security consequences to the US and NATO.

Some experts, such as the former Commander of US Army Europe, Lieutenant General (retired) Ben Hodges, have argued that, because of tremendous pre-election political pressure within the Republican Party, President Trump will ultimately decline to sign his own proposed decision. George W. Bush, Colin Powell, James Mattis, Dick Cheney and others have already turned their back on Trump, and their stance will probably not go unnoticed by the Republican electorate. Another possibility, if Trump is re-elected, is the repetition of the Syrian scenario, in which, in spite of fierce criticism, Trump insists on the implementation of his decision, but in the end only a fraction of the 9 500 troops are pulled out of Germany, and even then perhaps relocated to Poland.

Even if both the future of President Trump and his decision to sharply cut the American contingent in Germany are uncertain, the possible consequences are clearly alarming and the political damage to NATO and the transatlantic link has already been done.