US officials reveal plans to move troops out of Europe as Trump hammers Germany over defense spending

US officials reveal plans to move troops out of Europe as Trump hammers Germany over defense spending
Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division arrive in Germany for an Atlantic Resolve rotation, June 22, 2020.US Army/Sgt. Alleea Oliver
  • US officials outlined plans to move troops in Germany to other locations in Europe and the US, the latest step in a reevaluation of US force posture around the planet.
  • The US military presence in Germany has been a sticking point for President Donald Trump, who believes Berlin and other allies are free-riding on US defense spending, but critics warn that the changes could leave the US less secure.

Senior US defense officials announced plans to move US troops in Germany to other locations in Europe and back to the US on Wednesday, emphasizing the strategic reasoning for the moves even as President Donald Trump again stated his personal frustration with Germany as motive for the changes.

At a press conference Wednesday morning, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the changes supported US strategic goals, which include "optimizing our force presence worldwide" and "moving toward greater use of rotational forces from the United States."

The current plan "repositions approximately 11,900 military personnel from Germany, from roughly 36,000 down to 24,000," Esper said. "Of the 11,900, nearly 5,600 service members will be repositioned within NATO countries, and approximately 6,400 will return to the United States, though many of these or similar units will begin conducting rotational deployments back to Europe."

Outlining the moves, Esper said that US military headquarters units would be consolidated in locations outside Germany — in some cases in the same location as their NATO counterparts in Belgium and Italy — which "strengthen NATO and improve operational efficiency."

US officials reveal plans to move troops out of Europe as Trump hammers Germany over defense spending
US Army soldiers assigned to the 2nd Cavalry Regiment prepare for an exercise on Grafenwoehr Training Area, Germany, May 25, 2012.US Army/Gertrud Zach


Moving the headquarters of US European Command from Germany to Mons in Belgium puts it in the same place as NATO Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe and will "improve the speed and clarity of our decision-making and promote greater operational alignment," Gen. Tod Wolters, head of US European Command, said at the briefing.

Esper said the Army's 2nd Cavalry Regiment would return to the US, "as other Stryker units begin continuous rotations farther east in the Black Sea region," which would "enhance deterrence and reassure allies along NATO's southeastern plank."

Moving those 4,500 soldiers back to the US "will allow those units to regain maximum US at-home station readiness and more effectively support global contingencies while still maintaining a keen focus on Europe," Wolters added.

Esper also said that 2,500 airmen based in Mildenhall in the UK, where they conduct aerial refueling and special operations, will stay in the UK rather than making a scheduled relocation to Germany, "ensuring the uninterrupted readiness and responsiveness of these units."

Air Force F-16 units will also be moved from Germany to Italy, Esper said, "moving them closer to the Black Sea region and better capable of conducting dynamic force implements and rotational deployments to NATO's southeastern flank."


The plan also eventually moves the Army's new Fifth Corps headquarters to Poland, Esper said, adding that "there are or may be other options as well to move additional forces in Poland and the Baltics."

Esper didn't have a precise estimate of the costs, saying it would be in the "single digits" of billions of dollars and be spread out over time. "We could see some moves begin within weeks," Esper added. "Others will take longer."

'We don't want to be the suckers'

US officials reveal plans to move troops out of Europe as Trump hammers Germany over defense spending
President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a NATO summit.Getty

Planning to reposition US forces in Europe began "several months ago" and is part of a broader review of US combatant commands, which oversee military operations in specific areas of the world, Esper said, adding that a half-dozen such reviews are underway.

But President Donald Trump's ire with Germany over what he says is inadequate defense spending is seen as the driving factor behind the changes. On Wednesday, Trump was asked what message the changes sent to Russia and answered by railing against Germany.


"Germany is supposed to pay for" the US troop presence there, "and Germany's not paying for it. So why should we leave them?" Trump told reporters, repeating a frequent but inaccurate criticism of NATO budgeting.

"We don't want to be the suckers anymore," Trump added. "We're protecting Germany, so we're reducing the force because they're not paying their bills. It's very simple. They're delinquent."

US officials reveal plans to move troops out of Europe as Trump hammers Germany over defense spending
A US Army M1 Abrams tank on a tactical road march from Grafenwoehr Training Area in Germany to Hohenfels, Germany, April 23, 2018.US Army photo by Spc. Dustin D. Biven

Asked Wednesday about Trump's seeming grudge toward Germany, Esper admitted the European Command review "was accelerated" by Trump's decision in June to reduce US forces in Germany but said Berlin "can and should pay more to its defense" and even exceed the 2%-of-GDP threshold that NATO members agreed to reach by 2024.

Neither Belgium nor Italy have reached that 2% threashold.


Critics argue the changes and the way Trump is making them undermine NATO and embolden Russia, which sees the US military presence in Europe as a strategic challenge.

"Our security comes from a strong alliance and forward-based forces," Ben Hodges, who commanded the US Army in Europe before retiring in 2017, said Wednesday. "You can't 'take care of America' without strong Allies ... or with US-based troops only."

Some experts believe a reassessment of US military posture in Europe is overdue but caution that the manner in which Trump is conducting it may undercuts benefits it could bring.

"What we need is a genuine reevaluation of American troop presence in Europe, burden-sharing problems in NATO, and American strategic priorities," Emma Ashford, an expert on defense and foreign policy at the Cato Institute think tank, said Wednesday. "This is just a toddler's temper tantrum."

"Contrary to what the Pentagon now says, there's no real evidence this was does as a result of careful review as opposed to presidential whim, but that doesn't make it a bad idea," said Ben Friedman, policy director at Defense Priorities, a group that advocates restraint in US foreign policy.