Any adjustments to U.S. force posture in Europe should focus first and foremost on sustaining or strengthening readiness.
NATO represents one of America’s greatest grand strategic assets, and the U.S.-German bilateral relationship serves as a key pillar for the alliance and for stability and security on the European continent. Yet President Donald Trump’s approach to Germany and the U.S. military posture there has inflicted unnecessary damage to the bilateral relationship and the unity of NATO. To support U.S. national security objectives, the United States should retain a robust military presence in Germany while seeking to address political divisions between Washington and Berlin, which only help Moscow.
The 2018 U.S. National Defense Strategy declared that “[l]ong-term strategic competitions with China and Russia are the principal priorities” for the Pentagon, requiring increased investments due to “the magnitude of the threats” both countries pose to the United States. In that effort, the United States has no more important asset than the NATO alliance. The NDS accordingly describes efforts to fortify the alliance as one of the Pentagon’s top priorities. “A strong and free Europe, bound by shared principles of democracy, national sovereignty, and commitment to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty is vital to our security,” the NDS says. Article 5, of course, declares that “an armed attack against one” NATO member “shall be considered an attack against them all.” By convincing Moscow that the alliance has sufficient unity, political will, and military capability to protect every member, NATO has deterred the Kremlin from conducting a military attack on any NATO country for more than seven decades.
While much has changed in recent years, the threat from Russia has only grown, and NATO remains as relevant as ever. Philip Breedlove, who previously served as the top U.S. and NATO commander in Europe, said in August that “NATO is more important now than it’s ever been since the fall of the [Berlin] wall” in 1989.
America’s military presence in Europe not only supports U.S. interests and the NDS by enabling the deterrence of Moscow, but it also helps Washington conduct and support U.S. military operations in the Mediterranean, Africa, and the Middle East. U.S. military posture in Europe also helps build the readiness of NATO allies and improve interoperability—ultimately decreasing the security burden on the United States.
The U.S. military presence in Germany has been particularly important in accruing these military benefits for the United States. Germany hosts the best U.S. military training facilities in Europe and some of America’s most important bases. The Grafenwoehr Training Area, for example, represents what the U.S. Army calls the “largest and most sophisticated permanent training area in Europe.” Many of the U.S. bases in Germany have played a vital role in supporting operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example. “Can you imagine doing anything in the Middle East without the throughput of Spangdahlem, Ramstein, and the hospital at [Landstuhl Regional Medical Center] in Germany?” Breedlove remarked in August, noting that the U.S. military hospital in Ramstein has “saved thousands of American lives.”
In addition to its direct security benefits, the U.S. military presence in Germany also deepens and broadens vital political, diplomatic, and people-to-people ties between the two countries. That is particularly important given the geographic position of Germany, the size of its economy, and Berlin’s corresponding power within NATO, the European Union, and Europe more broadly. In fact, Germany boasts the largest population (not including Russia) and economy of any country in Europe. In other words, it will be quite difficult to maintain the unity of NATO if U.S.-German relations continue to deteriorate.
It is also worth remembering that Germany supported NATO’s invocation of Article 5 for the first time in the alliance’s history following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. Over the subsequent years, thousands of Germans have served in Afghanistan alongside Americans—with some Germans paying the ultimate price. As of June, 1,300 German troops were still serving in Afghanistan—second-most among alliance members, behind only the United States.
Trump, NATO, and Germany
President Trump does not fully appreciate the importance of NATO or the U.S. military presence in Germany to American national security interests. He views the U.S. military presence in Germany as a favor or charity to be extended or refused based on German defense spending or perhaps his personal relationship with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“They are delinquent of billions of dollars, this is for years delinquent,” Trump said in June according to Politico. “So we are putting the number down to 25,000 soldiers.” That unambiguous statement demonstrates the president’s real motivation for the movement of U.S. troops out of Germany. Eliminating any doubt, Trump reiterated the message in June — “So, I said until they pay, we’re removing our soldiers, a number of our soldiers.” — and again in July.
It is certainly appropriate to expect America’s NATO allies to carry their fair share of the defense burden—a point Republican and Democrat administrations have emphasized for decades. Yet since 1949, only Trump has risked the credibility of NATO’s conventional deterrent as a means of pressuring U.S. allies. Both before and after becoming president, Trump suggested that the United States might not honor its Article 5 commitment to its allies if they did not fulfill their defense spending commitments. This invites the very aggression that NATO was established to prevent.
To be sure, there has been a welcome increase in defense spending among NATO allies in Europe. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has said President Trump’s approach deserves some credit for this increase in defense spending, although Moscow’s 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea likely provides the primary explanation for the increase in European defense spending. Regardless, American troops are in Germany because it serves U.S. interests, and President Trump’s approach has damaged alliance unity that is essential to NATO deterrence of Moscow.
Not all of the bilateral tension with Germany, of course, should be blamed on Trump. Washington has rightly expressed concern about Berlin’s support for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany. Meanwhile, Berlin has indeed persistently failed to make sufficient progress toward honoring its commitment to devote 2 percent of GDP to military expenditures by 2024. That said, Germany devoted 1.36 percent of its 2019 GDP to defense, up from 1.18 percent the year Russia invaded Crimea. Given the size of the German economy, insufficient defense spending materially reduces the resources available to support alliance objectives. It also deprives the German military of the resources it needs to maintain sufficient military capability, capacity, and readiness.
In Germany’s case, there is also a mismatch between what counts toward the 2 percent target and where NATO and Washington most need Berlin to invest. As NATO’s border has shifted eastward, Germany has gone from a frontline state to a rear area logistical hub. Accordingly, in addition to integrated air and missile defense, Germany most needs to invest in cyber-protected logistical and transportation infrastructure necessary to push large quantities of reinforcements eastward as quickly as possible during a crisis. Notably, many of those investments are not currently captured by the 2 percent metric that has received so much attention.
Within this context, the Trump administration announced on July 29, 2020, a significant reduction in the U.S. military presence in Germany. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the United States will reduce the U.S. military presence in Germany from 36,000 troops to 24,000, adding that “nearly 5,600 service members will be repositioned within NATO countries, and approximately 6,400 will return to the United States.”
Among the 5,600 service members repositioning within Europe, many will go to Belgium or Italy. In light of Trump’s reason for moving troops out of Germany, this shift is odd. Both countries spend less on defense as a measure of GDP than does Germany. Belgium spent 0.93 percent of its GDP on defense in 2019, and Italy spent 1.22 percent.
Under the relocation plan, the headquarters of U.S. European Command and U.S. Special Operations Command Europe would move to Belgium. The Pentagon argues this co-location with Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe in Mons will improve staff coordination, but in the age of modern communication, such benefits seem paltry compared to the move’s costs to the Defense Department’s budget and to the U.S. relationship with Germany.
The potential movement of some operational units may also require scrutiny. Under the plan, for example, one F-16 squadron would move from Germany’s Spangdahlem Air Base to Aviano Air Base in Italy. While moving that squadron to Aviano would provide additional air power closer to the eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea, Aviano already hosts two F-16 squadrons. In addition to the value of dispersion as a means of protecting forces, there is a question whether Aviano has sufficient infrastructure to host a third F-16 squadron. Regardless, some of these moves will take months or years, especially when congressionally authorized and appropriated military construction will be required.
Secretary Esper said these decisions were part of an ongoing review of the U.S. military posture in all combatant commands. There may indeed be military benefits from some of these moves. However, it is clear the Pentagon is trying to make the best of a poor decision by the commander in chief primarily intended to punish Germany. Unfortunately, if some of these decisions are executed, their primary victim will be U.S. national security interests.
It is, of course, necessary for the Pentagon to continually reassess and adjust U.S. overseas military posture, including in Germany. It certainly makes sense to shift some forces to strengthen NATO’s eastern flank—in Poland, the Baltics, and the Black Sea region. A continuous Stryker Brigade rotation in the Black Sea region may also make sense. Any potential moves, however, should be solely focused on securing U.S. national security interests and should be conducted in a manner that does not sow unnecessary discord in the alliance or damage the vital U.S.-Germany defense relationship.
In his July announcement, Secretary Esper said the movements of U.S. troops from Germany were guided by five principles. They included “enhanced deterrence of Russia’; “strengthen NATO”; “reassure allies”; “improve U.S. strategic flexibility and EUCOM operational flexibility”; and “take care of our service members and their families in the process.”
Notably missing from this list is a discussion of readiness. Any adjustments to U.S. force posture in Europe should focus first and foremost on sustaining or strengthening readiness. Actual and perceived readiness is indispensable to each of Secretary Esper’s five principles. The movement of some capabilities from Germany to Italy, as well as the decision to keep Air Force capabilities at Mildenhall Air Base in England instead of moving them to Spangdahlem and other bases in Germany, will not help readiness. It is worth remembering that facilities at Mildenhall are among the Air Force’s oldest in Europe, while Spangdahlem’s are among the newest.
More broadly, other than perhaps improving strategic and operational flexibility, the administration’s plan fails to further its own principles. The plan may add some needed enhanced military capability on NATO’s flank. Thanks to President Trump’s approach, however, these gains are coming at the cost of reduced alliance unity and durable damage to America’s bilateral relationship with its most important NATO ally on the European continent.
For these reasons, Congress would be wise to exercise robust oversight of the administration’s decision to move U.S. troops out of Germany, and send the White House and the Pentagon back to the drawing board.
Bradley Bowman is senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD).
Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Ben Hodges, U.S. Army, holds the Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis. He served as Commanding General of United States Army Europe from 2014 to 2017.
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