The Trump administration adjusts the military furniture in Europe

Troop withdrawals from Germany, but increases to Poland under new ‘enhanced defence cooperation agreement’

10 August 2020

In late July, the Trump administration announced plans to move 11,900 troops out of Germany, 5,600 of which would relocate to other European countries, including Belgium and Italy (and according to US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper possibly in rotation to Romania, the Baltic states and Poland), with 6,400 returning to the United States.

Germany is a longstanding hub for US operations in the Middle East and Africa. Currently, the US has five garrisons in Germany and a handful of US military communities have developed around a few German towns, in which many jobs are tied to the bases.

The changes include an F-16 fighter squadron moving to Italy and an armoured unit that will return to the United States and start a rotational deployment in the Black Sea region. The US military’s European Command headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, will move to Mons, Belgium. The Africa Command headquarters, also in Germany, will also probably move, although US officials did not name a location. For further details see here.

Mark Esper said the changes were part of an ongoing review of US troop presence around the world that was “accelerated” by Mr. Trump’s announcement to cut forces in Germany. He also confirmed that removing the troops from Germany will take “some time” to complete and cost “billions”. “Coordination, approval, funding and execution will take time,” European Command head Gen. Todd Wolters said in a memo to the force on 31 July. AFRICOM commander Gen. Stephen Townsend also issued a statement the same day affirming the process is in its infancy, and decisions are months away. “It will likely take several months to develop options, consider locations, and come to a decision,” on where the Stuttgart-based command will move, though “the command has started the process”.

Criticism of the withdrawal

The partial withdrawal has been criticized by officials and parliamentarians in both the US and Europe, since the US presence in Germany has long been regarded as the bedrock of the US commitment to NATO. Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah and a former presidential candidate, called the plan a “grave error", while the move lacked “a strategic underpinning” according to Atlantic Council distinguished fellow, Hans Binnendijk, and “could undercut a half decade long effort to prevent war by enhancing NATO’s deterrent posture in the Baltic area”. Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, a retired US army officer and the former US commander in Europe, said that the withdrawal was "a gift to the Kremlin".

The governors from the four German states that host US troops sent a letter to more than a dozen US lawmakers, pushing them to urge the President 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”.

The net result: a rearranging of the furniture, with Poland the ‘winner’

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed the US move and said Washington has been consulting allies on the matter recently, although the initial June announcement on the withdrawal did come without any prior discussion. Similarly, President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, Attila Mesterhazy, in a statement applauded the  reaffirmation that the proposed redeployment “seeks to enhance deterrence of Russia, strengthen NATO and reassure allies and that no moves will take place without continued engagement with Congress, and consultation with Allies”.

After the withdrawal there will still be 24,000 US forces in Germany—more than in any other country except Japan and South Korea—and over 51,000 on the European continent. (At the height of the Cold War, the US military had nearly 300,000 troops stationed in Europe.) Further, on 3 August the United signed an "enhanced defence cooperation agreement" with Poland to gradually increase US troop levels by 1,000 rotational personnel. This was agreed in principle in June 2019 and is in addition to the 4,500 US troops already in Poland on a rotational basis.

The increase in troops levels comes with other military infrastructure investments Poland has agreed to fund. Poland’s defence minister said that “we will have an American command in Poland. This command will manage the troops deployed along NATO’s eastern flank”. Under the agreement, a division command will be housed at Poznań, while a training centre will be located at Drawsko Pomorskie, a frequent host of multinational NATO exercises. There will also be an Air Force logistics hub, a headquarters for a rotational Combat Aviation Brigade, two separate special ops facilities, and another base near the German border that will house an Armoured Brigade Combat Team.

Impact on the NATO-Russia Founding Act?

It is unclear whether these additional US forces will be permanently stationed in Poland. If they are it would likely violate the terms of the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, which states:

NATO reiterates that in the current and foreseeable security environment, the Alliance will carry out its collective defence and other missions by ensuring the necessary interoperability, integration, and capability for reinforcement rather than by additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces.

Accordingly, the enhanced NATO presence in Eastern Europe has been referred to as “continuous” but rotational. Proponents of extended permanent basing assert that the “current security environment” has changed considerably since 1997, largely due to Russian activities, and that NATO should therefore no longer be constrained by the NATO-Russia Founding Act.

A strategic decision or punishment for Germany?

President Trump revealed plans for the partial withdrawal from Germany in June and he has frequently criticized Germany and other NATO allies for not spending 2% of their gross domestic product (GDP) on defence. On the 5 August Donald Trump renewed his criticism of Germany accusing the NATO ally of “making a fortune” off US soldiers, of being "very delinquent" and being among NATO countries who "took advantage" of the US by not paying their share for defence.

However, both Belgium and Italy spend a smaller percentage of their GDP on defence than Germany. Further, the German government has paid more than $1 billion over the past decade to cover costs related to the stationing of US troops in Germany, according to the finance ministry in Berlin. Of that, 648.5 million euros went into construction work.

Trump also (again) condemned Germany's decision to cooperate with Russia over the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. "We're supposed to protect Germany from Russia. That's fine. But Germany is paying Russia billions of dollars for energy," Trump told Fox News. "What's that all about?" The United States announced plans in June to expand sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany. Germany's Foreign Ministry said the sanctions would "constitute a serious interference in European energy security and EU sovereignty".

Germany wants a rethink on the 2% of GDP defence spending commitment

There is still a conversation to be had on the relevance and efficacy of the 2% of GDP guideline. In Germany, defence spending rose by 10% in 2019 to $49.3 billion—the largest defence budget increase among the world's top 15 states when it comes to military expenditures. Moreover, owing to its high GDP, Germany contributes more to defence spending with less than 1.5 percent than most of the other allies. And if the two percent target were met, Germany’s defence budget would be higher than Russia’s ($65.1 billion in 2019).

German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer is arguing for a new method of measuring Berlin's contributions to NATO, suggesting the country could shoulder 10% of alliance total “planning targets”. According to German officials this would more accurately capture Germany’s efforts across the categories “cash, capabilities and commitments” than the current defence-spending objective of 2% of GDP.

Finally, there is also a larger conversation to be had about why, 75 years after V-E Day, the United States still has tens of thousands of soldiers on European soil.