Realignment of US Military Presence in Europe

C17 Globemaster flying over Blue Ridge Mountain
Image credit: Staff Sgt. Jacob N. Bailey, U.S. Air Force (via Wikimedia Commons)

On June 15, President Trump first confirmed his plans for limiting the number of troops stationed in Germany. The news which was first reported by the Wall Street Journal on June 5, mentioned National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien signing a directive for reducing U.S. military presence in Germany. Finally, after a month of careful revisions, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper on July 29 confirmed the plan and the number of troops to be removed from Germany. As per the new long term plan for the reorganization of U.S. forces in Europe, almost 12,000 troops will be removed from Germany, of which half will be re-deployed to Belgium, Italy and Poland and other few thousand forces will conduct rotational deployments both in the U.S. and in European countries. 

President Trump’s decision to announce the withdrawal of troops from Germany took many by surprise in Europe. Like many of his previous decisions, even this was taken unilaterally without any formal consultation with the transatlantic partners. What should not come as a surprise, however, is the downward trend in the transatlantic alliance in the face of changing geopolitical reality in Europe.  

The decision to withdraw troops compounded with German Chancellor Angela Merkel rebuffing President Trump’s invitation to attend the G7 leaders’ summit in Washington scheduled for June 10. For President Trump the G7 summit was an opportunity to show that all is back to normal. However, with Merkel declining the visit, citing the overall pandemic situation, Trump had to cancel the meeting and rescheduled it for September. It is not to say that the decision on troops was in retaliation to Merkel declining the G7 visit. What the withdrawal resonated is a follow through on actions given the current tensions in U.S.-Germany relations. Richard Grenell, the former U.S. ambassador to Germany and the current active director of the United States National Intelligence was one of the most vociferous critics of German defense spending and Berlin’s energy relationship with Moscow via its Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

Speaking to the DPA news agency in August 2019, Grenell stated, “It is actually offensive to assume that the U.S. taxpayer must continue to pay to have 50,000-plus Americans in Germany, but the Germans get to spend their surplus on domestic programs.” What Richard Grenell’s statement back then reflected was not mere warning but a change in policy regarding the disposition of U.S. military presence in Germany. In this regard, it is important to first understand the presence of U.S. military in Germany and second what effect the withdrawal will have on the U.S. engagement in the region. 

U.S. Military Presence in Germany

The Korean war of the 1950s was a major development in as far as European and American threat perception of the communist countries was concerned. Fearful of the communist powers, European countries were skeptical of Soviet Union’s aggressive policies in Europe. Despite American support in rebuilding European economies and ground forces, western European countries were incapable in matching the military build-up required to deter the Soviets in the immediate period. This left them with little option but to rely on American military presence to safeguard their interest against USSR’s rising military strength. Therefore, on Sep. 09, 1950, President Harry S. Truman announced that the U.S. would temporarily bolster its troops in Europe with the intention that Western governments would match U.S. commitment.

The U.S. deployed its forces in several European countries during the Cold War, including the UK, France, and Italy. However, its most significant troop deployment was in Germany. This was due to the Occupation Statute signed in April 1949, which allowed the UK, France and the United States to station occupational forces and overlook West Germany’s disarmament and demilitarization. In 1953 U.S. forces in Germany totalled approximately 300,000 troops comprising of Air force and Army personnel. The U.S. troops were largely stationed along the southern and central- western provinces of Germany — in today’s federal states of Bavaria, Hesse, and Baden-Wurttemberg. 

The presence of U.S. troops ensured the reliability of U.S. commitments to the political construction of Western alliance and remained a cornerstone of America’s Cold War defence policy for Europe against the Soviet Union. However, following the end of the Cold War and reunification of Germany the border line dividing Western alliance and Soviet Union no longer existed. For U.S. security planners, post-Cold War Europe did not represent the same security challenge as it did during the Cold War. There was no longer a divided Germany nor a Soviet power that could create insecurity and threaten peace on the continent. 

Undertaking security considerations in post-Cold War Europe, United States began a gradual disengagement of its military presence in Europe. This disengagement was accelerated by 9/11 attacks and subsequent changes in realignment of overseas military bases — a process that began under Former Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, known as the Global Posture Review. The decade of 2000s, therefore, saw U.S. reducing its army footprint in Europe, however maintaining several key posts in Germany.  

The U.S. today maintains important troops instalments in several locations in Germany. These include United States Army Garrisons (USAG) in Ansbach, Baumholder, Bavaria, Hohenfels, Rheinland-Pfalz, Stuttgart, Wiesbaden and Garmisch. In addition, the U.S. also maintains two important air bases in Ramstein and Spangdahlem and US European Command Head Quarter (USEUCOM) and the US Africa Command (USAFRICOM) both of which are stationed in Stuttgart. These bases today are not only for European security but serve as important logistical and training facilities for American military operations in Africa, Iraq, and Afghanistan. 

U.S. engagement in the region

The significance and number of military installations in Germany suggests that U.S. has no intentions of leaving Germany. However, President Trump’s decision does signify two important developments in American policy towards the region. First, the U.S. wants allies to contribute more to their own security and second, engagements in the region are changing with more focus being on the Intermarium line in Eastern Europe. 

Criticism of Germany’s free riding behaviour in matters of security, goes way back before President Trump took office. In particular, the U.S. concern has been on the low level of spending, which in 2014 fell below 1.2 percent of the GDP, the same year the NATO members agreed in Wales to commit 2 percent of their GDP to defence spending. The U.S. appetite for Germany’s minimal defence spending was best described by former U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates, in a speech in 2011, where he pointed out that, “a two tiered alliance was emerging that was divided between those willing and able to pay the price and bear the burdens of alliance commitment and those who enjoy the benefits of NATO  but don’t want to share the risks and the costs.” 

Secretary Gates warned that, “there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress and in the American body politic writ large to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defence.” With President Trump in charge, the U.S. patience for Germany’s free riding behaviour which was already thin is running out fast. Germany does have plans of increasing defence spending to 1.5 percent of its annual GDP to defence spending by 2024, but that would still fall short of the 2 percent mark that the U.S. wants. Increasing defence spending is not very politically appeasing in Germany and in the current situation where nations will be looking to limit defence spending in face of supporting medical and public health sectors in the wake of coronavirus, little can be expected.

Moreover, withdrawing troops from Germany may not be a strong enough reason to force Berlin to increase its defence spending. The U.S. military presence has been somewhat a controversial issue in Germany with the left party Die Linke opposing the presence of U.S. troops and calling for their complete withdrawal. Dietmar Bartsch the leader of parliamentary group of Die Linke welcomed the decision stating that, “The federal government should accept it with gratitude and promptly start preparing the complete withdrawal of U.S. soldiers with the Trump administration.” Die Linke is not the only party opposing U.S. military presence in Germany. Social Democratic Party (SPD) leader Rolf Mützenich recommended the removal of U.S. nuclear weapons from German soil, after Karrenbauer the defence minister suggested replacing outdated Tornado aircraft with Eurofighter and F-18 — the latter being nuclear capable and in line with NATO’s nuclear deterrence strategy. 

The reduction of U.S. troops may end up having no grave consequences for German security. But the symbolic damage that it has done to U.S.-Germany relations is quite severe. In another symbolic move, President Trump announced that some of the U.S. troops will be relocated to Poland. The symbolic messaging of the announcement was quite important. Polish President became the first head of the state to visit the White House following the coronavirus pandemic. The gesture by the Polish president was meet with an endorsement by President Trump which gave Duda the boost to win the presidential election. 

Poland has become an important security ally for the United States, following the Russian activities in Ukraine. Poland is not only among the few European countries to meet NATO’s 2 percent requirement on defence spending but also significantly strengthened its security co-operation with the United States. From the polish security perspective, strengthening its security relationship with the United States and having U.S. troops on polish territory gives it a chance to overcome its security fears of an attack from Russia. Moreover, it also gives Warsaw an opportunity to upgrade and improve its own military capabilities with advanced U.S. weapon technology. 

In this regard, Poland is already looking towards the United States to modernise its armed forces as part of the 2026 Technical Modernisation Plan and subsequently has shown interest in housing a permeant U.S. military presence in the country. Although ‘Fort Trump‘ (U.S. base in Poland) is stuck on issues of financing, placement of troops, legal rights and the principles under which the soldiers will function, it has not dissuaded either country from strengthening their defence engagement. 

The U.S. Army already has rotational deployments of ABCTs to Poland (Armoured Brigade Combat Team) and in 2019, the Pentagon decided to expand its activity with a forward-deployed division headquarters, pre-positioned equipment for a second ABCT, logistics units and an MQ-9 Reaper drone squadron to the country. Furthermore, Poland is also an important purchaser of U.S. military equipment with plans of buying several Patriot air defence batteries along with other military hardware. It is by no means, that Poland can replace the importance of having military bases in Germany. Shifting bases is a complex task which involve years of diplomatic jostling to come to a common arrangement.  

From the US geopolitical interest in Europe, Poland today represents an important player on the Intermarium line — comprising mostly of Central and Eastern European countries from Estonia all the way to Turkey forming an arc of frontier states to contain Russian influence in the region. Poland’s threat perception of Russia, and its need for building a strong bilateral partnership makes it an important player in the security dynamics of Europe.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.