The U.S. military on Wednesday unveiled plans to withdraw about 12,000 troops from Germany following a decision by President Donald Trump, but said it will keep nearly half of them in Europe to address tension with Russia.
Trump, who has criticized Germany’s rate of defence spending, announced his intention last month to cut the 36,000-strong U.S. troop contingent, catching political leaders from the European nation, NATO officials and even some in Congress off guard.
Defence Secretary Mark Esper has sought, however, to present the pullout in a way that would prevent undermining NATO and its efforts to deter Russian intervention, following Moscow’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.
In remarks likely to irk Moscow, Esper said some U.S. troops would reposition to the Black Sea region and some could temporarily deploy in waves to the Baltics.
Other forces leaving Germany would permanently move to Italy and the U.S. military’s European headquarters would relocate from Stuttgart, Germany, to Belgium.
In total, about 5,400 troops of the 12,000 leaving Germany are expected to remain in Europe. Many of the remaining forces will be based in the U.S. but will rotate into Europe for temporary deployments without their families.
Esper said they had been contemplating the process for months, but Trump’s criticisms of Germany date back to early in his presidency. The defence secretary stressed there would be still be a significant presence in Germany.
“I’m telling you that this is going to accomplish what the president said with regard to getting us down to a lower number in Europe, and it meets his other objectives I outlined with regards to the strategic piece,” Esper said.
Still, the moves out of Germany represent a remarkable rebuke to one of the closest U.S. military allies and trading partners.
The premiers of four German states that host U.S. troops have appealed to members of the U.S. Congress to block Trump’s withdrawal, which current and former American officials have criticized as politically, not strategically, driven.
Trump has criticized NATO allies, most frequently Germany, about being “delinquent” for not meeting a NATO goal set in 2014 for members to spend on defence to the tune of 2 per cent of gross national product by 2024.
He has also vented about Germany’s involvement in a massive pipeline deal with Russia.
“We don’t want to be the suckers anymore,” he said. “The U.S. has been taken advantage of for 25 years on both trade and the military.”
Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut called the troop withdrawal a “really bad idea” in a tweet Wednesday.
“Our force levels have been coming down in Europe, for good reason, over the years,” said Murphy. “But we always make troop adjustments in consultation [with] Germany and NATO. Trump is doing this on a lark. Likely just to embarrass Germany.”
Some Republicans pushed back
U.S. officials stressed that only a relatively small number of advanced units would move anytime soon. The rest of the troop movements would take years to fully implement.
“It will still be months to plan and years to execute because it is very complex,” one U.S. official said.
Officials said the cost of the moves is an estimated figure in the “single digit” billions of dollars.
LIVE: <a href=”https://twitter.com/EsperDoD?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@EsperDoD</a>, Gen. John Hyten & Gen. Tod Wolters update press on the European Strategic Force Posture Review. <a href=”https://t.co/mu8FO08Y7k”>https://t.co/mu8FO08Y7k</a>
Sen. Jim Inhofe, the Republican chairman of the Senate’s armed services committee, has voiced support for the plan while also acknowledging it will take “months to plan and years to execute.”
He was briefed on the issue last week, and he issued a statement saying the “concept for realigning U.S. military posture in Europe” is sound.
But some members of Trump’s own political party have criticized the troop move as a gift to Russia and a threat to U.S. national security.
Twenty-two Republicans on the House’s armed services committee fired back with a letter to Trump saying a reduced U.S. commitment to Europe’s defence would encourage Russian aggression and opportunism.
Several NATO defence ministers had also expressed concern about the pullout.
Germany is a hub for U.S. operations in the Middle East and Africa. Overall, the U.S. has about 47,000 troops and civilian personnel in Germany, spread out across a number of bases, headquarters and smaller installations.
Most of the 36,000 on active duty are in a handful of larger Army and Air Force bases, including Ramstein Air Base, a hub in the region.
There also are 2,600 National Guard and Reserve forces in Germany and almost 12,000 civilians working for the services or the Defence Department.
If he is elected president, Democrat Joe Biden will review the Republican incumbent’s decision to withdraw the troops from Germany, a top Biden aide told Reuters earlier this month.