Thousands of troops are coming home from Germany, but some of them could be going right back

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Nearly 12,000 U.S. troops will pull out of Germany as soon as is feasible, the Pentagon announced on Wednesday, but the ones who will be stationed back in the U.S. may be called up for rotational deployments back to Europe.

Under the plan, troop levels in Germany would drop from 36,000 to just over 24,000, Defense Secretary Esper told reporters, with 5,600 of those re-positioned to other European countries and the remainder shifting to U.S. bases to be determined.

“I want to note that this plan is subject to, and likely will, change to some degree as it evolves over time,” he said in his opening remarks.

The plan would move at least two headquarters elements out of Stuttgart, Germany, and over to Mons, Belgium, according to U.S. European Command boss Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters, specifically EUCOM and Special Operations Command, Europe.

Africa Command, also based at Stuttgart, could also move out of Germany, officials said, though that decision will come with the completion of AFRICOM’s review.

Elsewhere, an Air Force fighter squadron and support elements would move from Germany to Italy, while a group of 2,500 airmen who had been scheduled to shift from Royal Air Force Base Mildenhall, United Kingdom, to Germany will stay put, Esper said.

“Once Warsaw assigns a defense cooperation agreement and burden sharing deal as previously pledged, there are may be other opportunities as well to move additional forces into Poland and the Baltics,” Esper added.

In that way, he explained, troop presence in Europe will more closely mirror the new Eastern front. When the U.S. first began basing troops in Germany, to deter the Soviet Union, it was one of the farthest east allies to work with.

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Now, with much of the former Soviet Union having joined NATO ― while still contending with Russian advances ― the U.S. has been spending more time working with troops in countries like Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Ukraine and more.

“These changes will achieve the core principles of enhancing U.S. and NATO deterrence of Russia, strengthening NATO, reassuring allies and improving us strategic flexibility and EUCOM operational flexibility,” he said.

That partner training has been done by a mix of Germany-based units moving east for weeks at a time, as well as U.S.-based Army brigade combat team rotating through.

Rotations allow the Army, for example, to save the logistics of moving entire families to Germany and then sending soldiers to the field for short stints.

“And I will say this much: the deployment rotational forces from the United States we have observed, whether it’s the [armored brigade combat teams] going from the United States to to Korea with ABCT to Poland, or the bomber task force, we’re finding that they are deploying at a much higher level of readiness,” Esper said, citing other examples of rotational forces. “And while they are deployed, they are … able to sustain a much more fixed focus on their mission and their capabilities. And they can third, they can provide a more enduring presence.”

The plan is part of a review of several combatant commands, which also includes U.S. Africa Command and the recently reactivated Space Command.

Effects on the force

Assuming the administration’s plan is completed, the uprooting of EUCOM’s headquarters from Stuttgart to Belgium carries the symbolism that the days of Germany as the decades-old nerve center for American military might in Europe may be numbered.

The Army, Air Force and Marine Corps also have European command headquarters in Germany.

Pentagon officials are doing their best to blunt a more profound and potentially destructive re-ordering of the U.S. military footprint in Europe, according to retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, who last commanded U.S. Army Europe in 2018.

“It could have been worse,” he said, noting that any hasty moves from Germany in and out of Poland appear to be off the table.

“Germany is still our most important ally in Europe,” he added, describing the White House reasoning driving the reshuffling as “wrong from the beginning.”

As Pentagon leadership briefed reporters, President Donald Trump answered questions about Germany and NATO on the White House lawn.

“Germany is not paying their bills,” he said. “They’re delinquent. It’s simple.”

An non-mandatory target has NATO members paying 2 percent of their gross domestic product toward shared security costs by 2024, but few of those countries are meeting that benchmark. That includes Germany, at an estimated 1.38 percent in 2019, but also Italy and Belgium ― who paid an estimated 1.22 percent and 0.93, respectively, last year. Poland has reached that goal.

“Let’s be clear: I think Germany is the wealthiest country in Europe. Germany can and should pay more to its defense,” Esper said. “It should certainly meet the 2-percent standard, and I would argue go above and beyond that.”

The Pentagon’s plan was focused on maximizing readiness and reassuring allies, Esper said, while at the same time under pressure from the president, who has repeatedly targeted Germany.

While Esper had hinted at rejiggering Europe force structure last year, he said that Trump’s rhetoric “accelerated” the plan.

“If they start paying their bills, I would think about it,” Trump said Wednesday of Germany.

Esper did not provide details on how many troops would be part of a new Europe rotation. By the math, 5,300 would be returning stateside.

The Army in 2016, following a drawdown of several units based around Germany, began rotating an ABCT for nine-month stints, at about 4,700 soldiers each. On balance, the presence of U.S. troops in Europe might only be reducing by several hundred, when all is said and done.

For the roughly 6,300 on tap to return home, some could be returning “in a matter of weeks,” Esper said, though the Pentagon will coordinate with both Congress and the services to decide which U.S. bases will absorb them.

The planned return of the Army’s 2nd Cavalry Regiment, based in Vilseck, Germany, to the United States is expected to leave a mark, according to Hodges.

“That’s a tough one to swallow, because that is their assigned combat unit,” he said.

On Capitol Hill, the decision has been met with bipartisan criticism that it was hasty and will damage America’s alliances. Both the House defense appropriations and policy bills have provisions to bar the Germany drawdown.

U.S. force levels have been lowered gradually over the years, in consultation with Germany and NATO, Sen. Chris Murphy, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Senate Appropriations Committee said in a tweet Wednesday.

“Trump is doing this on a lark. Likely just to embarrass Germany,” said Murphy, D-Conn. “No plan. No consultation. Making it a really bad idea.”

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah., called the plan “a grave error,” a “slap in the face at a friend and ally,” and “a gift to Russia coming at a time when we just have learned of its support for the Taliban and reports of bounties on killing American troops.” Romney has introduced an amendment to the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act to block the removal of troops from Germany.

What will it cost?

The movement of both manpower and equipment comes with costs, which Esper described as “several billion dollars, I’d say single digits, but that’ll be spread out over time.”

However, Hyten later indicated that a significant amount of detail has yet to be worked out, and stressed that any cost estimate is still in the early stages – a sign that costs could potentially grow.

“The secretary said single digit billions, but those are rough estimates. What we have right now is really a concept ― a concept that we’ve shared with our allies, shared with the Congress, and we shared inside the department fairly widely,” Hyten said. “We now have to turn it into plans. As you turn into plans, we have a very structured process involving the Joint Staff, the office of the secretary, and the combatant commands and the services, to make sure we understand what those are, then we’ll lay in the costs.”

The costs of the plan would come not just from military construction, but from the added expense of moving from based forces to rotational ones.

In a 2017 study for the Army War College titled “Rotational Deployments vs. Forward Stationing,” author John R. Deni concluded that it costs $135 million more each year to have a rotational brigade combat team in Europe, as opposed to having the force be permanently based in Germany.

“We need to actually reach out to the potential locations where these forces are going to move, make sure we understand what is there, what can be there, and then turn those into real cost estimates, and then work with the Congress to get the resources,” Hyten continued.

A 2019 analysis by Rick Berger of the American Enterprise Institute found that the U.S. has invested $5.9 billion in construction for its German bases over the last two decades; while it is unclear is similar investments would be needed to build up new headquarters buildings and other infrastructure in Belgium and Italy, leaving behind empty facilities in Stuttgart and elsewhere may be seen by Congress as a waste of taxpayer dollars.

“Some of those resources can be handled in-year execution,” he added. “Some will be handled out years, especially military construction.”

Defense News reporter Joe Gould contributed to this report.

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