President Donald J. Trump has directed the U.S. military to conduct a review of its footprint in Europe that could result in one of its most significant pivots in years. The pending shift, which could take years to implement, has kicked off a debate in the United States and allied countries about the consequences for European security, particularly regarding the threat posed by Russia.
What changes are planned?
The drawdown would be centered on Germany, which has served as a major European hub for U.S. forces since World War II and is seen by many foreign policy experts as the most important U.S. ally on the continent. In late July, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper announced plans to withdraw about one third of the U.S. military contingent from Germany—around twelve thousand personnel of the roughly thirty-six thousand permanently stationed there—as well as major warfighting assets.
Roughly half of these forces would be shifted to other countries in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). For instance, the U.S. Air Force is preparing to move a squadron of around two dozen fighter jets and support personnel from Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany to Aviano Air Base in Italy. It is also canceling a planned transfer of more than two thousand airmen from the United Kingdom to Germany. Esper’s plans call for the other half of the twelve thousand to come back to the United States, and notes that many perhaps will return later to the European theater as rotational forces.
Other major changes under consideration include moving the headquarters of two U.S. combatant commands—European Command and Special Operations Command—from Stuttgart, Germany, to Mons, Belgium, which is also the location of NATO’s military headquarters in Europe.
The Trump administration has meanwhile signed a new defense agreement with Poland that will see an additional one thousand U.S. troops rotate through the country. Currently, the United States rotates about 4,500 military personnel through Poland on a multimonth basis as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve, a U.S. commitment intended to deter Russian aggression following its 2014 intervention in Ukraine.
Why the pivot?
Esper framed the plan as a way to boost NATO’s ability to deter and respond to threats, including a Russian encroachment. However, President Trump said the changes were meant to punish Germany for not meeting its financial commitments to NATO. “We don’t want to be the suckers anymore,” Trump said on the day of Esper’s announcement. “So we’re reducing the force because they’re not paying their bills. It’s very simple, they’re delinquent.”
Despite Trump’s claims, Germany has until 2024 to meet its pledge to spend at least 2 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on defense. Belgium, Italy, Spain, Turkey, and several other NATO members also have yet to fulfill their financial pledges.
What’s the debate?
Advocates of the move, including top Trump administration officials, say that the redistribution of U.S. forces reflects the reality that Germany is not a frontline country anymore, and that the security emphasis in Europe is shifting east—to Poland and the Baltic states—to focus on Russia. At the same time, the U.S. military needs to become more agile and shift resources to the Asian theater, where China presents the biggest geostrategic challenge, they say. Additionally, some analysts note that Germany has comparatively strict rules on when U.S. pilots can train.
Lawmakers from both major U.S. parties have faulted the president’s motivations and expressed concern about the enduring harm they say it would do to European security and the NATO alliance. Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT), who attempted to block the move through legislation, called it “a gift to Russia.” Others have cited the costs, which are estimated to run into the billions of dollars. Still others say that permanently stationed troops, in contrast to rotational forces, would signify a more credible U.S. commitment to European security. Many German leaders have also condemned the move, although public opinion there on the U.S. drawdown appears to be divided.