Home / Articles / The Implications of Withdrawing American Troops from Germany
On June 6, the Wall Street Journal set off an avalanche of commentary by reporting that U.S. President Donald Trump ordered a drastic reduction in U.S. troops deployed in Germany within a space of only six months. The move was met with significant pushback in Washington and Brussels, causing Congressional Republicans to raise their concerns in letters and public statements. Trump’s announcement, however, was in fact an extension of earlier plans mooted in June 2019, when the administration first suggested moving at least 1,000 troops from Germany to Poland. At the time, Trump suggested that the proposed move was to “affirm the significant defense cooperation between our nations.” Washington picked up this potential troop move again in a rather unrelated context following a spat over the German refusal to participate in a naval mission in the Persian Gulf to deter Iran, reinforcing the notion Trump keeps using American deployments in Germany as a bargaining chip for any interaction on foreign policy with the Merkel government.
Whatever the cause of the decision, the proposal has led to renewed debate over the significance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), German contributions to the Alliance, and the security benefits that Berlin derives from being a member. The potential reallocation of forces has also caused European national security observers to take a closer look at the relevance of American military assets for national foreign policy and the benefits—actual or perceived—to its European partners. The figures featuring in the original Wall Street Journal report suggest that there would be a reduction of 9,500 out of 34,500 troops deployed in Germany and that Trump would also impose a hard cap of 25,000 total troops there. Speculation followed that some may be redistributed into Poland, the Indo-Pacific, or back to the United States. Trump himself stated that the number of troops based in Germany is to be cut “by half” from an estimated 52,000 personnel to 25,000 troops. This figure, it must be noted, includes 17,000 civilian staff, something that needs to be considered in squaring of POTUS’s remarks against the aforementioned 9,500 troops more commonly circulated in media reports.
Uncertainty over figures, however, is part of a larger picture showing little in terms of hard facts regarding the withdrawal timeline, or even basic details about how the proposed reductions will take place. American Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison was quoted by Spiegel as saying there is no concrete plan on how or when such reductions could occur. In the same report, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas clarified that the government in Berlin, as of mid-June, had received not any information through its Ministry of Foreign Affairs or Ministry of Defense. “We have no exact or detailed information, when where what is to be done how precisely. As such we will wait for further clarification on intentions from the American side.” Similarly, NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg, while emphasizing that U.S. deployments to Germany are vital for the Alliance, acknowledged there is no information on how and when such a decision to cut troops would be realized.
In this context, it is worth looking at how and where the United States has deployed military forces in Germany. While figures, as mentioned, are somewhat fluid depending on sources and timelines, there essentially are five major U.S. garrisons in Germany, out of seven for all of Europe. U.S. European Command (EUCOM) and U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), two of eleven unified combatant commands, are based at Stuttgart in southwest Germany. The European Command of the U.S. Army (USAREUR) is based at the Lucius D. Clay garrison Wiesbaden in the state of Hesse. The United States Air Force (USAF) has two major airbases at Ramstein and Spangdahlem. Ramstein is a key U.S. facility, which houses command and control elements for American drone operations across the world. This facility became a political issue for the German government last year, when a suspected case of drone-based assassinations in Yemen went to German court. German officials maintain that any American operations are in accordance with federal law. Besides Ramstein and Spangdahlem, the USAF also provides tactical nuclear weapons in the form of B61 tactical gravity bombs stored at the Luftwaffe airbase of Buechel under the nuclear sharing arrangement. Another facility of very high significance in support of combat operations across Europe, Asia, and Africa is the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, the largest such facility outside of the continental United States. Finally, the Grafenwoehr Training Area is also operated by the U.S. Army; it is by far the largest installation of its kind in Europe and is able to accommodate a brigade-sized force with all its elements before full redeployment elsewhere.
In a WSJ op-ed on June 21, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien followed up previous comments by the Trump administration in stating that redeployment would concern garrisoned troops, but not touch elements relevant to support operations, which presumably refers to the training and medical facilities. Again, of note here is a continuation in a theme from the proposals last year regarding Poland, also affecting combat troops. This would indicate perhaps relocation of U.S. Army troops based at Vilseck, Bavaria, who participated most recently in the U.S.-led NATO exercise Dragoon Ride in 2015. Also, under consideration may be the redistribution of USAF assets based at Spangdahlem Air Base, which houses F-16 fighter jets operated by the 52nd Fighter Wing. The latter could make sense insofar as Poland has acquired and operates F-16 fighter jets, and the deployment at a shared airbase may make some operational sense in the long term, although the short-term costs to facilitate such a move are likely to be significant.
O’Brien’s comments on the matter, while clarifying some content, complicate the subject matter in terms of exact motives and rationale by Washington. Specifically, if the present garrison arrangement, as per the National Security Advisor, is simply outdated, this would seem to contradict earlier statements by both Donald Trump and former Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell. Both were quite explicit in their justification for U.S. troop cuts in Germany being a direct consequence of insufficient German defense spending and the U.S. “paying too much” for the functional defense of its allies. Grenell framed cuts in Europe as part of a larger effort to reduce footprints elsewhere, such as in South Korea and Japan. Therefore, any redeployment would by nature seem to implicate relocation to the United States, or to allied partners perceived as spending adequately on their own military. If the latter is accurate, a punish vs. reward approach would be problematic in producing desired effects on what Trump may consider “laggards,” given how the NATO system of collective defense would benefit all its members, no matter where exactly American troops are stationed. A minor point of pressure in such a scenario would only be present in the fact that U.S. facilities encourage economic activity in the regions concerned, and the government in Berlin would have to adjust its domestic spending to compensate for withdrawals.
On the matter of German defense spending, Berlin has over the last five years substantially increased the budget for Bundeswehr. The original ambition to meet 1.5% of gross domestic product (GDP) for defense by 2024 is likely to be met this year. However, the economic impacts of COVID-19 will impact these figures, and Berlin could wind up spending more as a percentage of its total budget on defense, even if actual spending remains flat. Ultimately, Berlin wants to gradually reach the so-called NATO pledge of 2% spending by 2031. While this development is not in contradiction to the 2014 Wales agreement to “move towards” 2% within a decade, Grenell, in particular, has in statements made the firm reaching of that figure the pass-or-fail criteria for further U.S. decisions. However, for the German military, the issue is not just about increasing financial resources. The latest German readiness and procurement reports highlight that some of the key challenges in improving capability are not due to a lack of funds, but of the ability of industry and existing Bundeswehr structures to absorb that funding in a sustainable fashion. Put another way, even if more money would be available, and some major procurements are indeed yet to be signed off, tanks can only be built so quickly, and personnel still needs to be hired, allocated, and trained. Given Germany’s status as one of the largest economies worldwide, any budget raise proportionally has more complex consequences for fielding equipment than one by, say, Hungary or Romania making a substantial change by ordering a single big-ticket weapons system.
Therefore, the current American effort appears to have significant flaws in the limited impact on Germany, should redistribution simply mean troops remain in Europe, and the near impossibility of expecting Bundeswehr to be funded to the tune of 2% GDP any time soon. If, on the other hand, the American redeployment means removal of troops from Europe altogether, then this decision would have significant implications on NATO posture as a whole, including the very members that Trump highlights as being “good spenders” doing their share. The move would punish governments for doing exactly the thing desired in Washington. Furthermore, the “hard floor” of troops in Germany for supporting unilateral U.S. military operations across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa is identified as sitting around 25,000 by military experts such as Ben Hodges, a former commander of U.S. forces in Europe. If we accept this at face value, any threat to lower deployments below that point would appear to be a hollow threat to European partners. The United States effectively would threaten to shoot itself in the foot over demands of more burden-sharing by the Europeans. While this may in fact not disturb Trump, who after all ran his campaign with a focus on dramatically reduced overseas deployments, any such reduction in the space of only six months appears to be completely unfeasible. With a presidential election looming in November, any developments heavily depend on the outcome of the election. If Trump gets reelected, there remains significant opposition in wider U.S. government circles to more dramatic reductions, comparable in effect to what has hindered the president to carry out withdrawals from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
There appears to be at present no good options for Trump to solve the problem of both timeliness and impact in reducing the American presence in Germany. Over the longer term, and assuming government policies are maintained after November, a range of options are available. Nevertheless, any drastic reductions would appear to pose a significant problem for unilateral U.S. military operations in support of its sovereign foreign policy execution. Smaller changes to the current posture, including redistribution to other NATO members are unlikely to have an effect in line with Washington’s agenda of motivating a significant step-change in Berlin’s execution of defense policy and budgetary decisions.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.