Trump Undercuts Pentagon Over Germany Troop Withdrawal

U.S. defense officials, who said the move had nothing to do with German military spending, still appeared to be figuring out key details about the redeployment.

U.S. President Donald Trump
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks as White House chief of staff Mark Meadows listens at the White House on July 29. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Wednesday that the United States would pull nearly 12,000 troops out of Germany, starting in the coming weeks, ostensibly to beef up U.S. deterrence against Russia. Immediately after, Esper was undercut by U.S. President Donald Trump, who described the troop withdrawal as a reprisal against Germany for not meeting its defense-spending targets.

Pentagon and military officials insisted the redeployments, which came after Germany rebuked an invitation to an upcoming G-7 conference over a possible Russian invite from Trump, were part of a strategic plan to give the U.S. military more flexibility to move rotational forces forward into the Black Sea and Baltic regions to counter Russian aggression, and they said the move has nothing to do with German defense spending. Trump himself undercut that message minutes later. 

“Germany’s delinquent, they haven’t paid their NATO fees,” Trump said, repeating a factually incorrect talking point used frequently in his administration. Berlin has long failed to meet the alliance’s target for defense spending—2 percent of GDP—but is not behind on any payments, such as headquarters fees, contributed by member states.

Yet Pentagon officials admitted that Trump’s persistent calls to thin out American forces in Europe had caused the issue to jump to the top of the queue as the Defense Department has been reviewing U.S. troop numbers in regions around the world, particularly in Africa. But even as Esper briefed reporters about the plan on Wednesday, it appeared that the Pentagon was still doing back-of-the-envelope math to figure out how much the drawdown would cost. Esper said the moves, which also cap the number of troops in Germany at 24,000, would cost U.S. taxpayers in the “single-digit billions” of dollars, though Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Hyten quickly cautioned that was a “rough estimate.” 

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Esper’s decision “underlines the continued commitment by the United States to NATO and to European security” in a statement. He also said the United States “consulted closely with all NATO allies ahead of today’s announcement.”

Behind the scenes, however, the decision has frustrated some U.S. and European officials who see the move as harmful to U.S. interests in Europe and fear it will undercut NATO’s activities aimed at deterring Russia from the alliance’s eastern flank. They also said the decision was made in haste, without a proper interagency review, and without sufficient consultations with European allies.

U.S. military installations in Germany serve as a major hub for U.S. and NATO military exercises across Europe aimed at deterring Russia—particularly for the Baltic states that are NATO members. 

“Many focus on Germany and see it as a German issue, but many forget there are also Baltic states whose defense is dependent on reinforcement of U.S. troops from Germany,” said one European official. 

“It’s always a good thing to revisit how many troops the U.S. has deployed abroad, especially in Europe,” said Rachel Rizzo, an expert on European security issues with the Truman Center for National Policy. “But this particular move is just clearly punishment for Germany. It seems like it was done without any real analysis or strategy behind it.”

Under the current plan, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, 6,400 troops in Germany will return to the United States and then begin doing rotational deployments to Europe. Some 4,500 soldiers from the 2nd Cavalry Regiment, which employs eight-wheeled armored fighting vehicles, will also return stateside before starting rotations in the Black Sea. 

Another 5,600 U.S troops will be redistributed throughout Europe: The 5th Corps headquarters will move to Poland, and an F-16 squadron will shift from Germany to Italy, officials said, leaving room for the possibility of moving other American troops forward to Poland and the Baltics. Additionally, 2,000 American troops will also go to Belgium for headquarters work, and the U.S. European Command chief and supreme allied commander of NATO, Gen. Tod Wolters, said that U.S. Africa Command’s headquarters could also be moved from Stuttgart, Germany. 

Neither Belgium nor Italy meets NATO’s target for defense spending. 

Esper tried to make the case on Wednesday that utilizing rotational forces from the United States, instead of permanent troops based in Germany, would give the Pentagon a “much more enduring presence” on the continent with more ready troops. 

But former officials said that cutting U.S. troops permanently stationed in Germany, who primarily serve in logistical, air defense, and intelligence functions rather than combat roles, could actually hamper the NATO alliance’s ability to respond to a Russian attack. 

“The Russians will not line up on the border and come across with columns of tanks,” said Ben Hodges, a retired lieutenant general who commanded U.S. Army Europe until 2017. “It’s going to be disinformation [and] cyber that will delay the decision of the alliance.”

Moving U.S. troops to Italy could also cause logistical challenges, Hodges said, since the Army doesn’t have enough facilities to house and train an entire airborne brigade there.

While the Pentagon has long deliberated about adding rotational units on NATO’s so-called eastern flank, it is not allowed to keep permanent troops in Poland and the Baltic states under the Russia-NATO founding act. In contrast, Germany’s large airports and seaports, including Bremerhaven, give the United States wide latitude to stage for a contingency in Europe outside of Russian rocket and missile ranges, Hodges said. 

The withdrawal has also become a flash point for congressional debate over the Pentagon’s annual funding bill, with lawmakers in both chambers floating provisions that would slow or stop the drawdown. The final House bill would halt the removal of American forces unless the Pentagon can certify to Congress that the departure of U.S. troops would not impact national security. 

“It is 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,” said Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, who tried to put a similar provision in the Senate defense bill, in a statement. Trump in an interview with Axios dismissed reports of Russian bounties on U.S. troops as “fake news,” and he said he didn’t bring up the subject in a recent phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“The move may temporarily play well in domestic politics, but its consequences will be lasting and harmful to American interests,” Romney said.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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