Pentagon Announces Major Re-Alignment of Troops in Europe

July 29, 2020 by Dan McCue
Mark Esper, US defence secretary, said the withdrawal would begin ‘in a matter of weeks’ (Evan Vucci/AP)

WASHINGTON – The Pentagon is winding down the U.S. military presence in Germany, and relocating some, but not all of those troops closer to the Russian border, Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced Wednesday.

The decision marks a major force restructuring aimed at shrinking the U.S. mission in Germany, a key strategic location for American military operations since the beginning of the Cold War.

Speaking with reporters at the Pentagon, Esper said 11,900 people will be moved out of American military installation across Germany, taking the number of U.S. service members in Germany from roughly 36,000 to 24,000.

“Of the 11,900, nearly 5,600 service members will be repositioned within NATO countries, and approximately 6,400 will return to the United States, though many of these or similar units will begin conducting rotational deployments back to Europe,” Esper said.

The Defense Secretary made the announcement during a joint briefing at the Pentagon with Gen. John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Tod Wolters, the head of the U.S. European Command.

Esper said the moves were part of an ongoing review of the National Defense Strategy, which includes an assessment of all combatant commands to ensure a focus on U.S. priorities. Among these priorities are optimizing force presence worldwide, enhancing readiness, and moving to a greater use of rotational forces from the U.S. to enhance strategic flexibility.

He also said the review of the U.S. European Command was accelerated after President Donald Trump announced in early June that we wanted to reduce the U.S. military footprint in Germany, long host to one of the largest contingents of U.S. troops in the world.

Last month Trump vowed to cap the number of U.S. troops in Germany at 25,000 unless Berlin spent more on defense for the transatlantic security alliance. 

Esper echoed those sentiments on Wednesday, observing that “Germany is the wealthiest country in Europe. Germany can and should pay more to its defense.”

Meanwhile, at the White House Trump told reporters Wednesday that Germany has “taken advantage of us for many years.”

Esper said the president’s decision comported nicely with the Pentagon’s existing plan to reposition forces in Europe to be better situated for what he called the “Great Power Competition.”

“It is important to note that in NATO’s 71-year history, the size, composition, and disposition of U.S. forces in Europe has changed many times,” Esper said as he explained the changes could start to take place within a matter of weeks.

“Sometimes this has been a result of changes in the threat, sometimes because of other changes in the international environment, and sometimes simply because the borders between NATO countries and Russia have shifted as new Allies have joined,” he continued. “As we’ve entered a new era of Great Power Competition, we are now at another one of those inflection points in NATO’s history, and I am confident the Alliance will be all the better and stronger for it.”

Among other changes in the works are the consolidation of various U.S. headquarters to European locations outside of Germany, including, in some cases, collocating with NATO counterparts in Belgium and Italy.

“This will strengthen NATO and improve the operational efficiency and readiness of over 2,000 service members in these headquarters,” Esper said.

In addition, nearly 4,500 members of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment will return to the United States, as other armored vehicle units begin continuous rotations farther east in the Black Sea region.

This move will be complemented by the repositioning of a fighter squadron and elements of a fighter wing to Italy, the combination of moves fortifying protection of NATO’s southeastern flank, Esper said.

Finally, about 2,500 airmen based in Mildenhall, United Kingdom, will remain there rather than relocating to Germany as previously planned. The airmen in Mildenhall are responsible for aerial refueling and special operations.

“In addition to these moves … we also plan on rotating forward the lead element of the Army’s newly established V Corps headquarters to Poland, once Warsaw signs a Defense Cooperation Agreement and burden sharing deal, as previously pledged,” Esper said.

“There are or may be other opportunities as well to move additional forces into Poland and the Baltics,” he added.

Norbert Röttgen, head of the foreign affairs committee of the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, predicted via Twitter that the moves are only “going to weaken the alliance.”

He went on to argue that the U.S. withdrawal would decrease U.S. military clout in relation to Russia, the Near East and Middle East.

Meanwhile back here in the U.S., Sen. Mitt Romney, a frequent critic of Trump despite their party affiliation, said the decision was a “gift” to Russia that would result in lasting and harmful consequences for the United States’ friend.

He also dismissed the decision as a “slap and in the face at a friend and ally.”

Esper assured the reporters present that no moves will take place without “thorough communication with our people, continued engagement with Congress, and consultation with our allies.”

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