A large military drawdown in Germany would be a “colossal mistake,” says the former top Army commander in Europe about a possible scaling back of the U.S. presence on the Continent, at a time when Russia has become more assertive.
“We need what Germany gives us in terms of basing and access and the chance to train and prepare from excellent fixed installations and facilities,” said retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, who commanded U.S. Army Europe until late last year.
There are now about 32,000 permanently stationed American troops in Germany, which hosted the majority of the 300,000 troops stationed in Europe during the Cold War.
The Washington Post reported on Friday that the Pentagon is analyzing the cost and effects of returning some or all troops in Germany to the U.S. and possibly sending some to Poland instead. The review began after President Donald Trump, who is at odds with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on a range of issues, expressed interest in withdrawing U.S. forces.
To pull out en masse would “throw away 70 years of effort and investment by allies as well as multiple administrations, Republican and Democrat,” Hodges said in an interview with Stars and Stripes. He expressed confidence that Pentagon planners would agree to keep troop levels in Germany on the current scale.
The Pentagon analysis is in the early stages, but word of the review comes a week before Trump heads to a meeting of NATO heads of state in Brussels. Trump’s ambivalence about maintaining a large number of servicemembers in Germany adds another twist to what is already expected to be the most contentious NATO summit in years. Trump is expected at the summit to pressure allies he says don’t spend enough on defense.
“If this is just a negotiating tactic, then it is putting unnecessary strain on our alliance, the most successful alliance in the history of the world,” Hodges said. “The big winner in this sort of situation is (Russian President Vladimir) Putin.”
John R. Deni, an expert on European security at the U.S. Army War College, said a major force reduction in Germany would carry a large one-time expense. It could also have higher annual recurring costs over time versus maintenance of current troop levels, he said.
A 2017 study by Deni argued that large continuous troop rotations from the U.S. to Europe cost more than forward basing units.
“More importantly, large-scale redeployment of U.S. troops in Germany would likely embolden Russia in terms of its adventurist, intimidating foreign policy, and make European countries more likely to side with Moscow in any number of diplomatic and political issues that matter to the United States,” Deni told Stars and Stripes.
Such a move would also “undermine our major comparative advantage vis-a-vis Russia and China — namely, our alliances — at a time when, frankly, we’re already in an undeclared cyberwar with Russia, and in many ways we’re losing a strategic competition with China,” Deni said.
Hodges expressed confidence that “very smart and hard-working professionals” at the Pentagon were making the case for maintaining the U.S. military presence in Europe.
During the past three years, increased defense spending and troop rotations reflect “the recognition by the American people, if not by this administration, that European security and stability is essential to our own security and stability and prosperity.”
The last major reduction of U.S. troops in Germany was in 2012. However, Russia’s 2014 intervention in Ukraine altered the security landscape, leading the U.S. to reinvigorate the Europe mission.
The Pentagon’s latest force structure review also comes as Poland is pushing hard for more U.S. troops. Warsaw has proposed spending as much as $2 billion to pay for a permanent U.S. base in the country.
The Pentagon analysis will look at the possibility of moving more military assets into Poland as well as returning troops to the United States.
The U.S. already has a large mission in Poland. An armored brigade, a U.S.-led battle group and an Air Force detachment all are on year-round rotations in the country.
Hodges said he favors rotational forces over permanently basing troops in Poland, which he said would chip at alliance unity. Many allies, notably Germany and France, oppose setting up permanent bases in Poland, which they say would further heighten tensions with Russia.
“I am not worried about provoking the Russians, but other allies will be,” Hodges said. “It is important to do this in a way where the whole alliance agrees or we don’t do it.”
He said he was concerned the White House “might move out without consultation with other allies and make a bilateral decision.”
“It is such an important thing; it would change the nature of the posture and profile of forces in eastern Europe,” he said, adding that rotational forces operate at a higher state of combat readiness than permanent units.
Deni, however, is a proponent of sending at least some troops from the United States to Poland on a permanent basis, which he says would concentrate more firepower in a region. An armored brigade accompanied by a range of enabling assets, such as intelligence units and electronic warfare capabilities, would be a more effective deterrent to Russian aggression if permanently stationed in Poland, he said.
But a total withdrawal from Germany accompanied by a return stateside would amount to a near abandonment of the military effort in Europe. Germany is home to Ramstein Air Base, Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, two combatant commands and logistics and infantry units. Bases in Germany also are launching pads for missions in Africa and the Middle East.
“All of this is essential to the U.S. national defense strategy,” Hodges said. “We shouldn’t take that for granted.”
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