President Trump proposed the resettlement of 11,900 US troops from Germany in July. The transfer of some to other European countries, with others returning home generated a lot of criticism. Although Defense Secretary Mark Esper tried to put a strategic turn on the move, the president quickly undermined him. Later, government representatives went to Congress to file their cases and were blasphemed in the rare bipartisan show of policy deals. So, will this proposed troop movement actually be implemented?
What Is Proposed?
Administration wants restoration of 11,900 service members; 5,600 of them will move from Germany but remain in Europe; 6,400 will return the United States. In Europe, the European Command headquarters and the associated special operations command headquarters will move from Germany to Belgium, to be deployed with NATO headquarters. Three brigade-sized headquarters, one air defense battalion and an engineer battalion will move from Germany to Belgium. Several Air Force units will move to Aviano in Italy. Other moves are possible, such as moving African Command from Germany to Belgium. (Yes, African Command is physically in Europe.)
Esper attempted to provide a strategic rationale that the change was “completely in line with the National Defense Strategy.” They will “increase US and NATO deterrence against Russia, strengthen NATO, reassure allies, and increase US strategic flexibility in your calming operational flexibility.” National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien argued an opinion that the large foreign base was “obsolete” and that restructuring would make US deployments more “advanced and expeditionary”.
Unfortunately for Esper and O’Brien’s strategic reasons, the president told reporters at the White House that he had ordered a troop withdrawal because Berlin was “naughty” by not spending enough on defense. “We don’t want to be suckers anymore.” This has been a Trump theme since the 2016 campaign and is therefore not surprising, but it undermines Esper’s efforts to provide a strategic base for this troop movement.
The reaction to the White House proposal has always been negative. A series of critical comments emerged right after the announcement, describing the proposal as: “[harmful] for the national security and fiscal situation of the United States;“”zero strategic meaning;“And “Nothing to do with strategic thinking or analysis.”
The DPR Armed Forces Committee hearing on reinstatement resulted in sharp bipartisan criticism. Pentagon representatives were unable to answer many questions about the specifications. Congressman Thornberry, a top Republican who retired after this election, was candid: “They clearly haven’t thought about the consequences … The people at the Pentagon are trying to put lipstick on pigs.” Democrats are even sharper.
Related Troop Movements
While technically not part of this package, the Trump administration has considered other troop movements within NATO, such as moving troops to Eastern Europe and the Baltic countries. Poland is eager to deploy US troops locally, sometimes derided as “Fort Trump”. The Baltic countries have a rotating troop presence now and want to get something more permanent because they are facing Russia head-on. Romania and Bulgaria have also expressed interest. The United States is gradually improving infrastructure in Eastern Europe through the European Deterrence Initiative.
A key point in this debate, which has not been discussed much in public, is that re-deployment of military forces is prohibitively expensive. The US military was unlike the Roman legions, which could build temporary camps overnight and build permanent camps with their own resources within weeks. US military forces need permanent barracks, dining facilities, motor pools, headquarters buildings, gyms, protected perimeters and roads.
If the new facility includes dependents, as the case may be, then the base will need to have family housing, commissioners, stock exchange, schools, and child care centers. Even if the host country provided real estate, as they used to do, this facility could cost billions of dollars. Even though Secretary Esper says the costs will be in the billions of single digits, it may be optimistic. To provide one relevant example: moving 5,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam (indeed a high-cost location) would cost $ 8.7 billion.
Taking these costs into account, let’s divide the proposed troop movements into three parts and examine each one: movement around Central Europe, movement to Eastern Europe, movement back to the United States.
Touring Central Europe
The strategic reasons for movement around central Europe are weak. Moving headquarters from Germany to Belgium is not only costly but likely counterproductive. This puts all US headquarters in one country and holds them hostage to the changing political environment of that country. Older people may remember that following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, several Belgian legislators proposed that Bush administration officials be accused of war criminals for violating international law.. Belgium back then back then-Sec. Rumsfeld threatened to move US headquarters elsewhere.
Although Aviano, where Air Force units would go, is already a major US base and closer to hotspots in the Mediterranean, it is no closer to Russia. Esper added a feeble excuse that it was a little closer to the Black Sea, where several incidents had occurred, but that was not where the greatest danger lay.
Due to weak strategic reasons and high costs, Congress is unlikely to provide funding for this move. If Joe Biden is elected, his government will surely stop this plan.
Movement to Eastern Europe
The strategic reasons here are strong. The closest and most dangerous threat to NATO countries is to the East, especially the Baltic countries and Poland. Troops in Germany need to transit across multiple regions to reach any zone of possible conflict. Such a transit has become a logistical nightmare for NATO exercises and, even in times of war, may face many hurdles during situations when times are critical. So moving at least some force east made sense. This has been especially true since then Poland, for example, recently agreed to bear the costs.
Return to the United States
There is reason, though weak, that moving troops to the continental United States will bring them closer to the Pacific, which has a higher priority. However, the national defense strategy, and possibly the Biden administration strategy, focuses on Russia and China. Moving power away from Russia would not be consistent with such a dual focus.
Furthermore, the base in the United States that could accommodate the returning field units was largely full. While there may be odd buildings available, for the most part, a new set of facilities will need to be built. So, the move will cost billions.
The only way such a move would make sense would be to not move troops at all but disband the units as part of downsizing the Army and refocusing the defense budget on high-tech weapons. Many strategists have proposed such an approach. The Obama administration wants to cut the active duty Army to 450,000, about 37,000 below now. The Biden administration, and possibly a second Trump administration, might do the same.