A recent Washington Post article raised some eyebrows in Germany. The authors claim that the Pentagon has been undertaking a cost analysis of keeping US troops in Germany.
The White House, as well as President Trump’s ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison, were quick to deny any potential thoughts of ordering back the troops or relocating them to Poland (allegedly two options being evaluated).
Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon stated that cost-benefit assessments were undertaken routinely. However, reports suggest that Trump was surprised to hear the number of active-duty military personnel stationed in Germany earlier this year.
The number of US troops in Germany has been decreasing constantly since the end of the Cold War. Only since Russia’s annexation of Crimea has the US presence seen a slight increase to support NATO’s rotating missions in Central and Eastern Europe.
US troops leaving Germany would have significant impacts.
Foremost amongst these are the consequences for the US itself. Germany is its logistical hub and is vital for supply chains. 35,000 troops and arms (including nuclear arms) are stationed across the country, with the majority of personnel in the southwest. The Kaiserslautern Military Community (KMC) is the largest American community outside the US mainland. The Ramstein Airbase hosts the 86th Airlift Wing, HQ US Air Forces Europe, US Air Forces Africa with its HQ in close-by Stuttgart, and the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center — the largest military hospital outside the US, where injured personnel from Afghanistan and Iraq are first cared for. NATO’s Allied Air Command HQ is also hosted in Ramstein.
In short, the base secures US access to the Middle East and Africa. Most importantly, Washington’s global aerial operations are supported from here: imagery is processed and passed on to drone operators. Other institutions that could be affected include HQ US Army Europe in Wiesbaden and the US Europe and Africa Commands in Stuttgart.
Although the German government is paying for the presence of US troops, and also has to deal with long-term consequences and costs related to environmental and social impacts, US troops and their families significantly contribute to the local economy and create jobs for local citizens in an otherwise structurally weak area. A German parliamentary report from January 2017 shows that the KMC alone with its more than 54,000 American citizens (military and civilians) and around 7,000 host-nation employees contribute annually around US$2 billion to the local economy. US civilians and military personnel living off-base contribute around 40 per cent of their wages to the local economy, particularly in the real estate and retail sectors. In March 2018, it was revealed the US government actually plans to invest almost US$2 billion into the army bases in Rhineland-Palatinate until 2023.
With the NATO summit coming up, America’s allies are now wondering whether the statements are Trump’s bargaining tactic to get European countries to spend more on defence, or something more serious. Yet pulling out or relocating troops wouldn’t only hurt Germany. It would impact US forces and Washington’s national security interests by significantly reducing its ability to project power.
Reports of a potential relocation to Poland, however, have raised hopes in Warsaw, which has been hoping for a greater US presence on its territory. Poland offered to pay US$2 billion – a fraction of Germany’s investment. Furthermore, the costs of relocating and setting up necessary infrastructure would require further investments from the US government. Finally, quick access to North Sea and the Atlantic would be lost. While it seems unlikely that troops are withdrawn, Trump’s unreliability leaves allies nervous.
The surprise the South Korean military experienced following the Singapore summit would not want to be repeated by European allies after Trump meets Putin after the NATO summit. North Korea and Iran tell us that Trump makes decisions with no thought for alliances, advisors, or common sense.
Note: Jacky Westermann is a researcher and editor for the International Program at ASPI.