US Troop Withdrawal: Politics Trumps Strategy

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The Pentagon has released some details of its plan to withdraw forces from Germany. The headline figure is now 11 900 troops (coyly described by the Pentagon as “more than 11 000”) compared to the total of roughly 9 500 discussed when the plan was first announced in June. Of these, around 5 600 will be redeployed In Europe, mostly to Belgium and Italy, and around 6 400 returned to the US.

The announcement, like its June predecessor, has met a largely unfavourable reaction. Both former Supreme Allied Commander Europe James Stavridis and former Commanding General US Army Europe Ben Hodges, for example, have characterised the plan as a gift to the Kremlin. Closer to home, Estonia’s Defence Minister Jüri Luik stated that “the US intention to reduce its permanent presence in Europe is not a positive development”. The plan was, unsurprisingly, welcomed by Russia.

According to the announcement, the US intends to collocate its European Command (EUCOM) headquarters and Special Operations Command Europe, both currently based in Stuttgart, with NATO’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, in Mons, Belgium. Belgium will also become the new home of one of two air defence artillery battalions currently based in Germany, an engineering battalion, and three (unspecified) brigade-sized headquarters.

Italy will receive an F-16 fighter squadron and elements of a fighter wing, as well as some support and contracting units. The two battalions of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team that currently serve in Germany will also move to Vicenza, the location of their brigade headquarters.

The forces returning to the US most notably include the 2nd Cavalry Regiment—a Stryker-equipped brigade of almost 4 500 personnel, one of four US units of this size currently based in Europe that could conceivably respond rapidly to a crisis on the continent or its periphery. In addition, 2 500 US airmen and women currently based in the UK and scheduled to move to Germany will now remain in the UK.

Sweetening the pill for the eastern Allies, DoD also announced that the lead element of the Army’s 5th Corps headquarters would be rotated forward to Poland, once a defence cooperation agreement was in place with Warsaw. Referring to the troops to be withdrawn to the US, Secretary Esper also noted that “many of these or similar units will begin conducting rotational deployments back to Europe” and that “there are opportunities to put forces into the Baltics”.

The Pentagon says that its plan is intended to enhance deterrence of Russia, strengthen NATO, reassure allies, improve US strategic flexibility and EUCOM operational flexibility, and take care of service members and their families in the process. It is far from obvious how moving contracting units or engineering and air defence battalions several hundred kilometres across Europe will contribute to meeting these aims. But other elements of the plan may do so. The collocation of the NATO and US headquarters responsible for operations in the European theatre could bring significant benefits for both organisations in mutual understanding, cooperation and coordination. Similarly, the cohesion, efficiency and flexibility of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team and the operations of the US Air Force’s F-16 fleet could well be improved by collocating units that are currently geographically distant.

Even the redeployment of combat units to the US may bring benefits. DoD argues that units rotating to Europe and elsewhere from the US deploy at higher levels of readiness and have a greater focus on their mission than do their permanently deployed counterparts. And from a Baltic perspective, the prospect that the withdrawal will be accompanied by the re-establishment of some sort of US force deployments to the region is a welcome one (even if the promise is vague at present and even if there is no apparent reason why the withdrawal of troops from Germany should be necessary to make this happen).

But the counter arguments are stronger–a substantial withdrawal of US combat units will weaken European and transatlantic security. Russia is deterred by heavy US military presence in Europe’s rear areas. Reducing the US footprint in Europe will damage Allied rapid response capability, putting at risk regions such as the Baltics where Russia holds local advantages in geography and force numbers; as well as limiting US options for power projection elsewhere. And there are complications in a deterrence and defence strategy that relies heavily on rapid and large-scale reinforcement rather than in-place forces. Regardless of the intent in terms of efficiency and flexibility, both Russia and the Allies will see this plan as further evidence of a lessening of US commitment to European security—even while there has been no improvement in the security environment to justify such as move. It will neither enhance deterrence of Russia, nor will it reassure Allies.

But whatever the merits of the arguments for and against the US plan, many hours’ worth of careful Pentagon staff work was almost immediately flushed down the drain by statements and tweets from President Trump indicating that this was, in fact, all about punishing a “delinquent” Germany. Not deterring Russia, not improving the efficiency and effectiveness of US forces, not even looking after servicemen and women and their families, but punishment for Germany’s taking advantage “on trade and on military and on everything else for many years”.

Unwelcome though the US withdrawal plan may be, the Alliance will likely survive it, just as it has survived force posture readjustments in the past. Deeper damage, however, will be done by the inability of the NATO’s supposed leading nation to speak with one voice, and by the leadership of that nation’s contemptuous treatment of Allies. Harm is inevitable when states bound together in a mutually beneficial security relationship attempt to punish each other by moves that weaken that security. Credibility is weakened when forces are distributed according to political favours rather than strategic rationale. While it is to be hoped that a future US administration will reverse the plan announced this week, this will be the easy part. If the Alliance is to thrive in the future, a far more important and difficult task will be rebuilding trust, cohesion, common vision and shared purpose—and with these, credibility and stronger deterrence.

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