Why cutting American forces in Germany will harm this alliance
President Trump has approved a plan, hatched more by his ambassador in Berlin than by the Pentagon, to further downsize the United States military presence in Germany, according to some recent reports. The change was disturbingly motivated out of his spite at Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The 35,000 American troops in Germany would be reduced by 10,000, as some would come home and some would possibly head to Poland. While there is nothing wrong with increasing the modest United States military presence in Poland, this must not be at the expense of a strong foothold in Germany, where American forces stood in the hundreds of thousands amid the Cold War and have been reduced in the last few decades.
American forces in Germany are mostly Army and Air Force units. They include an armored brigade and a fighter wing, then logistics, supports, and headquarters capabilities that facilitate any massive reinforcements that could be needed to defend the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in war. If there were a crisis in the Baltic region, the United States would be unlikely to send most of its forces directly to Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania. These small exposed countries have only a few major ports and airfields between them, and are all dangerously close to Russian firepower.
So any deployment of American reinforcements in a serious crisis would most likely travel by boat or plane to ports and airfields in Germany, then move by rail and road into Poland and beyond if necessary. An important Atlantic Council report made the case for placing more American staging and logistics capacity in Poland. But there is no reason for this to come at the expense of capabilities in Germany, which would play complementary roles to American bases in Poland in any such critical deployment.
American bases in Germany also facilitate many broader operations of the United States in the Middle East and Afghanistan, since Germany is on the way to both, especially if one is flying. For the United States military, these are huge advantages. Other American footprints in Europe include 12,000 troops based in Italy, 9,000 troops based in Britain, 5,000 troops based in Poland, and 2,000 troops based in Turkey. They are all certainly important. But Germany is the best positioned and best developed of these.
The costs of American forces in Germany are nearly equal to what they would be if they were instead at home. The government pays the same salaries, buys the same equipment, provides comparable medical care, and undertakes similar training wherever they are located. Some costs might be greater for those stationed abroad, like travel to and from the United States, along with American schools for military children.
But according to Rand Corporation, Germany covers more than $1 billion each year, a major portion of the total costs for utilities used by American forces, construction on bases, and other related expenses. As a result, the net costs of having American forces based in Germany instead of at home are close to a wash. Deployments to war zones are costly. Stationing units in major industrialized countries with strong infrastructure is not.
Yet relocating American forces is expensive. When this occurs abroad, as with the recent efforts in South Korea and Japan, the host nation typically pays most of the costs. Trump has consistently ignored this fact and has made insulting demands that South Korea quintuple the current support for the 30,000 American forces based there. But when American forces come home, any bill for a reconfiguration or expansion of the domestic facilities needed to accommodate them hits American taxpayers.
Having American forces in Germany is a net plus in terms of morale. One has to seek far and wide to hear anyone complain about being stationed there. Troops can bring along their families, and while living there, they can move easily and safely in the country, and across Europe in general. They are warmly received by the general population, even during an era when many Germans profoundly dislike the American president.
There are economic multiplier effects associated with holding forces at home, buying goods and stimulating business in places where they live. But about 90 percent of the total American military is already located in the United States. For the critical staging capabilities that our defenses abroad require, Germany is still one of our elite allies. American forces there are not protecting Germany. They are assisting the United States with carrying out obligations in the broader region and beyond.
Germany could remain a crucial hub even if the plan to downsize, the details of which have not been released, moves forward. But if Trump keeps up the vindictiveness that seems to drive big decisions toward allies, can these all key relationships survive another four years?
Michael O’Hanlon is a senior policy fellow with the Brookings Institution.