Withdrawing US forces from Germany will have consequences

Make no mistake: The Trump administration’s plan to remove and realign US forces in Germany and throughout Europe is much more than a fit of presidential pique at Germany or Chancellor Angela Merkel; it is a crippling blow to America’s role in Europe and the alliance it leads.

The
tell-tale heart of this retreat is not in its flamboyant politics but in the
crucial military details. In the wake the 2014 invasion of Ukraine, even the
Obama administration realized that a continued reduction in US forces in Europe
was a mistake. It put the brakes on its own drawdown plans and quickly pulled a
“European Reassurance Initiative” out of its hat. This stopgap was meant to
deter further Russian revanche in two
ways: expanding US and alliance troop presence in Eastern Europe and beefing up
the firepower and mobility of American land forces in and available in a European
crisis. The new Trump scheme reverses both of those critical steps.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel hold a bilateral meeting at the sidelines of the NATO summit in Watford, Britain, December 4, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Indeed,
the plan removes the very cornerstone of what has been a very modest and
slow-moving reconstruction project: the 2d Cavalry Regiment, based in Vilseck,
Germany, which is about 25 miles from Nuremburg in eastern Bavaria and the same
distance from the Czech border. From there, the unit has been the central instrument
of the frenetic attempt to restore credible deterrence in the “post-Crimea” era.
In March 2015, less than a year after the Russian annexation of Crimea and just
months after the invasion of eastern Ukraine, the regiment conducted a well-publicized
“Dragoon Ride” — the unit is equipped with wheeled Stryker vehicles and thus
can drive itself on civilian roads — exercise, rolling over 1,100 miles from
Germany through the Czech Republic, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. It
has conducted similar and growing exercises in each subsequent year; this past
summer, it turned southward toward the increasingly contested Black Sea region,
driving to a training area south of Budapest, Hungary and then onward to a
range in central Romania, where it engaged in both fairly sophisticated
combined-arms live-fire training with the Romanian army, employing engineer,
artillery, and combat aviation assets.

This
agility and lethality — the regiment is equipped with the latest version of the
Stryker, with a powerful 30mm cannon and mounted Javelin missiles, giving it
the firepower of a mechanized Bradley fighting vehicle — has made the 2d
Cavalry the perfect covering force for Europe. Having it centrally stationed on
the continent also enabled the “reassurance initiative” to return fully
armored, tank-based brigades to the theater. The Stryker-equipped cavalry had
enough punch and endurance to give stateside heavy units a reasonable chance to
deploy.

With
the cav’s withdrawal, US Army Europe will have few cards to play early in a
crisis. Its sole remaining major maneuver unit is the 173d Airborne Infantry
Brigade, based primarily in Vicenza, Italy. These paratroopers are lightly
armed and would rely on Air Force transports to deploy — their base is no
closer to the Black Sea and much farther from Poland or the Baltic states. Moreover,
as the only airborne unit outside the United States, they are a “contingency
response force” for US Africa and Central commands as well as Europe.

Moreover,
Defense Secretary Mark Esper has revealed that the new rotational plan for
Europe will be conducted by Stryker units rather than armored brigades. Currently,
the active-duty Army fields just seven Stryker brigades (versus 11 armored) and
half of those are stationed outside Seattle, Alaska, and Hawaii and “aligned”
to the Pacific theater. The mathematics of forward presence and reinforcement
in Europe will be all but self-defeating.

In
sum, the deterrent value of US military posture in Europe stands to be decimated,
as recently retired US commanders have vigorously argued. Admiral James
Stavridis, Supreme Allied Commander for Europe in 2013, and Lt. Gen. Ben
Hodges, who as head of US Army Europe helped to design and carry out much of
the “reassurance initiative” for Europe, described the withdrawal plan as a
“gift for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, also a
USAEUR chief, called on Congress to “stop it.”
Alas, that seems unlikely: The House version of the annual defense bill
bars the withdrawal, but the powerful anti-Trump sentiment in the House is
focused on other issues, and the Senate is not likely to intervene, having
voted down an amendment to its version of the bill brought by Utah Sen. Mitt
Romney.

Finally, the Germany withdrawal reveals that the administration’s approach to “great-power competition” is more like a kiddie soccer game than a game of global chess. Abandoning Europe to chase after East Asia is not only a gift to Russia, but to China — is Chancellor Merkel now more likely to exclude Huawei from its 5G system? To sanction Chinese officials for their oppressions of Chinese Uighurs or Hong Kong?

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