The Pentagon on Wednesday rolled out arguably the most sweeping changes to troop deployments in Europe since the end of the Cold War, redrawing NATO’s defense lines against an increasingly aggressive Russia and adding fuel to a feud with Germany and an equally bitter political battle at home as the November presidential election draws near.
The reshuffling follows complaints from President Trump that Germany was not paying its fair share to NATO’s collective defense. Mr. Trump repeated those complaints Wednesday even as Pentagon leaders were rolling out the changes.
The overhaul, Defense Department officials said, is designed solely to increase NATO’s security and ensure that U.S. forces are best positioned to defend the alliance from Russia or other bad actors in the region. The most striking changes will be in Germany, where U.S. troop levels will drop from 36,000 to 24,000 and the long-standing U.S. European Command headquarters will relocate from Stuttgart to Mons, Belgium.
Military leaders tried to distance themselves from Mr. Trump’s blunt declaration that the drawdown in Germany is direct retaliation for Berlin’s failure to contribute enough money to NATO defense.
Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper told reporters later that the changes have been in the works for months and reflect new security realities in Europe.
Mr. Trump offered his own motivation: “The United States has been taken advantage of for 25 years, both on trade and on the military. We are protecting Germany. So we’re reducing the force because they’re not paying their bill. It’s very simple: They’re delinquent. Very simple.”
Mr. Trump even said he was willing to “rethink” the shifts “if they start paying their bills.”
Germany will spend about 1.25 of gross domestic product on defense this year, well below the 2% target that NATO countries are pledged to meet by 2024.
News reports of Mr. Trump’s plans to cut U.S. forces in Germany leaked last month without warning to either the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel or to NATO leaders.
The Pentagon plan will take several years to fully implement, and many of the deployments may depend on whether Mr. Trump wins a second term in November.
Congressional Democrats and some Republicans were quick to fire back, and some Democrats said the president’s actions amounted to a gift to the Kremlin. The German drawdown, they said, will make it easier for Russia to exert influence across Europe.
German bases have also long provided a convenient, efficient jumping-off point for U.S. military operations in the Middle East as well, critics said.
“Champagne must be flowing freely this evening at the Kremlin,” Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement. “Germany is an essential platform … to counter Russia and for U.S. security interests across the Middle East and Africa.”
Other Democrats and liberal think tanks echoed that attack and suggested they are eager to use the issue as a political weapon against Mr. Trump in the election campaign.
A new approach
Pentagon leaders strenuously rejected the notion that any of the changes announced Wednesday will undercut U.S. national security, degrade NATO defenses or embolden Russian President Vladimir Putin in Eastern Europe. In fact, they said, the new military alignment will give the U.S. and its allies greater flexibility to respond to existing and emerging threats.
Mr. Esper said NATO members have come to a strategic fork in the road where changes must be made and a fresh approach must be employed.
“As we’ve entered a new era of great-power competition, we are now at another one of those inflection points in NATO’s evolution, and I am confident the alliance will be all the better and stronger for it,” he said.
Military leaders said the administration’s 2018 National Defense Strategy was their guiding force. It envisions U.S. competition with Russia and China for dominance in Europe, the Pacific, the Arctic and other key theaters.
“While we hope Russia and China will engage in more productive and cooperative behavior in the future, we are posturing our forces to deter aggression and counter their malign influence,” said Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The specific changes are dramatic and will affect U.S. troop deployments across the continent.
Of the roughly 12,000 troops who will leave Germany, about 5,600 will be repositioned to other NATO countries and 6,400 will return to the U.S., officials said. Ultimately, some of those forces could be redeployed to the Pacific theater to resist Chinese ambitions there.
The nearly 4,500 members of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment now in Europe, Mr. Esper said, will return to the U.S.
About 2,500 U.S. airmen based in Mildenhall will stay in Britain instead of completing a planned move to Germany. An F-16 squadron and other units will soon be repositioned to Italy, another country that does not meet its defense spending targets, officials said.
The Pentagon will also dispatch rotational forces to the Black Sea region to protect NATO’s southeastern flank in recognition that the alliance’s border has moved farther east.
The German Defense Ministry would not comment, but Chancellor Angela Merkel and other officials have argued that Germany is working toward meeting Mr. Trump’s demand that NATO members spend at least 2% of their annual GDP on defense.
Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer told a German news outlet last week that any sign the American troops were being called home and not deployed to other European posts would be a worrisome signal of U.S. commitment to the alliance.
An aide to former Vice President Joseph R. Biden told Reuters this month the presumed Democratic presidential nominee will review the Germany drawdown if elected and said Mr. Biden has a “profound problem” with the policy and the way it was formulated.
Some German officials adopted a wait-and-see approach as well. Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Soeder told the German DW news agency Wednesday that the Pentagon move would be a “burden” on bilateral relations but added, “We are now waiting to see if the decision will last” past the U.S. vote this fall.
NATO leaders officially applauded Wednesday’s announcement and backed up the U.S. contention that it will only make the alliance stronger.
“Today’s announcement by Secretary Esper on U.S. forces in Europe underlines the continued commitment by the United States to NATO and to European security,” said NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. “We are stronger and safer when we stand together.”
Some analysts question whether the happy talk masks emerging strategic differences within the alliance. Even if Mr. Trump’s ultimate goal is to force Germany and other wealthy European nations to shoulder more of their defense burden, the military moves do little to advance that objective, said retired Army Col. Andrew Bacevich, now president of the Quincy Institute.
“Petulance is no substitute for reasoned policy,” he said. “Trump administration annoyance with German free-riding is understandable and justified, but shifting U.S. troop units and headquarters to other European countries is irrelevant to the problem at hand.
“Europe today is fully capable of defending itself,” he said. “The United States should create incentives for Europeans collectively to assume that basic responsibility.”
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill who have questioned the move include Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah. The outspoken Trump critic described the plan as a “grave error.”
“It is a slap in the face at a friend and ally when we should instead be drawing closer in our mutual commitment to deter Russian and Chinese aggression,” he said in a statement.
Mr. Romney and other senators of both parties offered an amendment to the pending 2020 National Defense Authorization Act that would essentially prohibit troop reductions in Germany until the defense secretary certifies to Congress that the drawdown will not harm U.S. national security or the security of its allies. The amendment was blocked from a vote in the Senate’s deliberations last week.
The Democratic-controlled House passed its own version of the National Defense Authorization Act last week that includes similar language regarding troop withdrawals from Germany. But such provisions aren’t expected to be in the final version of the bill hashed out by House and Senate leaders.
In fact, powerful Republicans in Congress are on board with the administration’s proposal.
“As I said last week after I was briefed, any plan for realigning our posture in Europe must maintain a strong forward presence, sustain force projection and take care of our military families. The concept [the Pentagon] outlined today adheres to these principles,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican.
• Lauren Meier contributed to this report.