The Pentagon will begin shifting thousands of U.S. troops out of Germany “within weeks” and move the headquarters of U.S. European Command from the country to Belgium, Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced on Wednesday.
Some 11,900 personnel will be moved from Germany, taking U.S. forces there from 36,000 to 24,000. Roughly 5,600 of the troops will be repositioned elsewhere in Europe — including Belgium, Italy, Poland and “opportunities to put forces into the Baltics” — while some 6,400 would come back to the United States.
Of the troops heading back stateside, many will begin conducting rotational deployments back into Europe.
"These changes will unquestionably achieve the core principles of enhancing U.S. and NATO deterrence of Russia, strengthening NATO, reassuring allies and improving U.S. strategic flexibility," Esper said.
The plan — part of President Trump's decision to pull thousands of troops from Berlin in retaliation for what he claims is Germany's delinquency in payments to NATO — will take years to pull off and cost billions of dollars to execute, according to Esper.
"Clearly the costs right now are estimates. It’ll take several billion dollars, I’d say single digits, but that’ll be spread out over time, obviously," he told reporters at the Pentagon.
The announcement follows Trump's abrupt assertion in June that he planned to reduce the U.S. troop presence in Germany, which is home to the headquarters for U.S. European and Africa commands. The U.S. Africa Command headquarters will also be moved, though defense officials did not say to where.
Trump cast the move as a response to Germany not meeting NATO’s goal of spending at least 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense, though NATO allies agreed in 2014 to meet the goal by 2024.
“Germany is paying a very small fraction of what they’re supposed to be paying,” Trump said last month, accusing Berlin of “tremendous delinquency.”
The decision has been met with resistance from both sides of the aisle in Congress, and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has warned that such a move would mean a loss of U.S. influence in a key part of the world.
On Wednesday, Esper struggled to reconcile the idea that the plan is a new Pentagon force posture strategy in Europe with Trump's view that pulling troops out of Germany will be a calculated blow to Berlin.
Asked about the decision, Esper said the process began several months ago and that Trump's directive in June simply accelerated the move, tamping down claims that the decision was due to Trump's disdain with Berlin.
"We’re moving forces out of Central Europe, Germany ... we’re following, in many ways, the boundary east, where our newest allies are, into the Black Sea region. ... This is going to accomplish what the president said with regard to getting us down to a lower number in Europe,” Esper said.
Trump, however, less than an hour later contradicted Esper's claims, saying Germany hasn't "paid their fees," and that the United States "has been taken advantage of on trade and on military and on everything else for many years. ... why would we keep all of those troops there?"
"We’re reducing the force because they’re not paying their bills. It’s very simple. They’re delinquent," Trump told reporters while departing the White House.