Members of the House Armed Services Committee ripped apart a Pentagon proposal to move about 12,000 troops out of Germany during a Thursday hearing, questioning the civilian and uniformed officials testifying on everything from the lack of a cost projection to whether the move is just in response to an arbitrary cap set by the president.
Under the plan, 11,900 troops would be pulled out of Germany, with 2,500 of those relocating to countries like Belgium and Italy, while the other 6,400 would return stateside. But without a cost analysis, no timeline and, according to lawmakers, scant reasoning for the move at all, the plan has gotten a resoundingly poor grade from a committee with the power to approve or deny it.
“I don’t think this plan was particularly well thought out and I worry about a number of aspects of its implementation,” Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., HASC’s chairman, said in his opening remarks.
First announced by Defense Secretary Mark Esper at the end of July, the proposal was borne of a U.S. European Command review, which each combatant command has gone through in recent months.
Esper has argued that redistributing some troops throughout other points in Europe, while specifically bringing the 2nd Cavalry Regiment home and deploying it and similar formations as a rotational force focused on countries east of Germany and closer to Russia, would bolster the mission to deter that country’s encroachment across its western border.
Critics of the plan have pointed out that it seems to fall directly in line with recent rhetoric from President Donald Trump, who has threatened to pull troops out of Germany for not meeting its non-binding goal of contributing 2 percent of its gross domestic product to NATO.
“... there needs to be an overall strategic plan that is coordinated with allies, rather than have a bunch of rationalizations after the fact,” ranking member Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said.
The hearing comes as House and Senate negotiations are underway over the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act; the House version includes a provision that would ban the administration from lowering troop levels below current levels until 180 days after Pentagon leaders present a plan to Congress and certify it will not harm U.S. or allied interests.
“Where did number come from?” Smith asked, questioning what requirement is fulfilled by moving 12,000 troops out of Germany.
The 2,500 troops who would stay in Europe but leave Germany include the headquarters personnel of EUCOM and U.S. Africa Command, both currently housed in Stuttgart.
“The decision to move AFRICOM out of Germany does not seem to make sense,” Smith said. “Except, as came out in the briefing, it was necessary to get to the 12,000 number. That is not the way we should be making policy, and it is going to be very, very expensive.”
The announcement has been largely derided as a political punch from the Trump administration. On the other hand, it has also raised questions of whether it will ever come to fruition if the president is not reelected.
"This is a textbook case that should be taught in [international relations] programs of how not to make a decision like this,” Michèle Flournoy, a former defense under secretary for policy in the Obama administration, told Defense News on Wednesday. “No consultation with your ally ... no real strategic analysis of the alternatives. This was a presidential impulse.”
Flournoy is widely assumed to be Joe Biden’s pick for defense secretary, should he win the presidential election Nov. 3.
“... our bases in Europe have been indispensable when we’ve operated in other parts of the world,” she added, including as a transit hub for Middle East deployments. “So I would not rush to just assume that we can dramatically change the posture.”
Asked to justify why a rotational combat force is preferable to the permanent presence currently provided by the 2nd Cavalry Regiment, James Anderson, the acting defense under secretary for policy, told Smith that the model provides “flexibility.”
“Flexibility sounds like a nice word, but it doesn’t actually tell us anything,” Smith said.
Defense officials in the past have presented rotational forces as a better use of readiness, because they train up for a deployment and focus 100-percent of their time on the mission while in country. Alternatively, Germany-based forces have their families with them, but leave for months at a time for missions or training exercises.
While having a rundown of brigades rotating in and out of Europe might provide some flexibility in when and where troops are sent out, lawmakers were concerned that their intermittent presence would be a downgrade.
“And what does it truly net us?” Smith asked. “That has an impact, certainly on the members serving, but also on our presence in those countries and our ability to respond.”
Anderson noted that despite resistance to change from Germany, the plan is expected to benefit both the U.S. and its allies.
“I’m really having a problem connecting the dots with whether this is going to solve a problem, that I don’t think exists,” Jim Langevin, D-R.I., said. “In fact, I think it’s going to create more problems than anything it’s going to solve."
While Belgium has been batted around as the new home of EUCOM, a location is still up in the air for AFRICOM.
Stood up in 2007, the Pentagon settled on Germany as AFRICOM’s headquarters, where the Air Force and Marine Corps also have their Africa forces staffs, while the Army and Navy’s Africa headquarters are in Italy.
The assumption had been that U.S. Africa Command, also headquartered at Stuttgart, would follow EUCOM to Belgium, but Anderson offered that it could be relocated to another European country, a country in Africa or even to the U.S.
Then there’s the matter of relocating thousands of troops, and their equipment, assigned to 2nd Cavalry Regiment. Principally, that involves finding an Army post stateside with enough space and facilities ― housing, schools, etc. ― to accommodate them and their families.
The Pentagon is “still formulating cost estimates,” Anderson said, but he echoed Esper’s July rough math of “single-digit billions.”
In addition to an Air Force fighter squadron and support elements moving from Germany to Italy, 2,500 of the 11,900 personnel are airmen based at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England, whose planned relocation to Germany is now canceled.
At the time of the announcement, Esper said that some units could be ready to make their moves within a matter of weeks. Anderson, however, described the plan as more of an outline than in-progress.
“Have we given an outline of moves that we will make and how we’re working through the details, or is this a concept in the sense that if our allies say, ‘We don’t like that,’ we could abandon it?” Thornberry asked.
More than anything, lawmakers expressed frustration at what they saw as a haphazardly conducted plan with little to back it up, and officials sent to testify before them that had little to do with formulating it.
Air Force Lt. Gen. David Allvin, the Joint Staff’s director for strategy, plans and policy, said plainly that he was not involved in the decision-making process. Anderson, whose appointed position is as the deputy to his acting role, arrived on the job in June.
“This is why we need an actual under secretary for policy,” Smith said, taking a jab at the vacancy in a key Pentagon leadership role." This is just not acceptable from the Department of Defense. Whatever you may think of Congress, whatever you may think of this committee, it is our job to exercise oversight of this."
But with so few details, Smith said, it’s difficult to evaluate the plan on its face.
“On this and other decisions, we just need to hear better what the hell is going on, so we can exercise our oversight,” he added.
Anderson attempted to smooth things over.
“It’s clearly not the case that we are not providing the details, but at this stage in the process, we don’t have that level of detail,” Anderson said.
“That’s alarming in its own right, but I take your point,” Smith responded.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.