WASHINGTON -- The United States will cut its troop presence in Germany by more than 25%, former U.S. officials said Friday.
The new cap, approved by President Donald Trump and Defense Secretary Mark Esper, will limit U.S. troops in Germany to 25,000, said a former senior official with knowledge of the decision. That would mean a reduction of 9,500, or more than one-quarter, from current levels.
The move -- which blindsided German officials and many U.S. military leaders in Europe -- is in keeping with Trump's vision of limited U.S. deployments overseas, and with his insistence that allies must shoulder more of the burden for their own defense.
It is not clear whether the plan, which was first reported by The Wall Street Journal, is final, and some former officials said they hoped Trump would reconsider. Several said that, if enforced, the troop cut would further undermine an Atlantic alliance and was a gift to President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who has been eager to see a diminished U.S. military presence on the continent.
While Trump has complained about the expense of protecting the U.S.'s allies in NATO, and has long singled out Germany as a wealthy nation that spends proportionately little on its defense, former officials and analysts argued he was damaging U.S. interests.
"The reason we have troops overseas in Germany is not to protect Germans; everything we have is for our benefit," said Frederick B. Hodges, a retired lieutenant general and a former top U.S. Army commander in Europe. "The decision doesn't seem attached to any kind of strategy."
The U.S. currently bases more troops in Germany than in any other country except Japan. The U.S. presence there is a legacy of World War II, and became a cornerstone of the country's Cold War defense of Europe against the Soviet Union.
Now, U.S. troops in Germany operate a military hospital in Ramstein, staff training grounds used by the Atlantic alliance -- and they provide ground forces to reinforce allies across Europe and beyond, as well as a legacy deterrent to Russian aggression.
The drawdowns will include an Air Force F-16 squadron and Army support units, according to a former Defense Department official.
Despite his complaints about burden-sharing, Trump, as president, has overseen an increase in U.S. military spending in Europe. Congress has bolstered the European Deterrence Initiative, which pays for exercises and troop rotations, and the military has increased its presence in Poland.
The troop cut for Germany would be the largest of Trump's tenure. The U.S. began building its forces back up in Europe after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. But Hodges and other analysts noted that Russia had not taken any steps to reduce its aggressive stance in Europe that would warrant a scaled-back U.S. presence.
Trump and his allies have long singled out Germany as what they call an egregious free rider on the U.S.'s military might. Instead of spending to defend itself and Europe, Trump has argued, Germany instead built itself a lavish social welfare system.
Germany spent some 1.36% of its gross domestic product on its military in 2019, a number that has grown but is still significantly short of the NATO stated target of 2%. Because of its large economy, Germany in absolute terms now spends more on its military than other European powers. Germany represents higher military spending than France, for example, which has a smaller economy.
Last August, Richard Grenell, then the U.S. ambassador to Germany, suggested that it made little sense that Germany would run a budget surplus, fail to meet the NATO spending guidelines and rely on U.S. troops for defense.
"It is actually offensive to assume that the U.S. taxpayer must continue to pay to have 50,000-plus Americans in Germany, but the Germans get to spend their surplus on domestic programs," Grenell told the German government-funded news organization Deutsche Welle.
In an interview published Saturday by Germany's Funke Media Group, lawmaker Norbert Roettgen said such a troop withdrawal would be "very regrettable."
Roettgen, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Union bloc who chairs the German parliament's foreign policy committee, was quoted as saying that he couldn't see "any factual reason for the withdrawal" and that U.S. soldiers were welcome in Germany.
Information for this article was contributed by The Associated Press.