U.S. troops in Germany see their fate as critical, and at stake, in presidential election
HOHENFELS, Germany - Dawn pierced the mist as Captain Matthew Likes prepared to fend off a violent but simulated attack on the edge of remote forests.
When the bogus attack came - real Apache helicopters thundered over the treetops and real tanks tumbled over a hill - the Likes team, dressed like the Russian “little green men” who appeared in Crimea in 2014, responded empty rounds with a caliber of 50.
The multinational exercise, which involved 4,100 soldiers over 10 days, was put together to rehearse the “peer-to-peer” war that American commanders and their allies await - in the event of a conflict with a country like Russia military capabilities match those of the United States.
Several current and former U.S. Army officers told NBC News that this 40,000-acre site in southern Germany is currently the only possible location for such expanded international training involving soldiers from countries such as Ukraine, Slovenia, Romania and Italy . The U.S. military has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the sprawling facilities over several decades - one of the many reasons several retired military commanders, former national security advisers, and lawmakers from both parties have questioned the Trump administration's plan to withdraw 12,000 soldiers from Germany.
Pictured: Ohio, 29-year-old Captain Matthew Likes, a member of the U.S. Army's 1-4 Infantry Regiment in Hohenfels, participates in a training exercise in which his soldiers pretend to be Russian-backed mercenaries (Edward Kiernan / NBC News))
The landscape in southern Germany roughly corresponds to the rolling, lightly forested hills of eastern Ukraine, where most of the 200 Ukrainian soldiers who took part in the exercise had already fought against Russian-backed separatists in June.
The 29-year-old Likes said the goal is to recreate the threats American and Allied forces may face in the most up-to-date way possible.
"Whether this is information warfare, whether these are mercenary groups, whether these are bomb attacks - everything we can do to repeat what is happening in the world right now, especially here in Germany," he said.
Former Vice President Joe Biden's campaign said he would cancel the planned troop withdrawal if he were elected. Officials on both sides of the Atlantic said the future role and scope of US forces in Germany may be one of the most important foreign policy decisions that will depend on the November presidential election.
Image: The 40,000-acre Hohenfels training area in southern Germany has been controlled by the US Army for decades and hosts military exercises with dozens of American allies every year (Edward Kiernan / NBC News).
At a September hearing for the House Armed Services Committee, Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, who was retired U.S. Army Forces Commander in Europe from 2014 to 2017, videoconferenced explaining the Pentagon's plan to withdraw more than 12,000 soldiers and airmen from Germany was "a mistake".
The following day he told NBC News in Frankfurt that Germany was America's "most important ally". He said the "political decision" to reduce US forces in the country by a third would send "a terrible signal" to Russia, which still occupies parts of Georgia and the Ukrainian Crimean Peninsula, and its aggressive behavior on the eastern edge Continuing Europe.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, the senior Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said the Trump administration should not overlook the role of troops in Germany in training NATO allies. But he also said the armed forces - including a sizeable contingent of the US Air Force and several regional command centers - are supporting the onward flight of troops to the Middle East and Africa and deterring Russian threats.
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The retired adm. James Stavridis, NATO's top allied commander from 2009 to 2013 and now an international security analyst for NBC News, agreed, saying the withdrawal worries him because there is "no strategic basis, no theory of the case."
"I don't see this as a closed deal," he said. "I think there is a very significant likelihood that this will be reversed, certainly by a Biden administration," and that even a second term from Trump would mean Pentagon officials "will have another look at it" .
Tony Blinken, the senior foreign policy advisor for Biden's presidential campaign, said in a written statement that the decision to withdraw troops from Germany was "ill-informed and irresponsible" and that if elected next month, Biden would review that decision with coordination our NATO allies. "
Image: An M113 armored personnel carrier, which is being driven by US soldiers and posing as anti-NATO forces, takes part in a forest exercise that focuses on Ukrainian soldiers in the Hohenfels training area in southern Germany. (Edward Kiernan / NBC News)
A Defense Department spokesman, Lt. Col. Thomas Campbell, said the changes to the armed forces in Germany should "enhance deterrence to counter Russia and other malicious actors, strengthen NATO, reassure the allies, US strategic flexibility and operational flexibility to improve and take care of our service members and their families. "
But he also reiterated Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, who recognized in July that this plan "is likely to change to some extent over time".
The Commander-in-Chief has temporarily undercut the statements made by the Pentagon. At the end of July, Trump answered a reporter's question about the withdrawal of troops in Germany in front of the White House with the words: "We no longer want to be idiots." He added, "We're reducing the armed forces because they're not paying their bills. It's very simple."
NATO countries don't pay “bills” to join the alliance, but each member country pledged in 2014 to ensure that its defense spending increased to at least 2 percent of its national gross domestic product.
Jürgen Hardt, foreign spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel's political party, the Christian Democratic Union, said the Trump administration's argument that Germany would be punished with this troop withdrawal because it had not spent enough on its defense was "weak "Pentagons announced plans for many of the troops currently living in Germany to move to Italy and Belgium, NATO members who both spend even less of their GDP on their military than Germany.
He said "campaigns in the US", not facts, are "the main drivers behind the decision".
Pictured: A Boeing AH-64 Apache helicopter soaring over woods during a ten-day multinational military exercise at the U.S. Army's Hohenfels Training Area (Edward Kiernan / NBC News)
Thomas Silberhorn, another German MP and State Secretary of Defense, who traveled to Washington in July to discuss the withdrawal plans with members of Congress and representatives of the Trump administration, described the US troop presence as the "backbone of our common security as NATO -Allies. “However, he agreed that the decision was made primarily to influence American voters and said he expected the move to be reassessed in the future.
"I don't expect this decision to be withdrawn," said Silberhorn, who like many others highlighted the potential billions in costs. "But when it comes to details, the questions get harder and harder."
To American troops stationed here, the answers may seem simple. Germany is close to the current conflict zones, and the bases offer the opportunity to train with multiple military partners for months, which is completely unique.
"We don't get any of this in the States," said the infantry officer Likes about the training alongside partner countries such as Ukraine. "But here we have all this extra element that I think makes the whole thing much, much better."
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