WASHINGTON — The United States will cut its troop presence in Germany by more than 25 percent, former American officials said on Friday, as the Trump administration sends a frosty message to a major NATO ally and shrinks a military footprint long resented by the Kremlin.
The new cap, approved by President Trump and Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, will limit American 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 American military leaders in Europe — is in keeping with Mr. Trump’s “America First” 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 Mr. Trump would reconsider. Several said that, if enforced, the troop cut would further undermine an Atlantic alliance that Mr. Trump has badly shaken, and was a gift to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who has been eager to see a diminished American military presence on the continent.
While Mr. Trump has complained bitterly about the expense of protecting the United States’ allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 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 American 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 United States currently bases more troops in Germany than in any other country except Japan. The American 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, American 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, Mr. Trump, as president, has overseen an increase in American 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 Mr. Trump’s tenure. The United States began building its forces back up in Europe after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. But General 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 American presence.
“What has the Kremlin done to lower concerns about its aggressive behavior in the region?” he said. “Why should they get a reward of a one-third reduction of U.S. capability in Germany without them doing one single good thing?”
The withdrawal of troops will be welcomed in Moscow as another sign of division in the Atlantic alliance and of fading American interest in global leadership. While the drawdown should not immediately affect NATO’s deterrence forces in Poland and the Baltic States, the drawdown is bound to complicate American military logistics and readiness.
A cap of 25,000 troops could force an even greater cut in forces in Germany. Troops frequently rotate into the country for exercises, drills and training, said General Hodges, now based in Frankfurt, as a scholar with the Center for European Policy Analysis. If no more than 25,000 are allowed, the number permanently stationed in the country might have to be cut deeper to accommodate those rotations.
“While we have no announcements at this time, as commander in chief, President Trump continually reassesses the best posture for the United States military forces and our presence overseas,” John Ullyot, the National Security Council spokesman, said in a statement. “The United States remains committed to working with our strong ally Germany to ensure our mutual defense, as well as on many other important issues.”
Senior administration officials have been mulling the cut since last year, although a person briefed on the planning said that it had not been vetted by the National Security Council’s traditional policy deliberation process.
Mr. Trump and his allies have long singled out Germany as what they call an egregious free rider on America’s military might. Instead of spending to defend itself and Europe, Mr. Trump has argued, Germany instead built itself a lavish social welfare system.
Germany spent some 1.36 percent of its gross domestic product on its military in 2019, a number that has grown but is still significantly short of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s stated target of 2 percent. 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 American 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 American 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,” Mr. Grenell told the German government-funded news organization Deutsche Welle.
Mr. Grenell, who stepped down this month as ambassador, said on Friday that Mr. Trump’s pressure campaign on allies — from whom he has relentlessly demanded more spending for collective European defense — has led to more military spending in Europe.
“At the urging of President Trump, NATO allies increased their defense spending by $140 billion so it only makes sense that the American people don’t have to carry the burden as much,” Mr. Grenell said.
Many analysts said the move had a whiff of politics and even personal resentment.
Mr. Trump has had distinctly cool relations with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, and wide disagreements on issues like climate change and Germany’s natural gas pipelines with Russia. She offended him recently when she said she would not commit to attending a Group of 7 leaders’ summit in the Washington area that Mr. Trump had hoped to host this month. Ms. Merkel cited the coronavirus, but she also believed that the meeting had not been prepared properly and was angry about Mr. Trump’s sudden decision to pull out of the World Health Organization.
“What Trump will never understand is that this move won’t hurt Merkel at all,” said Julianne Smith, a former Obama administration official now with the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “If he’s hoping to hurt her politically, this does nothing. It actually hurts us more. We are cutting off our nose to spite our face.”
Steven Erlanger contributed reporting from Brussels.