Esper: 2nd Cavalry Regiment, slated to leave Germany, could spread across Eastern European countries
By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 20, 2020
WASHINGTON — The Army’s 2nd Cavalry Regiment might retain an “enduring” presence in Eastern Europe even after the unit’s more than 4,500 soldiers withdraw from Germany, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Tuesday.
Esper said he is close to or has reached agreements with defense officials in several Eastern European nations to host rotations of American forces as the United States works to withdraw some 12,000 troops from Germany. In July, the defense secretary announced the plan to move troops out of Germany, saying the 2nd Cavalry Regiment — now the only brigade-sized U.S. ground combat unit stationed full time in Europe — would be relocated to a new home station in the continental United States.
“Since that announcement, as well as the signing of the defense cooperation agreement with Poland, my recent meetings with defense ministers from Romania and Bulgaria, and correspondence received from Baltic states, there is now the real opportunity of keeping the 2nd Cavalry Regiment forward in some of these countries on an enduring basis,” Esper said in a speech at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank.
Esper’s initial force restructuring plan was announced July 29 as President Donald Trump ordered the Pentagon to remove troops from Germany, speeding up a long-planned review of the posture of American forces throughout Europe.
While that initial plan called for returning the regiment and some 2,000 other U.S. troops to the United States, Esper said he would also work to position troops closer to Russian borders to better reassure allies closest to the rival nation.
“We need to move a little bit further east [because] it helps us with the time [and] distance challenges, if you will, in case there is some type of really aggressive action by the Russians,” he said Tuesday.
Esper’s initial plan envisioned the 2nd Cavalry Regiment and other U.S.-based Stryker brigade combat teams conducting heal-to-toe rotations to train with NATO partners primarily in the Black Sea region. Now, Esper said he wants troops constantly training in those countries, as well as Poland and the Baltic states Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. He indicated Tuesday that the role could permanently belong to the 2nd Cavalry Regiment, however Pentagon officials said later Tuesday that was not the current plan.
For now, the Pentagon is continuing with the plan to move the 2nd Cavalry Regiment to a new home station in the United States, said Army Lt. Col Thomas Campbell, a Pentagon spokesman. However, it remains unclear when the unit could leave its current home station in Vilseck, Germany, or where it will be stationed.
“The planning process for the projected moves continues, which includes consultations with our allies and partners in the region, as well as members of Congress,” Campbell said.
The Pentagon’s plan to reorganize troops in Europe could face obstacles in Congress, where some Democrats and Republicans have questioned the move. The House-passed version of the fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act includes a provision that would halt the withdrawal of forces from Germany. The Senate-passed version of the same bill, which sets annual Pentagon policy and spending priorities, does not include such language. The two versions of the NDAA have not yet been reconciled, so it remains unclear if the final version will address the issue.
In a House Armed Services Committee hearing last month to examine the plans, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said Pentagon officials had not been transparent about their planning. Smith, the committee’s chairman, added he did not “think this plan was particularly well thought out.”
Esper has long defended the plan, which Trump said was in retaliation for what the president has characterized as insufficient defense spending by Germany.
On Tuesday, Esper called on NATO countries to spend more money on defense. In 2014, the alliance’s nations set a target for each to spend at least 2% of their gross domestic product on their own defenses by 2024. To date, only nine countries have reached that objective.
“We have a lot more work to do,” Esper said. “We need countries to contribute more, and not because it's some arbitrary threshold. I think it's a solid floor upon which to build upon, because if you have that capability … we will deter conflict [with Russia] and we won't have to worry about the things that we concern ourselves about right now.”