The U.S. Military Presence in Germany

As German authorities continue the hunt for suspects in the foiled plot to car-bomb Americans in Germany, many might be wondering about the U.S. military presence there.

Ramstein Air Base, which was reportedly the main target of the German plot, is one of the most important U.S. military bases outside of the United States and the largest Air Force base anywhere in the world, serving as a key transport hub for troops and materiel from the United States through Europe to “down-range” locations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The base has taken on greater importance in the couple of years after the closing of Rhein-Main Air Base, another U.S. installation, which shared real estate with the Frankfurt airport.

See here (pdf file) for an Air Force Magazine April 2007 photo essay documenting in pictures the scope of activity that occurs at Ramstein.

But Ramstein is just one part of the group of bases that constitutes the largest U.S. military presence outside of the United States — and the largest distinct American expatriate community in the world. The Kaiserslautern Military Community (KMC) is home to more than 50,000 Americans and also is a base for European military forces (Ramstein, for example, does double-duty as a NATO installation).

The KMC grew up when the American military presence in Germany was meant to guard against a Soviet land invasion from the East. And indeed the U.S. military presence there stands to shrink as the Defense Department finally gets around to adjusting its so-called “Global Force Posture” for the post-Cold War world. The Global Force Posture Review was initiated under Donald Rumsfeld, and will take years to complete. The general idea is to reduce the number of permanent bases abroad, and supplement them with “forward operating bases” and “cooperative security locations” that have a smaller permanent presence of U.S. troops, but can be supplemented quickly in times of crisis by “expeditionary” forces based in the United States.

The U.S. military presence around the world is rightly the subject of much debate in the United States, and understandable controversy abroad. The size of the U.S. presence abroad provides much of the basis for criticisms of U.S. empire. Those criticisms emanate not only from valid domestic sources, but also provide convenient fodder for U.S. enemies, as the German case demonstrates (al-Qaeda was famously irked by Prince Sultan Air Base, Saudi Arabia, the U.S. presence on sacred Islamic soil, but Bin Laden et. al. have found other things to be irked about since the U.S. left Saudi Arabia for Qatar.)

Perhaps surprisingly, however, the U.S. presence in Germany is perhaps the least controversial among local populations around the world. While even U.S. bases in such allied countries as Japan and Italy (not to mention U.S. territories like Puerto Rico) have been frequent targets of protest, when DOD announced plans in 2004 to half the number of U.S. troops in Europe, the predominant reaction from German politicians and the many Germans who enjoy the economic benefits of U.S. operations in their country was one of hope that much of the KMC would be spared the downsizing.

Indeed, perhaps to the dismay of Germany’s Islamists, Marine Corps Gen. James Jones told a Senate panel in September 2004 that Ramstein would remain a “main base” in the U.S. military’s new basing scheme, and the increase in recent activity there would seem to indicate it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.