WASHINGTON — When Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced July 29 the movement of almost 12,000 troops out of Germany, the impact on the U.S. Air Force was seemingly minor.
One F-16 squadron, the 480th Fighter Squadron, would transfer from Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany to Aviano Air Base in Italy, which already hosts two F-16 squadrons. Meanwhile, KC-135 tankers from the 100th Air Refueling Wing and CV-22 Ospreys operated by the 352nd Special Operations Wing would remain at RAF Mildenhall, England, instead of transferring to Spangdahlem.
At the time, Esper said the shift of F-16s to Italy would “[move] them closer to the Black Sea region and [make those forces] better capable of conducting dynamic force employments and rotational deployments to NATO’s southeastern flank.”
However, the strategic and geopolitical implications of the changes could be even more considerable than first thought and play into a range of areas from Germany’s fighter contest to the way the U.S. Air Force trains for war, former Defense Department and Air Force officials told Defense News.
Very little is known about when the transfer of forces will take place, how many airmen and their families will be impacted, or how much it will ultimately cost.
“Details for the implementation are still being worked. Some changes will take place soon. Some will take several years,” said Maj. Selena Rodts, a spokeswoman for U.S. Air Forces in Europe. “These are complex issues and take time, including securing Congressional funding to enable the move and to review agreements with prospective host nations to secure the necessary legal frameworks. We are committed to taking the appropriate steps to work through the changes with service members and their families and with our [host nation] counterparts.”
During a July 30 interview with Defense News, outgoing Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein expressed support for the planned force structure changes, and said that keeping mobility forces at Mildenhall and transferring the F-16 from Spangdahlem to Aviano would ultimately give commanders in the region more flexibility. Goldfein retired from the Air Force Aug. 6.
“That plan was put in front of the joint chiefs,” he said. “All of us had a chance to take a look at it, comment on it, give advice to [Gen. Tod Wolters, U.S. European Command head] as he went forward. And quite frankly I think it does all of the things Secretary Esper laid out at his press conference.”
Goldfein has a personal interest in the changes. From 2004 to 2006, he served as commander of Spangdahlem’s 52nd Fighter Wing, which includes the 480th Fighter Squadron and its support functions, much of which will likely transfer to Aviano.
However, Goldfein was adamant that the move will not leave Spangdahlem vulnerable to closing.
“When you take a look at the amount of travel that we’re required to do to be a global military with global reach, you have to have both Ramstein and Spangdahlem,” he said. “It has to do with fuel capacity, it has to do with ramp capacity, it has to do with maintenance capacity, so I think the future of Spangdahlem is absolutely solid and not at risk at all.”
Once the F-16 squadron departs Spangdahlem, the base will have some excess infrastructure. That might be a good thing, said Frank Gorenc, a retired four-star general and former commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe.
In a future conflict war with a technologically advanced nation such as Russia and China, the U.S. Air Force believes its best chance at ensuring the survival of its people and aircraft is by distributing them across many operating locations — a concept it calls agile combat employment. The extra ramp space and hangars at Spangdahlem could prime it to be critical shock absorber in a major conflict, giving the U.S. Air Force additional capacity to fly in reinforcements from U.S. air bases to defend NATO’s Eastern flank.
“We need that infrastructure. And for deterrence and support to the alliance, particularly in NATO, the fundamental concept is that we would reinforce from North America. Well, you have to have a place to go to do reinforcement to enough of a level that would be deterrence enhancing,” Gorenc said. “Maintaining adequate force structure is a direct flap at Putin’s strategy at not allowing NATO to get consensus on any kind of reinforcement.”
In 2019, Spangdahlem was the setting for one of the Air Force’s major agile combat exercises, Operation Rapid Forge, which involved a two week deployment of F-15E Strike Eagles from the 4th Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina.
With the 480th Fighter Squadron continuing F-16 operations at Spangdahlem, F-15E pilots and maintainers lived and worked out of tents and temporary shelters for the duration of the exercise. But after the transfer of F-16s from the base, the installation could potentially play a more permanent role as a hub for wargames and short-term deployments.
“The Spangdahlem base is a spectacular facility,” Gorenc said. “We have made a big investment into Spangdahlem. It’s a base that can accept a lot of force, and I think as an installation it’s needed more than the fighter squadron, to be honest.”
What does this mean for Germany’s fighter contest?
As the Air Force deliberates the future of the 52nd Fighter Wing, one major question is whether its 52d Munitions Maintenance Group — which sustains and stores tactical nuclear weapons on behalf of NATO — will remain at Spangdahlem or relocate with other elements of the wing.
Should that mission move out of Germany, it could portend some unseen ramifications for the NATO alliance, said Rachel Ellehuus, who was the Pentagon’s principal director of European and NATO policy from 2015 to 2018 and is currently with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Germany is embroiled in a national debate over the NATO “nuclear sharing” doctrine, which calls for the country to host B61 nuclear bombs at Büchel Air Base, located about 50 minutes from Spangdahlem. The 52nd Munitions Maintenance Group’s 702 Munitions Support Squadron is collocated at Büchel and maintains about 20 B61s which, if authorized by Germany and the United States, could be launched from a German air force Tornado jet.
In April, German defense officials acknowledged a proposal to split its multi-billion dollar fighter buy between the two competitors, with a potential purchase of 93 Eurofighter Typhoons as well as 45 Boeing-made F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and EA-18G Growlers. The Super Hornets and Growlers would be used to carry on the nuclear-sharing mission.
But removing U.S. Air Force F-16s from Germany could weaken the case for buying American fighters and hosting nuclear bombs, Ellehuus said.
“When we sell somebody U.S. aircraft or kit, we always make the case you’re not just buying just the plane but the joint training and long-term relationship. You lose that argument, in a way,” she said.
Given the political tensions between the U.S. and Germany, the pullout could potentially reinforce arguments from those who argue a European fighter, not an American one, is the correct option if the nuclear mission is no longer needed.
“It doesn’t have to spell the end of the nuclear mission for Germany, but it will add more fuel to the fire to those arguing that Germany should withdraw from the nuclear mission,” Ellehuus said. “They will see this as yet another reason the U.S. can’t be trusted and that a European solution is needed to follow on Tornado.”
Valerie Insinna was Defense News' air warfare reporter. Beforehand, she worked the Navy and congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.