New Battle Stations?

Kurt M Campbell & Celeste Johnson Ward. Foreign Affairs. Volume 82, Issue 5. September/October 2003.

Base Fiddling

The Pentagon is now contemplating dramatic changes in where and how U.S. armed forces are based overseas. As Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy, described the process, “everything is going to move everywhere. … There is not going to be a place in the world where it’s going to be the same as it used to be.” Changes being considered include moving forces away from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in South Korea and shifting large numbers of forces out of Germany. American defense planners want to create a global network of bare-boned facilities that could be expanded to meet crises as they arise. Taken together, the adjustments now under consideration—in where bases are located, in the arrangements Washington makes with host countries, in troop and ship deployments, and in theaters of operation—will constitute the most sweeping changes in the U.S. military posture abroad in half a century, greater even than the adjustments made after Vietnam and at the end of the Cold War.

Such an enormous transformation is necessary, American officials argue, because the way U.S. military assets overseas are currently configured does not address the nation’s evolving security challenges. American forces should be moved closer to where threats are likely to arise. The military’s flexibility and agility should also be improved, these officials say, by diversifying access points to crises and stationing troops in nations more likely to agree with U.S. policies. Such changes would have the side effect of reducing the friction caused by the large U.S. deployments in places such as Okinawa, Japan; Seoul, South Korea; and Germany.

If the planners get their way, the United States will shift people and assets from safe, secure, and comfortable rear-echelon facilities to jumping-off points closer to the flame, with all the attendant advantages and disadvantages such forward positions would imply. The shifts would have a compelling military logic. But they would also carry significant human, financial, and diplomatic costs. Because of the great size of the U.S. armed forces, any moves they make send ripples throughout local populations, economies, and security architectures. To ensure that the costs of changing to the new posture do not overwhelm the benefits, the Bush administration needs to carefully think the plans through, in all their dimensions. But so far, the military planning has advanced far beyond the supporting political and diplomatic process.

Lily Pads and Warm Bases

As in a game of musical chairs, the position of U.S. forces abroad at any given time largely reflects where they happened to be when the last war stopped. Each strategic period thus begins with the infrastructure and deployments inherited from the last one. At the end of World War II, for example, the United States had bases around the globe left over from its fight against the Axis powers.

Many of these bases were soon put to use for a different strategy, namely hemming in the Soviet Union. Similarly, in the early 1990s, the U.S. global military posture reflected Cold War priorities but came to be used for the Clinton administration’s national security strategy of “engagement and enlargement.” The roughly 200,000 troops stationed in Europe and Asia, originally meant to limit Soviet ambitions, were, after an initial reduction, put to use to provide regional stability and help “shape” the international security environment.

In the post-September 11 world, the Pentagon has new objectives. U.S. forces are now responsible for fighting terrorism and curtailing the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and so the Defense Department wants to change the U.S. basing posture accordingly. Some of the moves being contemplated reflect genuinely new thinking. For example, General James Jones, commander of the U.S. European Command, envisions creating a set of what he calls “lily pads”: small, lightly staffed facilities for use as jumping-off points in a crisis. These “warm bases,” as they have also been called, would be outfitted with the supplies and equipment to rapidly accommodate far larger forces. These small, expandable bases would be linked like spokes to a few large, heavy-infrastructure bases (such as Ramstein in Germany and Misawa and Yokosuka in Japan). At the margins, “virtual” bases would be established by negotiating a series of access rights with a wide range of states. Much more equipment would be prepositioned at land and sea, with an increased focus on specialized units for rapid base construction.

The Pentagon is already preparing a range of specific proposals for Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and the Persian Gulf. Already, Washington and Seoul have agreed to consolidate U.S. bases in South Korea, and then the Second Infantry Division and other supporting units will be moved south. The United States will increase its prepositioned equipment at air and sea hubs at the bottom of South Korea, so that forces can be rapidly reinforced in the event of a conflict. In Japan, the United States will likely seek to maintain most of its major air and sea bases as hubs, but it is considering moving some marines either out of Okinawa or to less-populated areas in the north of the island.

The U.S. air and naval presence in Asia will likely be increased, meanwhile, with Washington arranging for greater access, joint training, and other activities in countries such as the Philippines, Malaysia, and Singapore. This larger Asian deployment will be facilitated by the forward basing of bombers and attack or cruise-missile submarines on the islands of Guam or Diego Garcia, along with the prepositioning of more equipment there. Access to naval facilities in Vietnam might also be sought at some point in the future. And the United States and India are steadily improving relations, including military-to-military consultations. In all likelihood, Indo-U.S. defense cooperation will expand and may lead to American access to South Asian bases, facilities, and training grounds.

Whereas the changes being made to the U.S. military posture in Asia are gradual, those contemplated for Europe are radical and abrupt. Reports are now widely circulating that, after its tour of duty in Iraq, the U.S. Army’s First Armored Division will return to the United States rather than Germany, where it has been based. Other U.S. units may be moved from Germany to bases in NATO’s new eastern European members. Poland, for example, has large training grounds and ranges not subject to the civilian encroachment or heavy regulations that have bedeviled U.S. forces in Germany. And Bulgaria and Romania offer ports and airfields on the Black Sea, closer to potential instability in the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Middle East.

The U.S. European Command’s responsibility extends to Africa, where enormous change is also in the offing. During the last several months, 1,800 U.S. personnel have been deployed to Djibouti and have been given responsibility for counterterrorism planning and training in the Horn of Africa, and U.S. military planners contemplate a similar arrangement for western Africa.

In the Middle East, the United States will soon remove its forces from Saudi Arabia and transfer the major functions now performed at Prince Sultan Air Base to bases in Qatar. Other changes will depend on developments in Iraq and in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process but may also be forthcoming. And finally, new U.S. bases in Central Asia, established to assist the Afghanistan campaign, may end up serving longer-term aims, such as prosecuting the war on terrorism or, perhaps, checking a rising China.

In With the New

Behind the drive for change lies a complex mix of hard-nosed strategic assessments and political objectives. Pentagon officials believe that threats to U.S. security are likely to emerge from regions where there is a high risk of failed states, Islamic radicalism, drug trafficking, and other forms of volatility. Together, these regions form an arc of instability that bends from the triborder region of South America through most of Africa, the Balkans, the Caucasus, the Middle East, and Central and Southeast Asia.

Many of the underlying concepts and objectives for changing the U.S. military posture have been identified in documents such as the Bush administration’s 2002 National Security Strategy, the Defense Department’s 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review, and speeches and remarks by the president and administration officials. These documents emphasize the need for military forces that are deployed to strike rapidly in unexpected places.

Another impetus for change is apprehension among U.S. officials about the reliability of traditional allies. Many in Washington find unsettling the signs of strategic drift in Berlin and Seoul and worry that policy disagreements could lead to crippling restrictions being placed on U.S. forces by host nations. In today’s security environment, such officials believe, the United States cannot risk being denied unfettered access to key regions, and so they want to expand and diversify the list of places from which operations can be launched.

Other possible motivations might be at work as well. The plans bear the unmistakable imprint, for example, of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who has been determined to transform the way the U.S. military does business. And some analysts suspect that one of the aims of the new military posture is to encourage a radical redesign of the army’s force structure. Early in the Bush administration, officials discussed eliminating at least one of the army’s ten active divisions, and over the past three years, the army has borne the brunt of the administration’s plans to transform the military into a lighter, more mobile, and more nimble force. To some defense reformers, tank divisions seem a glaring anachronism in the face of twenty-first-century threats. So it is no accident, in the view of some in uniform, that the units most affected by the new global reorientation of forces may be the army units currently based in Germany and South Korea.

What Price Flexibility

Military planning and the day-to-day management of global military operations are clearly the Pentagon’s responsibility. But changes of the magnitude now envisioned would also have significant foreign policy implications, and so other parts of the U.S. government, not to mention the various allies in question, need to be included in the planning process. Such consultations do not seem to be taking place, however.

This is not to deny that changes may be needed in the global U.S. military footprint; indeed, many changes are long overdue. For example, it is hard to justify maintaining approximately 100,000 personnel and over 400 military facilities in Europe today when the region faces no imminent threat. Similarly, the strategy and posture of U.S. forces in South Korea have not changed much for a decade, even as the rest of the U.S. military has been transformed. With the advent of greater speed and lethality, American troops no longer need to sit at the border in order to deter, and if necessary halt, a North Korean attack. In general, the changes planned would offer U.S. forces overseas greater mobility and flexibility, allowing them to respond more effectively to the threats of the post-September 11 world.

Still, the most serious potential consequences of the contemplated shifts would not be military but political and diplomatic. Any change in U.S. overseas deployments, even on the margins, attracts enormous attention abroad and raises questions about Washington’s intentions. The United States’ foreign military presence remains a compelling symbol and bellwether of U.S. attitudes and approaches to foreign and defense policy, and so it is watched closely. Unless the changes that the Pentagon is contemplating are paired with a sustained and effective diplomatic campaign, therefore, they could well increase foreign anxiety about and distrust of the United States

A key premise behind the U.S. global footprint in the 1990s was that American forces helped maintain regional stability. The new posture, deliberately optimized for flexible war fighting, will be viewed as supporting a very different and more controversial strategy, one based on preemption and armed intervention. As the military analyst Andrew Bacevich of Boston University has observed, “the political purpose [of U.S. troops abroad] is [now] not so much to enhance stability, but to use U.S. forces as an instrument of political change.”

The new posture would also represent a different kind of relationship with host states. In the past, U.S. forces were based in other countries in order to protect them from invasion or hostile action by others. The host and the United States shared the same risks and the same foe. Washington’s new vision, however, hearkens back to U.S. policies of a century ago, when many host states served largely as staging points and “coaling stations” for operations elsewhere. Although it is still possible to argue that, under the proposed changes, the U.S. presence in foreign countries will serve local interests, and that fighting terrorism and containing the spread of WMD will increase host countries’ security, the link (at least for many foreign publics) may appear less clear, and this could pose problems down the road.

There are also practical considerations associated with the proposed deployments. Moving forces around is not a simple process and requires the negotiation of status of forces agreements with host nations. These agreements provide extraordinary legal guarantees to U.S. soldiers, essentially giving them local “get out of jail free” cards—as a result, as one might imagine, they prove very unpopular in many countries. Negotiating even modest revisions of existing agreements can sometimes take years, and getting a raft of new ones arranged in short order will be difficult.

A widely distributed U.S. global presence, finally, may lead to a widely distributed set of U.S. commitments and engagements. At the same time that the new posture would reflect and be designed to deal with a particular set of existing or foreseeable threats, it could also by itself generate new and unforeseen problems that would have to be dealt with in turn. Thus the proposed changes could increase the likelihood that the United States gets dragged into future local and regional conflicts, simply because its forces will already be on the ground.

Due Process

Given the sensitivity of the issues involved, several steps should be taken before and during the rollout of any new military posture. The first is ensuring that everything about the move is vetted carefully by all major relevant actors. Attention to process will not solve every problem, but it will certainly affect the receptivity of other countries to any changes. How allies such as South Korea and Japan respond, for example, will depend not just on the substance of the modifications themselves, but also on how well the United States consults with their governments, takes their reservations into account, and allays their various anxieties. In fact, rather than being seen as a routine obligation or a nuisance, consultations over the posture changes should be seen as an important opportunity to solidify, strengthen, and redefine those alliances for the future. In Europe, similarly, countries are likely to be more receptive to changes if they take place in the context of a revitalized NATO and a reinvestment in the Atlantic alliance by the United States, rather than being seen as an expression of impatience or unconcern with “old Europe.”

During the consultations, the United States should explain the purpose and rationale behind its actions, making it clear that the changes are global and not driven by any particular regional dynamic. Because of the timing, international observers will be prone to view the changes in the context of recent events, particularly the lead-up to and conduct of the war in Iraq. Without guidance from the United States, they will put their own spin on what is happening, which will not necessarily be accurate and could adversely affect other U.S. interests.

U.S. officials should also underscore repeatedly the fact that the United States has no intention of stepping back from its traditional security commitments. Getting the signals right will be critical to preempting unnecessary negative consequences. Despite much evidence to the contrary, some allies continue to worry about U.S. commitment and staying power and may read the new plans as an indicator of what the most powerful nation on earth thinks is important. They need to be assured that any moves are being driven by military concerns and do not reflect a significant change in diplomatic priorities.

The changes, moreover, should not be rushed or hyped, and they should be explained as evolutionary movements rather than radical departures. Particularly in delicate situations such as on the Korean Peninsula, abruptness is unlikely to pay dividends. For that reason, in fact, the United States should consider delaying the movement of the Second Infantry Division out of the DMZ. It is true that there may never be an ideal time for such a change. But with the threat from North Korea unabated and perhaps even heightened recently, now would be an especially inopportune moment. However the move might increase the effectiveness of any military response to North Korean provocations, it would be a difficult sell in the region. Politics would inevitably overshadow strategic realities, and the result could be greater resentment of the United States in South Korea, greater concern in Japan, and greater anxiety throughout the region. When moves are ultimately made—as they should be—they should be done delicately and slowly, and with a close eye on regional perceptions and concerns.

The Bush administration’s contemplated military redesign will be the first true overhaul of the United States’ global military posture since it was gradually built up during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Washington’s current forward positions are undergirded by an extremely complex set of legal, political, operational, and practical arrangements, some of which have evolved over decades and exist in delicate balance with each other and with various other aspects of American foreign policy. The Bush administration is now proposing to shift virtually every aspect of this armed presence in a sort of military “big bang.” This is a bold and audacious proposition, especially given that there has not been a major push for such an overhaul either at home or abroad. Indeed, most Democrats and Republicans who follow defense-related issues, as well as most U.S. allies, have essentially supported maintaining the current posture while tinkering on the margins. So the stakes for this endeavor are high, and it is important that what is being proposed gets a thorough and reflective hearing.

Perhaps there is no good way to engineer changes of this magnitude without stirring up considerable controversy. But unlike during the Cold War, when most U.S. friends and allies shared a relatively common view about the dangers posed by Soviet adventurism, currently no international consensus exists about what the pressing threats are or how to deal with them. Major shifts now are therefore likely to be particularly unsettling and contentious.

All the changes outlined by the Pentagon have commonsensical explanations in terms of operational dynamics and military efficiencies, and the U.S. government should indeed gradually implement many of them over the years to come. But as it does so, it must take greater care than it has so far to avoid collateral damage to long-standing arrangements and relationships that have served the country well for decades and might continue to do so for decades to come. It makes no sense to gain marginal benefits for possible future operations at the cost of undermining close existing alliances or causing important countries to question their security ties to the United States—or, even worse, to consider other options, such as new military expenditures, new regional relationships, or the development of nuclear weapons. Borrowing from Clausewitz, military basing often involves politics by other means. The failure by Washington to understand that truth or to take it into account would be a grave mistake and could have lasting repercussions for the United States and the world.