As Washington continues to debate the consequences of defense cuts, one line of popular thinking is that we can save tax dollars without sacrificing security if we close down our overseas bases and bring our forces home. Why do we still have bases in Europe? Shouldn’t the Japanese just defend themselves?
But while we should carefully review the proper balance of our forward-deployed military assets, our overseas presence is both a fundamental enabler of our national defense policy and a means to safeguard shocks to the international system. Stationing U.S. Army soldiers, Marines, and Air Force and Navy assets forward is the only guaranteed way of protecting U.S. interests, responding immediately to a crisis, and reassuring our allies and friends.
Deterring regional aggression with forward basing has been central to U.S. military strategy since the end of World War II, when we resolved to never again have to “fight our way in” as we had just done in the Pacific. This strategy remains just as relevant today. Gen. Joseph Dunford, Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps, recently testified that “being forward deployed and forward engaged allows us to shape the environment as opposed to reacting to the environment.” If a conflict with Iran were to erupt, or North and South Korea found themselves on the brink of war, or China threatened the use of force to acquire Taiwan, the robust regional presence of U.S. forces would have an immediate impact, either to deter escalation or quickly respond to aggression.
The United States’ forward presence also offers numerous diplomatic benefits. The politics of maintaining a presence in foreign nations no doubt comes with challenges. However, it also represents a steadfast commitment to an ally, which provides the basis for a sustained diplomatic partnership and regular military engagement and training with the host nation. For example, six decades of close cooperation between U.S. and Japanese naval forces have built an unrivaled degree of trust and interoperability. The presence of U.S. forces in South Korea has also helped to fashion a close relationship with the government in Seoul that would be vital during a crisis. And in Europe, U.S. forces have trained with NATO allies so that they have the capabilities to operate with us during an operation.
Despite these benefits, a number of myths about our overseas presence continue to promulgate. First, critics contend that the U.S. can sustain the same level of deterrence by maintaining sophisticated power-projection capabilities based on U.S. territory. But lost in this argument is the logistics required to overcome the tremendous “tyranny of distance” that separates the American homeland from these regional hotspots. Air Force F-15, F-16, and A-10 jets are inter-theater assets that aren’t designed to deploy across entire oceans. From Pearl Harbor, the Navy would have to sail 6,200 kilometers to Japan or 10,800 kilometers to the Strait of Malacca. The Marines would face an even greater hurdle if forced to deploy from the continental United States. Gen. Dunford testified that “it would take months to move (a force from the Continental United States) to the Western Pacific and seven consecutive miracles in terms of synchronizing the planes, trains and automobiles associated with moving that force.” Faced with these geographic hurdles, a continental-based military would be severely inhibited in its ability to credibly deter regional aggression and reassure American allies.
Second, the argument persists that the United States’ forward presence allows allies and partner nations to invest less in their security. If the U.S. pulled back, the thinking goes, we could spend less because our allies would be forced to spend more. This is flawed for two reasons. First, allies that find themselves in regions where the security environment is growing tenser have already begun aggressively modernizing their militaries. Southeast Asian nations, including Vietnam, Malaysia, and Singapore, are all acquiring advanced capabilities. The navies of Japan and Australia are also amongst the most capable in the world and continue to make major investments in their militaries. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it is the United States’ strength and commitment to security in the region that provides regional states the confidence to build their capabilities in the face of China’s decade-long military modernization. Also, at a time when the U.S. should be focused on making and keeping friends in critical regions, ending our overseas presence would send the message that we can’t be counted on as a partner. If we packed up and came home, there’s no telling the damage this would do to perceptions of our leadership, or how these states would respond if we asked to return to these facilities during a future crisis.
A final myth contends that the United States’ overseas presence isn’t welcome and only generates challenges. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Of course our overseas presence will sometimes create diplomatic strains, but on the whole allies and friends continue to express their desire for the U.S. to remain in the region and actively work to facilitate it. Following America’s withdrawal from the Philippines in 1991, for instance, Singapore stepped in by building a naval base large enough to berth a U.S. Nimitz-class aircraft carrier.
In Europe, countries like Germany and Italy have helped to pick up the tab for our presence. Japan spends over $2 billion each year to cover the costs of our presence and has been in negotiations with the United States for over a decade – not to eject our forces, but to realign them to find a better balance between domestic demands and strategic priorities. South Korea provides over 40 percent of the total cost of maintaining U.S. forces on its soil and provided $4 billion in construction to better realign forces to the evolving mission. Finally, President Barack Obama recently announced that Australia has offered American troops and ships “permanent and constant” access to their facilities, another major step in our six-decade alliance with Australia.
Since the end of World War II, the United States has maintained a forward defense presence to better enable regional deterrence. The flexibility afforded to U.S. forces to operate from a network of overseas facilities allows them to quickly respond to any regional crisis as it is emerging. Constraining U.S. forces to a continental posture would undermine this very advantage, placing an insurmountable logistical and geographic burden on them. While the Pentagon is being forced to make tough decisions about how to align itself for the future, our national security policy demands that we remain forward deployed and forward engaged.
Rep. J. Randy Forbes, R-Va., is chairman of the House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee and founder and co-chairman of the Congressional China Caucus.