Features | Security

Bases for America’s Asia-Pacific Rebalance (Part 2)

Part two of a two part series evaluating the evolving network of US bases in the Asia-Pacific.

By Carnes Lord and Andrew S. Erickson for
Bases for America’s Asia-Pacific Rebalance (Part 2)
Credit: Marion Doss via Flickr

The second part of a two-part series that evaluates the United States’ evolving network of bases in the Asia-Pacific and which opportunities and challenges each brings to the table moving forward. Read part one here.

Moving toward Asia from the West Coast, one immediately encounters the reality of America’s status as an Asia-Pacific power: it possesses a sweeping array of sovereign territory in which to base Pacific-focused forces. Hawaii and Alaska first come into view. Although they are integral parts of the United States, their geographical proximity to Asia gives them unique importance in any discussion of military bases on American soil. Already home to a significant military presence, both are likely candidates for an enhanced military presence in the coming years as part of the Obama administration’s strategic reorientation toward Asia: Hawaii, thanks to its central location, and Alaska thanks to its nearly unparalleled strategic depth.

Hawaii constitutes the backbone of U.S. military presence and power projection capabilities in Asia. Home to the headquarters of U.S. Pacific Command, the largest of the Unified Commands, Hawaii hosts 161 military installations that facilitate all aspects of U.S. military activities, from land, air and space operations, to training, to communications. It has been estimated that military-connected personnel account for 17 percent of Hawaii’s population. As a strategically important forward location in the Pacific, Hawaii has seen a buildup in Army and Marine forces since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. At the same time, the U.S. Navy has increased its visibility in the Western- Pacific in an effort to dissuade and deter potential regional threats from traditional and trans-national actors.

Alaska hosts America’s nascent missile defense umbrella in the Asia-Pacific, one of two locations for the deployment of America’s first-generation ground-based ballistic missile defense system. Globally, the proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) is a major concern for policy makers and military planners; the spread of nuclear weapons within the Asia-Pacific region is perhaps the most serious issue in contemporary security policy. The threat to the U.S. posed by ballistic missiles looms largest in the Asia-Pacific region. North Korea’s nuclear ambitions coupled with the continued development of long-range ballistic missiles already threaten America’s regional allies such as Japan, and in time could pose a similar hazard to portions of the U.S. homeland. Developments in China’s nuclear forces and even adjacent countries such as Pakistan raise similar concerns. Concentrated around the Air Force bases at Eielson and Ft. Greely, the mid-course ground based interceptors are the first line of defense against ballistic missile attacks. Alaska’s significance to Asia-Pacific security goes beyond ballistic missile defense. It is also home to three Air Force bases, three Army bases, and five Coast Guard stations. Its 24,016 personnel include 13,406 from the Air Force. As defense in depth and homeland security become increasingly important to U.S. national security, Alaska will have an increasingly important role to play.

The U.S. also retains other sovereign or associated territories scattered across the Pacific that currently serve some military functions (notably, the missile-testing facility at Kwajalein), or could serve such functions in the future – as of course many of them did during World War II. It is not difficult to envision the U.S. reactivating a network of austere sites for contingency use at places like Midway or Wake Island that could provide the nation greater strategic depth in the Western and Central Pacific than it enjoys today.

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Next is Guam, which likewise offers the United States a strategically central sovereign basing location. It has great potential as a well-placed and politically reliable location wherein investment supports local Americans. These factors have already made it a recipient of some of forces currently being moved from America’s East Asian allies, a potential fallback as the process continues in the future. For all these reasons, Guam’s capabilities and infrastructure have been built up significantly over the past decade. Improvements continue to this day. To some extent, this is returning Guam to its historical status as a strategic support and communications hub in the Western Pacific.

Yet Guam requires significant additional resources to fully realize that potential, it suffers from local challenges, and it is entangled in larger regional dynamics, such as Japan’s political difficulty in hosting U.S. forces in Okinawa and China’s determination to hold the bases of potential opponents at risk with increasingly sophisticated long-range precision weapons, including ballistic and cruise missiles. Meanwhile, foreign powers, particularly China, are already closely following developments on Guam and planning strategic countermeasures in the event of conflict (e.g., vis-à-vis Taiwan). As such, Guam represents an important microcosm and indicator of the wide spectrum of basing investments and efforts necessary if Washington is to retain its Asia-Pacific leadership in the future.

Further westward movement takes us from U.S. sovereign Pacific states and territories to East Asia proper. By far the most important element of the United States’ Asia-Pacific basing network here is the extensive and long-standing American military infrastructure in Japan. Having served as a major forward deployment site for American military forces in Asia during the Cold War, the U.S. basing structure in Japan has undergone a dynamic shift in recent years. On the one hand, the U.S. has taken steps to reduce its visible “footprint” in Japan, for instance with the transfer of 7,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam, in an effort to reduce the tension and occasional resentment generated by the presence of U.S. troops. On the other hand, there has been a significant upgrade in the capabilities of American forces based in Japan. Similarly, concerns over North Korea’s ballistic missile program have led to the deployment of Patriot interceptors to Japan as well as powerful X-band radar systems designed to track long-range missiles. Meanwhile, the ramifications of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) military buildup of recent years, especially the growing Chinese arsenal of conventional ballistic missiles, have bearing on the American forward presence in Japan and U.S.-Japanese defense cooperation generally. The changing structure and basing of U.S. military forces in Japan in parallel with the intensification of the U.S.-Japan alliance as well as the continuing emergence of Japan as a “normal” political-military power in Asia portends significant implications for the future of U.S. political preeminence in the Asia-Pacific region.

The American base structure in the Republic of Korea (ROK) must be considered in the context of the current status of the U.S.-ROK alliance, formalized at the end of the Korean War. The last decade has seen a major evolution in this alliance, centering on a shift from U.S. dominance to a greater reliance on the South Koreans themselves. Much of the impetus for this came from the U.S. in connection with the Global Posture Review of the Rumsfeld Pentagon. Modest reductions in U.S. combat troops were accompanied by a substantial reduction and consolidation of the American basing infrastructure on the peninsula. Of some 110 separate bases or facilities at the beginning of the decade, 60 had been returned to the ROK government by its end, including some extremely valuable real estate in central Seoul. American forces were relocated to two major ground and air base complexes to the south and east of the capital, while ROK forces assumed responsibility for forward defense at the Korean Demilitarized Zone. This relocation also served to provide these forces greater flexibility for possible use in regional scenarios other than a North Korean invasion. From a U.S. perspective, gaining such flexibility while at the same time reassuring the South Koreans of its continuing strong commitment to ROK security was perhaps the most important outcome of these recent changes.

U.S. military access to Australia has recently attracted widespread interest, as noted earlier, in the context of the joint decision to enhance substantially the American military presence in northern Australia. The history of this relationship has three very distinct phases: World War II, the Cold War, and the post–Cold War era. During World War II, Australia welcomed U.S. combat forces beginning in 1942, and the continent served as a secure rear base and staging area for Allied operations in New Guinea and the Central Pacific; at its peak, the United States maintained some 250,000 troops at various bases throughout the continent. During the Cold War, by contrast, in spite of the signing of the ANZUS (Australia–New Zealand–United States) Treaty in 1951, Australia was regarded by the United States as something of a strategic backwater. The U.S. presence there consisted of a handful of facilities (the best known being Pine Gap) dedicated to technical functions such as ballistic-missile early warning, submarine communications, monitoring of Soviet nuclear testing, and communications intelligence. Political complications surround some of these activities, most of them of a high level of secrecy and imperfectly known even to major elements of the Australian government of the day. At present, however, with the rise of China as a regional military (and especially naval) power, Australia has gained increasing strategic salience for the United States both as a regional ally and as a staging point for air and maritime operations in proximity to the vital Strait of Malacca and the increasingly volatile South China Sea. It is possible to envision a growing collaboration between the Australian and American militaries as well as a greater acceptance of such collaboration by the Australian public and a general deepening of an already solid alliance relationship.

Perhaps the link most neglected by observers and analysts of the American military presence in Asia is the Republic of Singapore. A key moment in the development of the U.S.–Singaporean strategic relationship over the last several decades was the closing of American bases in the Philippines in 1991. Since that time, Singapore has effectively replaced the Philippines as the key logistics hub of American military forces in and in transit through Southeast Asia, although the facilities it uses there are operated and shared by the Singaporeans themselves. In 2001, Singapore completed construction of a new naval base at Changi at its own expense (reportedly $60 million) primarily to accommodate and service American warships, including aircraft carriers and submarines. In 2011 the Department of Defense revealed that it plans to permanently station at least two of its new littoral combat ships (LCS) in Singapore. Moreover, Singapore has become a favored venue for security cooperation, training and exercising with other friendly nations throughout the region, for air as well as naval forces. Though Singapore is not a formal American ally, its partnership with the United States now arguably exceeds in strategic significance America’s long-standing alliance relationships with the Philippines and Thailand. At the same time, this collaboration remains low-key and politically uncontroversial among the Singaporeans, whose government has long looked to ensure continued U.S. strategic engagement in the region as a key guarantor of its own security.

The Western boundary of the U.S. Pacific Command’s area of operations, and hence of the Asia-Pacific, bisects the remote island of Diego Garcia. The joint U.S.–British base there is the largest, and virtually only, American military footprint in the Indian Ocean at the present time (though that is changing with the hosting of U.S. military forces in northern Australia). Diego Garcia has gradually assumed considerable strategic significance for the United States, primarily as a staging base for a disparate range of capabilities such as submarine replenishment, afloat prepositioning of U.S. Army and Marine Corps equipment and munitions, long-range bomber support, and the like. While this base is too distant to directly support the projection of U.S. military power ashore throughout the region (with certain exceptions such as B-52 missions) and is too small to house combat or other forces in great numbers, it also has important advantages. Notable among them is its status as a sovereign British territory with virtually no indigenous population and none currently resident, its relative invulnerability to attack, and its presence at the seam of the two American combatant commands that have responsibility for the Indian Ocean.

At the end of our geopolitical journey, it is instructive to examine two additional arenas that offer important lessons for the future of U.S. basing in the Asia-Pacific. First, it is highly instructive to look at the experience the United States has had in establishing new bases in Central Asia in support of its operations in Afghanistan. A strong case can be made that domestic politics rather than Russian or Chinese pressure explains the difficulties the United States has encountered with the governments of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan over the bases it gained access to in these countries beginning in 2001. U.S. forces were in fact expelled from Uzbekistan in 2005 in response to growing criticism by the U.S. government of the human rights abuses of the Karimov regime. Kyrgyzstan threatened to follow suit in the same year, though primarily as a ploy to extort financial aid from Moscow; the agreement over U.S. use of the base at Manas was subsequently renegotiated on more favorable terms. In spite of the fact that in both of these cases the bases in question were relatively modest in scale and used primarily as transit hubs for resupply of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, they proved susceptible to manipulation by their host governments for internal political purposes, demonstrating the extent to which U.S. bases are politically vulnerable in nations with whom the United States lacks established diplomatic or economic relations.

Second, as strategists seek alternatives to political complexities on land, the role of sea basing in the overall architecture of the United States’ overseas military presence. Among military concepts that never quite seem to come into focus, so-called sea basing surely ranks high. Sea basing – which has largely disappeared from public discussion over the last several years – continues to be viewed and evaluated in very different ways by the different services, in spite of its formal status as a “joint” concept. The continuing relevance of sea basing may stem less from the most commonly cited rationale – the potential political vulnerability of bases located in allied or neutral territory – than to the potential physical vulnerability of fixed land bases to long-range ballistic-missile attack. Accordingly, Aegis-equipped ballistic-missile defense platforms arguably need to be an integral part of any notional sea base designed to counter the A2/AD capabilities of potential U.S. adversaries.

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Finally, important factors affecting both the rationale for, and functionality of, U.S. Asia-Pacific bases are in flux. Net assessments of the military capabilities of the United States (or its allies) and China as they bear on the present and future of the U.S. base infrastructure in the Asia-Pacific will be important. Clearly, for example, it makes a great deal of difference whether or not U.S. ballistic missile defense technologies and fielded systems will be capable at some future point (as they currently are not) of providing serious protection against a conventional missile strike by the Chinese on its forward bases in the Western Pacific. Not only fixed land bases, however, but also American naval vessels on the high seas are becoming increasingly vulnerable to attack by the burgeoning arsenal of conventionally armed, precision-guided Chinese ballistic missiles; and the PLA is also becoming increasingly competitive in air as well as undersea, space and cyber warfare. All of this raises serious questions as to whether the U.S. can continue to rely on major surface combatants and, above all, its formidable nuclear-powered aircraft carriers to sustain a forward American presence in the Asia-Pacific in the coming years.

Carnes Lord is Professor of Strategic Leadership at the Naval War College, Newport, RI and Director of the Naval War College Press. Andrew S. Erickson is an Associate Professor in the Strategic Research Department at the U.S. Naval War College and a core founding member of the department’s China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI).