In light of China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, and pressure on Washington to devote more of its limited resources to Europe given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the time has come for the U.S. Army to reappraise its basing arrangements in the Indo-Pacific.
When most Americans think about their military in the context of the Pacific, they tend to think of the Air Force, the Navy, or the Marines. Nevertheless, the Army has a special role to play in bolstering the defense of Asian allies, deterring aggression, promoting regional security and stability, reducing tensions with China, and engaging with Indo-Pacific militaries which tend to be dominated by land forces.
Overseas basing arrangements consist largely of what the Pentagon refers to as permanent forward presence – for example, the basing of Army troops in South Korea and Japan over the last several decades to reassure those allies and deter North Korea. However, the shifting strategic context in the region means that security cooperation – that is, training events, exercises, and similar military-to-military activities –beyond Northeast Asia is becoming increasingly important for the United States and its partners throughout the Pacific.
Security cooperation activities are designed to shape the security environment, prevent conflict through deterrence, assurance, and transparency, and strengthen the interoperability of different military forces in peacetime and crises. As wartime requirements decrease in the coming year following the end of extensive American involvement in Afghanistan, and as the U.S. military undergoes a dramatic yet historically typical post-war drawdown, security cooperation will be the primary way in which a leaner U.S. military contributes to broad American national security objectives in the Indo- Pacific and elsewhere.
However, the U.S. Army today remains hamstrung in its efforts to contribute to those broader security goals in the Indo- Pacific region. A dated basing paradigm – focused largely on Northeast Asia – limits the utility of the roughly 22,000 U.S. Army soldiers based in East Asia. Additionally, the U.S.-based Army forces are limited by immense transportation costs associated with conducting security cooperation activities across the vast Indo- Pacific region. In short, the United States isn’t getting all that it could from its Army forces in the Indo- Pacific region.
As I outline in a new monograph, the United States should examine how it could develop long-duration, persistent – but not permanent, at least not initially – basing arrangements in countries like Australia and the Philippines, which could involve shifting U.S. Army forces currently stationed in Northeast Asia. The Marines have been experimenting with six-month rotations in Australia, and they have received a surprisingly positive reception. Meanwhile, the United States recently concluded an agreement to make use of bases in the Philippines for military-to-military engagement. These are both steps in the right direction that Washington should seek to leverage for Army-to-Army activities as well, given the importance of armies in the military forces of the Pacific and the unique roles played by the U.S. Army in land force-centric engagement and confidence-building activities.
If reconfigured, the forward-based Army presence in the Indo- Pacific could help achieve U.S. objectives more effectively and more efficiently. Effectiveness would be increased through more regular, longer duration engagement with critical allies and partners like Australia, India, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam, while still deterring conflict on the Korean Peninsula. And the United States would get a better return on its investment by reducing the recurring transportation costs associated with today’s practice of sending U.S.- based units to conduct most of the short-duration annual exercises and training events in the Indo- Pacific..
Changing the U.S. Army’s forward posture in East Asia involves overcoming several hurdles. These include the challenge of reassuring South Korea and Japan of the U.S. commitment to their security even as the number of U.S. soldiers based in those countries decreases, the difficulty of negotiating basing agreements and/or cost mitigation arrangements, budgetary challenges in terms of funding any necessary initial infrastructure investments, and the need to allay Chinese fears of containment and encirclement.
Although difficult, these challenges are not necessarily insurmountable. For instance, countries across the Indo- Pacific theater, including some that have long viewed the United States with suspicion, are coming to increasingly value the offshore balancing role Washington can play vis-à-vis China. Additionally, the one-time infrastructure investment costs associated with any new U.S. forward presence in the Indo- Pacific will be more than offset over of the years as a result of the savings gained from reduced transportation costs. Finally, Washington can work to explain to Beijing how a transparently reconfigured U.S. presence in East Asia actually benefits China by acting as a pacifier for the more aggressive impulses of American allies and partners in the region, and by reassuring leaders in those same countries that as China rises, the United States will remain a steadfast partner.
There are no guarantees that the United States will succeed in overcoming all of the potential difficulties associated with a reconfigured Army presence in the Indo- Pacific, but to avoid trying would severely limit the effectiveness and efficiency of the Army’s contribution to broader U.S. national security goals.
John R. Deni is a Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute (SSI). You can follow him on Twitter at @JohnRDeni. This op-ed is based upon a recently published monograph entitled, “The Future of American Landpower: Does Forward Presence Still Matter? The Case of the Army in the Pacific.” The views expressed are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Army.