Troop Movement
Our troop-deployment system is a Cold War relic.


Mackubin Thomas Owens

The Cold War has been over for more than a decade, but you wouldn’t know it from the way U.S. military forces are deployed around the world. That’s why President Bush’s announcement last week about redeploying American troops is such good news. It is no secret that the U.S. military is stretched thin to meet the demands arising in the wake of 9/11. The redeployment plan will take some of the pressure off while making U.S. forces more flexible, responsive, and better able to contend with the “tyranny of distance.”

The current overseas base structure is the result of decisions made in the 1960s about how best to employ U.S. conventional forces to deal with the Soviet and Chinese threats. In order to implement the policy of containment, the Kennedy administration replaced the Eisenhower “New Look” strategy, based primarily on long-range airpower and nuclear weapons, with “Flexible Response.” The Kennedy strategy did not abandon nuclear deterrence, but sought to expand U.S. conventional forces capable of responding to threats across the entire spectrum of conflict.

U.S. force structure was driven by two major factors: First, in addition to defending the United States itself, America had nine formal treaty commitments to more than 40 allies, and informal obligations to several more. Second, there was the assumption that these commitments required the United States to be able to fight, simultaneously, two major non-nuclear wars and one lesser contingency–a “half war,” as it was styled. The resulting force structure was based on requirements generated by the most demanding scenarios: one war against the Soviet Union in Europe, a second against China in or near Korea, and a “half war” somewhere in the developing world, most likely Cuba (Vietnam later became the half war, although I always point out to my students that, having fought it, it always seemed like a whole war to me).

According to William Kaufman in his brief but informative pamphlet, “Planning Conventional forces, 1950-80,” the era’s force planners wanted to avoid stationing troops in the threatened areas because that rendered them unavailable for service somewhere else, and the economic and political costs of stationing them abroad were substantial. Instead, they wished to create a specially tailored expeditionary force–essentially a large, mobile strategic reserve–based in the continental United States (CONUS), capable of being dispatched quickly to any trouble spot. This was made possible, they believed, by the advent of intercontinental, large-payload, wide-body jet aircraft. This strategic airlift capability was to be supplemented by minimal overseas deployments, some pre-positioning of war material, and fast sealift ships.

In reality, this plan was never implemented. Neither our NATO allies nor Korea and Japan wanted the United States to reduce its forces in Europe or Asia. In addition, cost overruns on the C-5A airlifter pointed out the staggering costs of fully funding the strategic lift necessary to implement the preferred plan. Finally, Vietnam soured many in Congress on the idea of a large, mobile military force. Presidents were likely to act recklessly in distant places if such mobile forces were available. Many in Congress saw the curtailment of military mobility as a way of reducing the presidential temptation to intervene abroad. Thus what planners during the early 1960s wanted to avoid–substantial forces based overseas–came to pass, and with it the massive overseas basing scheme necessary to support them.

Although it was far from optimal, forward-deployed forces certainly contributed to deterrence in support of the U.S. policy of containment. But there is a danger today that, in the event of a contingency somewhere in the world, heavy forces in Europe would essentially be stranded and not available for the fight. In addition, the large, sprawling U.S. bases that have grown up in Europe, Korea, and Japan–essentially little Americas, with their own shopping, housing, recreation, and school systems–constitute a high level of overhead, both in terms of money and personnel. These resources could be better employed elsewhere.

My Naval War College colleague Tom Barnett has provided a justification for the sort of redeployment of forces the president has endorsed: The Pentagon’s New Map. According to Barnett, 9/11 revealed the emerging geopolitical reality that the world’s most important “fault line” was not between the rich and the poor, but between those who accept modernity and those who reject it. The former part of the globe Barnett called the “Functioning Core,” the latter, the “Non-Integrating Gap.”

The Core, where “globalization is thick with network connectivity, financial transactions, liberal media flows, and collective security,” is characterized by “stable governments, rising standards of living, and more deaths by suicide than murder.” The Gap, where “globalization is thinning or just plain absent” is “plagued by politically repressive regimes, widespread poverty and disease, routine mass murder, and–most important–the chronic conflicts that incubate the next generation of global terrorists.”

Barnett’s Core is composed of North America, Europe, Japan, Russia, India, China, Brazil, Chile, and Argentina. The Gap includes South America (minus Brazil, Argentina, and Chile), most of Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. The latter contains most of the “failed states” that epitomize the perceived failures of globalization. Before 9/11, U.S. policymakers acted in accordance with a “rule set” that focused on inter-state conflict within the Core, and consigned security concerns within the Gap to the status of “lesser included cases.”

For Barnett, the key to future global security and prosperity is the requirement of the Core to “shrink” the Gap. Managing the Gap–a policy of containment–is not enough: Such an approach further reduces what little connectivity the Gap has with the Core and renders it more dangerous to the Core over the long haul. The Core must export security into the Gap, providing the stability necessary for the regions within to achieve “connectivity” with the rest of the world and thereby position themselves to benefit from globalization. Otherwise, the Gap will continue to export terrorism to the Core, as it has been doing over the last decade.

Barnett argues that “bin Laden and Al Qaeda are pure products of the Gap–in effect, its most violent feedback to the Core.” 9/11 represented an attempt by bin Laden to create a “systems perturbation” in the Core so that he would be able to take the Islamic world “off line” from globalization and return it to some seventh-century definition of the good life. For Barnett, the proper strategic response to 9/11 is to create a countervailing systems perturbation in the Gap–which is exactly what the Bush administration did by striking Afghanistan and Iraq.

The fact is that the Gap now constitutes the “expeditionary theater” of U.S. foreign and defense policy. If so, the current basing structure constitutes a poor allocation of U.S. forces. The president’s plan represents a return to the vision of the early 1960s: a CONUS-based, rapidly deployable, yet lethal strategic reserve that can move on short notice to a trouble spot.

Overseas bases will not disappear, but their character and location will change. The emerging concept is the creation of a number of “lily pad” bases closer to the likely areas of trouble–most likely around the periphery of the Gap. The expansion of NATO to include Central and Eastern European countries and diplomatic initiatives in Central Asia–”the Stans”–make this possible.

These expeditionary bases will accommodate air and ground forces rotating in from CONUS. Lily pads, combined with advances in “sea basing” and Navy-Marine Corps amphibious doctrine, will go a long way toward reducing the impact of the “tyranny of distance” with which U.S. forces must contend to defend American interests.

The forward deployment of U.S. forces during the Cold War was a suboptimal response to the security environment of the time. Nonetheless, that deployment and the network of overseas bases that supported it contributed to deterrence and containment. But that era ended a long time ago: It’s about time the president took the necessary steps to redeploy U.S. forces more in accordance with the current and likely future security environment.

Mackubin Thomas Owens, an NRO contributing editor, is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.


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