Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Reform Overdue: The Geopolitics of American Redeployment

Reform Overdue: The Geopolitics of American Redeployment

In a speech before the Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention in Cincinnati, Ohio, on August 16, 2004, President George W. Bush confirmed a long-rumored shift in America’s overseas military force posture. [1] He announced that over the next decade the nation will transfer between 60,000 and 70,000 troops, along with another 100,000 civilian employees and family members, from Europe and Asia back to the United States. While critics have ascribed the Administration’s motives for this to everything from unilateralism to punishing Europeans for policy differences, such a shift is in fact long overdue. As the President himself noted, “America’s current force posture was designed, for example, to protect us and our allies from Soviet aggression— the threat no longer exists.” Culturally and geostrategically, there are many benefits to such redeployment.

Moving the Military Culture

Roughly 50,000 to 55,000 personnel in Europe and 10,000 to 15,000 personnel in Asia will be transferred back to the continental United States. At the heart of this movement will be the redeployment of four heavy brigades (armored and mechanized) out of Germany and perhaps a combat brigade out of South Korea. The troops being transferred back will be partially replaced by a Stryker Brigade Combat Team (most likely stationed in Germany) and an additional parachute infantry battalion to be added to the 173rd Airborne Brigade at Vicenza, Italy. Force levels in Europe would remain in the neighborhood of 50,000 troops and another 85,000 to 90,000 troops would remain forward deployed in the Asia- Pacific region. This hardly signals a fortress America posture.

At the core, such a shift should have a tremendous cultural effect on the armed forces. The static “Fulda Gap” mentality of the Cold War, when U.S. troops were focused on repelling a Soviet armored thrust into Western Europe, should now be officially in the past. The realities of the 21st-century international threat environment continue to show that joint power projection and expeditionary capabilities have replaced the heavy-armored corps as the most effective purely military tools for our security. Furthermore, the global war on terrorism and events of the past decade point increasingly to the fact that we are living in an era where the old terms of “conventional” and “unconventional” warfare have swapped meanings. If “conventional” means the norm or standards of practice, then expeditionary and non- traditional operations have surely replaced the notion that two roughly equivalent armed forces will slug it out in large set-piece engagements. Evidence from the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Armed Conflict Database seems to support this contention. Their current world map shows that of 57 ongoing or recent conflicts, 23 were caused by terrorist acts, 30 are internal armed conflicts, and only 4 are international armed conflicts. [2] This does not mean that there will never be the need for “the big battalions,” but they will fight in much different ways. The U.S. Army seems to have accepted similar logic with its shift to more rapidly deployable, logistically self-sufficient, modular units of action-sized combat formations. [3]

The lessons of the major military operations stage (Phase III) of Operation Iraqi Freedom will likely further illustrate to current and future adversaries that they cannot prevail against the massive U.S. advantages in joint synergy, precision fires, and training. Even in situations where the Iraqis had the tactical upper hand, their training and equipment proved severely wanting. [4] While it is dangerous to generalize conclusions from one case, it may not strain credulity to imagine from Iraq’s performance that North Korea’s forces may suffer from similar equipment and training deficiencies. This may explain why— aside from the fact that the U.S. Army is considerably stretched at the moment— a brigade combat team from Korea will be going to Iraq shortly in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and why a permanent shift of ground forces from the peninsula may not decisively alter the military balance there.

More important, the ongoing politico-military portion (Phase IV) of Operation Iraqi Freedom shows that it is imperative to shift the cultural emphasis of our armed forces. Ambiguity, civil-military operations, and inter-agency coordination now define and condition the environment our forces work in. Brute military force alone will rarely be the sole means necessary to achieve operational or strategic ends. The experiences of the last three years in Afghanistan and Iraq have most likely made this point with leaders, but for the Army in particular, the shift of heavy forces out of Germany should be a huge psychological shift.

Boathouses, Docks, and Lily Pads

The patterns of conflict in the war on terrorism and beyond are shifting more and more towards the “Arc of Turmoil,” from Morocco to Indonesia and from Kazakhstan to Kenya; toward sub-Saharan Africa; and toward the Andean Ridge. [5] This necessitates our being able to deploy cohesive, well-trained joint formations from strategic distances with impending urgency. As these locales move farther and farther away from our inherited Cold War overseas basing structure, it makes increasing sense to move towards a tiered power- projection deployment scheme that alternates between state-of-the-art training and home-station facilities to more austere jump-in/jump-off point locations. National security analyst Chris Seiple has presciently stated that such forward operating sites and access points have become the 21st-century equivalents of late 19th- and early-20th-century maritime coaling stations. [6]

General James Jones, the European Command combatant commander and also the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, began to discuss the need for such a tiered approach when he unveiled the “lily pad” concept in 2003. [7] “Lily pads” are conceived as austere training and deployment sites in areas where the United States has traditionally not had basing infrastructure, such as the Sahel and Horn regions of Africa, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe. As the glacis of NATO moves ever eastward and operational necessity continues to dictate expeditions into the Arc of Turmoil pan-region, such a concept makes perfect geostrategic sense.

One might conceive of the other tiers in the deployment chain as “boathouses” and “docks.” “Boathouses” might be large bases and training facilities in the United States and abroad that deploy expeditionary forces for training and operational purposes as necessary. Examples of such bases are Camp Lajeune, Camp Pendleton, Ft. Bragg, and Ft. Lewis. “Docks” would be locations that contain a solid infrastructure for rapid deployment as well as prepositioned stocks of materiel. Diego Garcia and Guam are perfect examples of this type of arrangement. The development and procurement of systems such as intra-theatre heavy lift, high-speed transport vessels, lighter-than-air transport, and sea-basing platforms will greatly increase the importance of these locations by enabling larger and larger payloads of troops and equipment to be transported farther and faster.

Criticisms aside, it is a smart idea to move some forces that are presently forward deployed back to the continental United States. The change towards a unit-manning personnel system in the Army and tiered readiness, surge capabilities, and a joint expeditionary mindset across the services all point to the wisdom of centralizing units at boathouse installations and then deploying them out to dock and lily pad locations. Deploying in and out of such locations, even just for training, will further ingrain the expeditionary ethos. Furthermore, such a conversion would provide for more stability for Soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines and their families. Stabilizing service members for a number of years at a particular location will hopefully ease the burden for their spouses to find satisfying employment opportunities and should also increase other quality of life factors that impact retention. This is highly significant in an all-volunteer force currently straining from the operational tempo.


The war on terrorism continues to transform the way our servicemen and -women train, organize, fight, and serve. It is therefore necessary to reallocate our forces across the globe to acknowledge and adjust to the geostrategic realities that have been emerging over the past decade. Shifting heavy mechanized forces out of Germany, as discussed above, is long overdue. American service members will continue to be stationed overseas, they just need to be positioned in the best way to deal with the global strategic picture. If we are to deny Al Qaeda and its kin their ability to establish the safe havens that put both our allies and us at risk, then we must be able to rapidly exploit the opportunities to destroy such command-and-control and training facilities. Moving towards a greater expeditionary posture offers the best solution to that problem.


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