U.S. Land Forces must Deter and Defend Abroad

February 24, 2015

Defense Secretary Ash Carter took the reins at the Pentagon last week on a snowy day that shut down most of official Washington. The scene was painfully ironic—a Pentagon largely shut down because of a few inches of snow while much of the world beyond U.S. borders cascades into chaos.

In just the three weeks since Carter’s February 4th confirmation hearing, Russian-backed rebels have driven Ukrainian forces out of the key city of Debaltseve, despite a ceasefire agreement. Barbaric fighters of the Islamic State released a video of the apparent beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya, only days after releasing a video of a Jordanian pilot being burned alive. Both Jordan and Egypt responded with airstrikes against the group’s encampments in Syria and Libya, respectively. Fresh images were released of a new Chinese island base in contested South China Sea waters hundreds of miles from the mainland. And the past year has seen Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria all facing ongoing internal dysfunction or civil war.

The United States faces a world characterized by global danger, disorder, and disruption. Within such a world, the U.S. military continues to play two central roles: to prevent major conflicts and, failing that, to prevail in such conflicts in which it is engaged. In short, the armed forces of the United States exist to deter and to defend. These long-standing military missions require the U.S. military to be forward deployed and closely engaged with friends, allies, partners, and even potential adversaries in a volatile world. But U.S. forces today, especially its land forces, are poorly postured to do so.

The United States has dramatically reshaped its global force posture during the last 15 years. The large land wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (or at least our direct role in them) are receding, and hundreds of thousands of soldiers and Marines are no longer conducting combat operations abroad. The U.S. military is returning home.   But basing most U.S. forces and capabilities domestically means that they are too far away from the places where they can deter and defend effectively. This retreat from a long-standing forward U.S. military posture is a potentially destabilizing trend that must be reversed.

This dynamic affects all the U.S. military services, but it is most problematic for the Army. The Navy and Marines still maintain many forward bases and frequently conduct operational cruises and deployments throughout the world. The Air Force has shifted most of its forces to bases in the United States, but the risks of longer distances are somewhat mitigated by the speed and strategic mobility of its squadrons of self-deploying aircraft.

The Army has always been the nation’s most powerful marker of an enduring U.S. commitment. Army units based overseas provide the strongest possible message of U.S. resolve and long-term commitment around the world. Allies and adversaries alike know that where Army forces stand, the United States stands.

Today, however, most Army forces are strategically mis-positioned by being based in the continental United States. Only two of more than 35 Army brigade combat teams (BCTs) are permanently stationed overseas. Yet it is not at all clear that these extremely capable (and expensive) ground forces can adequately deter potential enemies and defend key friends and allies from their American garrisons. Moving a heavy armored division from Georgia or Texas or Colorado to eastern Europe could easily take many weeks, if not months. Shifting to the Pacific—to Korea or Japan—could take even longer. To best reassure allies and partners around the world, both deterrence and defense require an enduring forward Army presence in order to be effective.

Much of the Army’s positioning woes today stem from the end of the Cold War. The U.S. military troop strength in Europe has shifted from an average of about 330,000 each year in the 1950s and 1960s (peaking at almost 439,000 in 1957)—a huge force to deter and, if necessary, to defend against the USSR’s massive tank armies—to approximately 67,000 today. Much of this drawdown involved taking Army forces in Europe from multiple armored and mechanized divisions with thousands of tanks and tracked vehicles in the late 1980s to less than a single division equivalent today, consisting solely of paratroopers and light wheeled armor. The United States has no tank or heavy armored units stationed in Europe today. And the two maneuver BCTs are based in northern Italy and southern Germany, far from the eastern border of the NATO alliance. These facts are undoubtedly well known to Russian president Vladimir Putin.

With a smaller force already limited in its reach and with still shrinking capacity, this posture makes no strategic sense. U.S. forces need to be stationed abroad to execute their deterrence and defense missions most effectively. So why are most U.S. forces returning home while global challenges and threats continue to proliferate? The answer is straightforward: Congressional politics. Members of Congress, desperate to keep bases in their districts open, have led the charge to close as many bases as possible overseas before even considering domestic base closures. Good politics, but dangerous strategy.

The United States should not simply reverse course and seek to re-occupy Cold War bases in Germany with permanently assigned forces and their families. Nor do we argue that the United States should permanently station large U.S. ground units broadly across the Middle East, especially given the adverse reaction during the recent war to tens of thousands of American troops based in the Near East and central Asia. But a robust rotational U.S. force posture in Europe—where some U.S. allies are asking for a greater U.S. military presence—could pay huge dividends. And those benefits extend far beyond Europe itself.

Today, for example, Vladimir Putin has only to contend with four 150-man companies of lightly armed U.S. paratroopers rotating among encampments in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. His calculus might look much different if those were 4,500-soldier brigades with heavy armor capability. The Army already employs a similar model in South Korea where armored brigade combat teams from the United States rotate serially to the Korean peninsula for nine-month stints. A similar arrangement could work today in Europe as well—and has the added value of not violating permanent basing agreements that the United States has signed. Such a model would also meet a growing demand for U.S. reassurance, deterrence, and defense among American friends and allies under the shadow of Russia. With its menacing neighbor to the east and proximity to hot spots in the Middle East and North Africa, Europe unquestionably deserves a much greater strategic commitment of U.S. land forces. Substantial forces based on a rotational basis in Europe could much more readily respond to crises in the Middle East or Africa.

In an increasingly disorderly world, forward-deployed U.S. ground forces signal resolve to U.S. adversaries and reassure nervous friends in a way that they simply cannot do while sitting at home. Congress must allow the Defense Department to deploy more of its forces to new, strategically positioned bases abroad, so they can continue to deter and defend effectively.


Lt. General David W. Barno, USA (Ret.) is a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, and Dr. Nora Bensahel is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, at the School of International Service at American University. Their column appears in War on the Rocks every other Tuesday.


Photo credit: U.S. Army Europe