The Role of the U.S. Army in Asia


The rebalance to Asia will continue to be a key component of U.S. national strategy, but most of the attention surrounding it has focused on the roles of the U.S. Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps. Any rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region, however, will necessarily involve a land power component. If called on, the U.S. Army will need to be able to respond to security threats, deter aggression, uphold commitments and responsibilities to allies and partners, and shape the region in support of U.S. national security objectives, the joint force, and the U.S. interagency.

The CNA Corporation recently released a study aimed at helping the U.S. Army think about how it can best support U.S. national security objectives in the region, what aspects of the security environment are relevant to the Army, and what capabilities the Army may need. What capabilities should the U.S. Army retain or enhance, especially in an uncertain fiscal environment in which it may weather further cuts?

Although preparing to fight in Korea remains its most critical planning and readiness challenge, the Army’s day-to-day efforts in the region will focus heavily on meeting a myriad of enabling and shaping requirements. The U.S. Army possesses three critical sets of capabilities:

  • Combat. The U.S. Army must remain strong enough to deter aggression and meet potential threats that the United States may face. In particular, the Army must be prepared to defeat a determined adversary in Korea. Any conflict there would inevitably involve significant land forces.
  • Enabling capabilities. The U.S. Army is a key enabler of the joint U.S. force. At the strategic, operational, and tactical levels, the U.S. Army should continue to bring its critical enabling capabilities to the region in order to support the U.S. national command authority and the combatant commander. These capabilities include air and missile defense, engineers, communications, medical, and logistics.
  • Military-to-military engagement. Ground forces make up the bulk of the armed forces of countries in the Asia-Pacific region, and the U.S. Army is well-positioned to engage and shape Asian militaries. The U.S. Army’s day-to-day engagement in Asia plays a fundamental role in determining the strategic and operational security environment. Whether operating in the Philippines, sending cadets to China or Taiwan, carrying out National Guard exchanges with Cambodia, exercising with the Japanese, or placing an attaché in Burma, the Army’s role is vital to communicating intent and to influencing others in the region to address shared U.S.-Asian interests.

The Asia-Pacific strategic environment

Key features of the strategic environment in the Asia-Pacific require the U.S. Army to do three critical things: (1) surge forces when unpredictable situations arise; (2) provide flexible responses to meet diverse contingencies; and (3) apply diverse and relevant regional expertise.

The region is rife with potential flashpoints, making surge capacity essential. Some flashpoints, such as Korea, are traditional. Others are not, involving humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Tailoring permanent or temporary forces in theater to meet differing challenges, will be critical to the Army’s ability to meet surge requirements.

The strategic landscape is changing rapidly in the Asia-Pacific, as are U.S. perceptions of the changing needs of allies and partners, making flexibility essential. Demand signals from the region will shift — and, with the U.S. rebalance, so will demand signals from the U.S. national command authority and the combatant commander. This will require revisiting outdated assumptions and adapting to new requirements. The region hosts a number of human domain challenges, including enduring historical legacies, domestic political factors, differing capabilities and needs among allied and partner armies, and a wide range of cultures and languages. All of these factors complicate potential interactions in the region, and may influence any operation, action, or activity that the U.S. Army might undertake. Importantly, success in Asia requires regional and country-specific expertise to assess the changing nature of the challenges and their impacts.

Land-based, non-traditional security threats, such as terrorism, are an increasingly important concern. The need for responses to these threats — including internal security assistance, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, response to pandemics, and coastal anti-ship and peacekeeping requirements — will generate significant demands on the U.S. Army for engagement, training, and support. As a result, the U.S. Army is likely to see greater interest by Asia-Pacific countries in exercises and other activities that focus on non-traditional threats. The Army’s ability to plan, engage others, and resource multiple efforts to meet varied needs will all be critical.

U.S. Army operations, actions, and activities, as well as the perceptions they generate, must be carefully managed and communicated, and strategic communications will be critical in helping the U.S. Army reassure and/or deter regional actors. U.S. Army forces in Korea and Japan provide a visible and persistent forward presence. The Army’s challenge will be to ensure that other forces, whether regionally aligned or temporarily assigned, are seen as enduring rather than ephemeral, and that this presence consistently reinforces U.S. commitment in the region.

China’s rise will significantly affect the strategic environment in which the U.S. Army will operate. While the region’s concerns about China’s rise could increase the demand signal for a stronger U.S. Army presence, those same concerns could also limit the degree to which some countries are willing to get closer to the U.S. Army.

We recommend that the U.S. Army take the following actions:

Revisit capacity. If it has not done so, the U.S. Army should conduct an Army-wide review to assess what operational units and institutional organizations are doing, specifically, both in the Asia-Pacific theater and in the continental United States. The Army could use this review to re-examine what assets are available for use, whether those assets are properly aligned, and where the Army will have a shortfall in capabilities and need to take risks.

Leverage ways to maintain forward presence and visibility in the region. With the recent assignment of a four-star general to lead the U.S. Army Pacific (USARPAC) and the introduction of innovative approaches such as Pacific Pathways, there are new ways to pursue U.S. interests in the region. The U.S. Army should examine how best to leverage individual and unit rotations; temporary deployments; attaché activities; security cooperation entities; institutional exchanges; video teleconferences; and synthetic training capabilities. By exploring these areas, the Army can optimize its efforts to assure presence, especially among key partners throughout Southeast Asia.

The U.S. Army should also continue to push for offshore prepositioning, especially with regard to Southeast Asia and South Asia.

Finally, the U.S. Army should manage and communicate future force posture changes with an eye to how these issues will be perceived in the region. Especially within the context of the rebalance to Asia and persistent concerns about U.S. commitment, any reductions or realignments of U.S. Army forces in Asia should be accompanied by a solid strategic communications plan.

Assess and further develop important military relationships. The U.S. Army should identify a principal entity to coordinate, collect, analyze, and disseminate U.S. Army data on regional engagement, allowing operational units and institutional organizations to learn from others’ engagement activities. Such a mechanism would allow for increased coordination, instrumental in maximizing the U.S. Army’s unity of effort and impact in the region.

In addition, the U.S. Army should develop standard or cross-Army metrics and methodologies to measure success in engagement and assess its effects on shaping. The results of these assessments should be disseminated and incorporated into plans for future operational and institutional engagements.

Regional militaries are interested in engaging with the U.S. Army. In dealing with regional armies, the Army should highlight its capabilities, particularly based on its wartime experiences. The Army can leverage its experience in Afghanistan and Iraq when reaching out to armies that need counterterrorist, counterinsurgency, and internal security training.

Finally, the Army should reinforce success by expanding the Army National Guard (ARNG) State Partnership Program (SPP) in the Asia-Pacific region beyond its current seven ARNG-country relationships. As a civil-military organization, the Army National Guard, through its SPP, is uniquely positioned to promote cooperative engagements that allow the Army to interact with regional civilian authorities.

Build and retain critical regional expertise. The U.S. Army’s Foreign Area Officer (FAO) program remains the premier example of how to build and apply regional military-political expertise. A challenge for the Army will be to determine how best to train, assign, promote, and retain FAOs to meet changing U.S. priorities in the Asia-Pacific region. The U.S. Army should re-examine the Asia-Pacific FAO program to ensure that it has the right mix of officers needed to support the Army, joint, and interagency in the Asia-Pacific region. For example, the increase of non-traditional demands and requirements in South and Southeast Asia should be considered in any decisions to realign FAOs who are being trained and assigned to the region.

Because there is unlikely to be significant growth in the number of FAOs available for Asia in the near future, the U.S. Army should also identify how best to promote regional expertise among non-FAO personnel — including officers, NCOs, enlisted soldiers, and civilians — by developing, assigning, and retaining them in a way that boosts the Army’s capabilities throughout Asia.

Finally, the U.S. Army has been focused on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. As it shifts to support the rebalance to Asia, its officers, enlisted personnel, and civilians must be more cognizant of the strategic environment and its challenges. The Army should consider expanding the reading lists of the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army and other commands to include books and articles aimed at improving their understanding of the history, culture, and current issues relevant to the Asia-Pacific region.

The U.S. Army has an important role to play in the U.S. rebalance to Asia. It will be critical for the American public and its government to have a debate that takes into account the emerging strategic environment and future demand signals, and to ensure that the U.S. Army is ready to meet the challenges in the region.


Thomas Bickford, Ph.D. is a senior research scientist in CNA Corporation’s China Studies division. His research focuses on Chinese maritime strategy, Chinese national security policy, and China’s relations with its neighbors.

Albert Willner, Ph.D. is a principal research scientist in CNA Corporation’s China Studies division. His research interests include Chinese foreign policy, Asia-Pacific regional security, and U.S.-China defense relations.