No Replacement for Military Engagement and Forward Presence


In recent years, the Obama administration’s foreign policy has emphasized precision strike stand-off capabilities, especially drones, as well as a policy of surging American military might from the continental United States (CONUS) after a crisis has already started, versus maintaining significant overseas force presence. In the face of the Great Recession and sequestration, these two policy tools were particularly attractive approaches for managing insecurity in a resource-constrained environment. However, with the economy in much better shape and the worst years of the debt crisis past, it is unclear whether the next administration will embrace these same tools.

There is good reason to think that these policy tools may be less useful in addressing emerging security challenges facing the United States and its vital interests. Indeed, evidence indicates that relying on stand-off capabilities and surge readiness cannot provide adequate deterrence or reassurance. Neither can they promote effective regional security nor build the capability and interoperability necessary to succeed in combined military operations at reasonable cost. Ultimately, reliance on stand-off capabilities and surge capacity from CONUS will have the effect of reducing, not expanding, options available to any president.

Mitigating the security challenges of tomorrow necessitates investment in a more effective and more efficient set of policy tools. Two such tools — forward basing of U.S. military forces and, when employed selectively, military-to-military engagement and training — can help to promote stability and security in contexts short of major inter-state war. Moreover, mil-to-mil engagement and forward basing presence can also contribute dramatically to operational capacity and capability across a range of military operations, including major interstate war. For the last several decades, military engagement and forward presence have been essential tools for the United States to wield influence around the globe, yielding greater stability in peacetime and greater effectiveness in times of conflict. However, both have fallen out of favor as preferred policy tools thanks to four key factors or trends.

The first is a relentless, fiscally ill-informed, strategically and operationally short-sighted drawdown of permanent forward presence of U.S. forces, particularly from Europe. Practically all of the arguments made over the last 15 years against continued drawdown of U.S. permanent forward presence — especially in terms of the difficulty, costliness, and effectiveness of surging from U.S. bases at levels sufficient to assure and deter — have proven to be true.

The second factor is a return to a focus on major inter-state war. Related to this is unwarranted confidence in the ability of senior U.S. leaders to discern vital interests from merely important ones and thereby avoiding messier conflicts and crises. The most likely, more demanding missions — involving non-state forces disrupting the international order, for example — are ones that the U.S. military may not be trained, equipped, or structured for.

The third factor is the longstanding incorrect assumption that military engagement — such as U.S. forces conducting training events, exercises, exchanges, and other activities to build and maintain partner capacity and capabilities — detracts from readiness. Although views are evolving in this area, the ability to work with foreign partners or to be capable of participating in coalitions is not yet part of unit readiness reports, for instance.

Finally, the fourth factor is the lack of success in building capable indigenous security forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite a massive U.S. and allied effort. The 2014 collapse of Iraqi army units in the face of an Islamic State attack, and the more recent successes of the Taliban in Afghanistan, have led many to conclude that military engagement for the purposes of building partner capacity and foreign internal defense simply does not work. In reality the evidence is far more nuanced, and other successful cases can shed light on when, where, and how engagement works.

Despite these recent trends, forward presence and military engagement remain important tools for the United States to address the most likely security challenges of the next several years as well as the less likely but arguably more consequential threat of major inter-state war. Military engagement programs — often referred to as security cooperation — enable the United States to achieve a number of strategic objectives. For example, they can enhance the ability of America’s foreign partners to maintain stability and security in their own neighborhoods. When conducted in a transparent way, they can deter adversaries and assure allies. Military engagement activities can also develop the capabilities of coalition partners for current and future operations and improve interoperability between U.S. forces and those of international partners. Ultimately, this can have the effect of reducing the number of American boots on the ground in a military operation.

Like military engagement, forward presence provides an effective and efficient means of achieving several U.S. strategic objectives. For example, forward presence can deter aggression against vital interests more effectively than CONUS-based forces. They can also assure allies through a tangible U.S. commitment to regional security. Forward-based forces enable a more effective response to security crises when and if they occur by being closer to those crises. Additionally, forward presence provides access to en route infrastructure and the lines of communication necessary for collective defense and specific U.S. and allied operations. Finally, forward-based forces contribute directly to building and maintaining interoperability with America’s most likely and most capable coalition partners through daily interaction.

Some have argued that rotational deployment models are a good substitute for permanent presence. However, a rotationally deployed force from CONUS is unlikely to deter effectively because it is unable to prevent “opportunity motivated” aggressors — especially nuclear-armed ones — from seeking a fait accompli with a quick, successful military operation occurring between rotations. Moreover, a rotational deployment from CONUS during a period of insecurity is likely to be interpreted as escalatory.

Additionally, rotationally deployed forces from CONUS are unlikely to arrive in theater as well-informed about local or regional culture, habits, standard operating procedures, and rules and regulations. Finally, arguments favoring rotational deployments based on cost are somewhat misleading and not necessarily reflective of data from recent rotational deployments to Europe.

The inability to surge quickly enough, the incorrect assumptions about reduced cost, the risks of appearing escalatory, the loss of global influence, and the failure to deter and assure are all concomitant with a strategy of surging as circumstances demand, and/or relying on stand-off capabilities. Continuing pockets of institutional bias against engagement as a force multiplier and readiness enhancer, and significant cuts to overseas permanent presence, have combined to limit the perceived utility of these policy tools among decision-makers. Reversing these trends and more effectively leveraging these policy tools will require bureaucratic courage and leadership, and a deeper institutional embrace of engagement as well as forward presence. For instance, the Army should refine and promulgate guidance on multinational force interoperability, and it should consider changes in its personnel system to incentivize service in multinational billets. On the presence front, the recent announcement of increased U.S. rotational presence in Europe is helpful but ultimately insufficient. In addition, the Pentagon should declare a moratorium on further drawdowns in Europe and it should reverse the trend in permanent presence by standing up a division- or corps-level headquarters in Germany or Poland. Given the array of challenges facing the United States today — including Russian aggression in Ukraine, China’s island-building in the South China Sea, the Islamic State’s consolidation of territory in Iraq and Syria, occasional North Korea saber rattling, and Iran’s ongoing sponsorship of terrorism — it seems a particularly useful time to seek out policy tools that create options for policymakers in an effective, efficient manner.


Dr. John R. Deni is a Research Professor of Security Studies at the Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute. This op-ed is based on his recently published monograph and you can follow him on Twitter at @JohnRDeni.


Photo credit: Sgt. Alonzo Werner, U.S. Army