Reverse the Tide: A Forward-Stationed Army is Better for America


Recent saber-rattling by North Korea as well as Russia’s upcoming Zapad military exercise have renewed discussion over the U.S. military’s forward presence in Asia and Europe. Debate over the size, structure, capabilities, and positioning of American military forces in Europe and Korea is nothing new, though. Since the end of the Cold War, the number of U.S. troops based overseas has steadily fallen, particularly in the wake of the 2004 Integrated Global Posture and Basing Study and the pub­lication of the Bush administration’s report to Congress that same year on Strengthening U.S. Global Defense Posture.

The Bush and Obama administrations, as well as key supporters in Congress, relied upon remarkably similar reasoning. Foremost was a perception that it is simply cheaper to base American troops in the United States because, for instance, overseas bases require the construction of schools for military dependents. One study conducted for the Army in 2003 concluded that there would be significant net annual savings associated with reducing forward stationing — that is, the number of troops based overseas — and instead shifting toward increased peacetime rotational deployments of U.S. troops.

We also heard arguments about a dramatically changed security environment in Europe, where armored units simply weren’t needed any longer. Others insisted that American forces were far easier to deploy to crisis locations from the United States than from Europe or Korea. Sometimes advocates for reduced overseas stationing would claim that U.S. allies were growing increasingly weary of hosting American troops, or that military families found overseas tours onerous and isolating.

Most recently, two particular arguments have become prominent: First, military units that deploy from the United States to Europe or Korea for several months are seen as better prepared for combat than those units that are permanently stationed overseas. Intense, month-long training immediately prior to their deployment plus a high pace of exercises and other training activities while deployed in Europe or Korea means these units are at the height of what the military calls “readiness.”

Second, in an era of military downsizing, especially in the wake of the 2011 Budget Control Act, most in Congress preferred that defense budget cuts come at the expense of overseas basing, in the hope that more units would be maintained at home, (and perhaps even in their home districts). But personnel cuts were too great to be taken entirely from overseas locations. Still, two brigades were cut from Europe and one from Korea. The elimination of these three overseas brigades meant the Pentagon was able to maintain more force structure in the United States, but it also meant the military would need to rely more on rotational deployments to maintain the same overall number of troops in Europe and Korea at any given time.

But there is another side to this debate. Not all decision-makers and analysts favored the seemingly relentless reduction of U.S. personnel stationed abroad over the last quarter century. For instance, some in Congress questioned whether it would cost more to deploy forces from the United States in a time of crisis than it would to already have those forces stationed overseas. Others asked whether it didn’t make more sense logistically to have more American troops based overseas where they’re closer to potential crisis locations, or whether Europe was likely to remain mostly benign. The Congressionally-mandated Overseas Basing Commission raised many of these concerns, but they were largely dismissed by executive branch officials, particularly of the Bush administration.

Since the drawdown of overseas units accelerated roughly 15 years ago, many of the reasons cited by those in favor of rotational deployments have not proven accurate or valid. I base this conclusion on a 10-month study I’ve recently completed that examines the costs and benefits — defined broadly — of rotational deployments versus forward stationing.

The study examines four areas — fiscal costs, diplomatic factors, family readiness and well-being, and unit training readiness.  In terms of fiscal costs, there is strong evidence to support the conclusion that in the cases of both Europe and South Korea, the Department of Defense is spending more than was originally anticipated to maintain heel-to-toe rotational presence.  Of perhaps greater concern is the fact that rotational heel-to-toe presence is more expensive than forward stationing, at least in terms of recurring average annual costs.

In terms of diplomatic or political-military factors, my research shows American allies prefer forward stationing over rotational deployments because it is seen as a sign of a stronger, more enduring commitment from the United States. Additionally, U.S. military families bring economic benefits to the communities where they’re based — benefits that balance out the downsides of having troops as neighbors, such as helicopter noise.

From a family readiness and well-being perspective, I found strong anecdotal evidence indicating families and soldiers are dissatisfied with the shift to a U.S.-stationed force.  Soldiers and families based in the United States perceive they’re being asked to take on many of the same hardships as for a wartime rotation, but without the rewards of a combat patch, tax-free income, or combat pay. More worrisomely, this evidence appears to be reflected by lower reenlistment rates — from 4 to 12 percent lower — for some rotationally deployed units during the 12 months following their rotations to Europe or South Korea. However, thus far this is just a correlation and it’s premature to say exactly what the cause is.

Rotationally deployed units arrive in theater at a higher level of readiness, and their very high operations tempo allows them to maintain that level of readiness throughout their 9 to 10-month deployment. This is appealing to some senior U.S. commanders on the ground in Europe and Korea, who contend that the higher level of activity while in theater bolsters assurance and deterrence. Especially in the case of Korea, rotational deployments of whole units have brought a higher degree of stability, reducing the personnel “churn” that broke up crews and small teams when individuals left for new duty stations.

However, it is highly unlikely that America’s adversaries or its allies recognize or care about the differences between a unit that has just conducted a 30-day training rotation and one that has not. Moreover, the training readiness advantages of a rotationally deployed unit are balanced out by the significantly higher manning rates of forward-stationed units. For instance, forward-stationed units are usually manned at roughly 95 percent, while rotationally deployed units in Europe and South Korea are manned at around 70 percent. Finally, forward-stationed units typically are more knowledgeable of foreign culture, military units, geography, political leaders, and military counterparts. Rotationally deployed units can learn this over time, but by the time they’ve gained any significant local and regional knowledge and understanding, their rotation ends and they return to the United States for new assignments across the military.

The Department of Defense has begun to recognize it needs to restore balance to the Army’s overseas force posture. The Pentagon has earmarked additional force structure for forward stationing in Europe, as part of an increase in end strength authorized by the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act.  Nonetheless, it seems clear when considering all the available evidence that the Defense Department can more effectively and efficiently deter and assure through an increase in forward stationing, beyond that which exists today.

Along these lines, my study offers a series of recommendations.  First, to minimize the negative morale associated with 9 to 10-month heel-to-toe rotational deployments that lack the same moral and material benefits of a combat tour, the Army should end such rotations and instead conduct shorter-term, periodic but regular rotations to South Korea and Europe. This would still enable the Army to expose much of the force to overseas environments and working with foreign counterparts, but without the burden of being away from home for so long.

Second, the United States should forward station in Europe and South Korea heavy and/or equipment-intensive units as well as those units that require the greatest depth of knowledge of local regulations, customs, terrain, airspace, and/or counterpart units and officials. Such units might include combat aviation, air defense units, armor units, command and control units, and logistics enablers such as transportation units. This would enable the military to minimize recurring fiscal costs while maximizing opportunities to build interoperability.

Third, and with specific regard to Europe, the Pentagon should aim to station these units in Poland, either in whole or in part through split-basing. Stationing in Poland would provide greater assurance to Eastern Europe and more effectively deter aggression. Most importantly from a fiscal perspective, the Polish government has evinced a willingness to share some of the costs of construction and base operations.

Finally, and with specific regard to South Korea, the Army should normalize tours from one year to two or three years for as many forward-stationed units there as possible, but especially for maneuver units like an armored brigade. This would reduce personnel churn within units and reinforce the strong U.S. commitment to South Korean defense. The more senior members of the U.S. military will doubtlessly claim that it’s impossible to maintain morale with longer, accompanied tours in South Korea. Troops and their spouses simply don’t like being sent to Korea, they’ll argue. This thinking may be somewhat outdated though, and as construction at Camp Humphreys nears completion there’s reason to think that an accompanied two-year assignment in South Korea may become quite coveted within an increasingly U.S.-based Army.

Regardless of the specific overseas force posture adopted by the United States or the particular blend of rotationally deployed forces and forward-stationed forces ultimately arrayed in Europe and South Korea, the Army and the Department of Defense must ensure a careful analysis of the many options. Since the end of the Cold War — during which hundreds of thousands of soldiers were stationed overseas — the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of a U.S.-stationed Army.  As a result, the Army has come to rely on rotational deployments to maintain sufficient continuous overseas presence, at great cost in fiscal and other terms. A rebalancing of the U.S. Army’s force posture is necessary to achieve deterrence and assurance effectively and at a reasonable, sustainable cost.


Dr. John R. Deni is a Research Professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute and an adjunct professor at the American University’s School of International Service. This essay is based on his recently published monograph on forward presence. All views are his own.

Image: U.S. Army/Lance Cpl. Ashley S. Stadel