The Unmet Promise of the Global Posture Review
You would be forgiven for assuming that America’s pivot or rebalance to the Indo-Pacific was a strategy being executed in the real world. But you’d still be wrong. The latest example of this “say-do gap” is the Defense Department’s newest review of its global military posture. After frenetic and even schizophrenic changes to troop deployments and basing throughout the Middle East and Europe during the Trump administration, many hoped this Global Posture Review would reflect a more concerted effort to link America’s global military footprint to its national strategy. Amidst a growing and intensifying competition with China, expectations rose that the review would mean more forces and bases in the Indo-Pacific, to strengthen deterrence by enhancing the survivability of U.S. forces and adding advanced capabilities.
Despite the Biden administration’s hype, the review failed to deliver on its promises. The public summary of the classified review suggests that, in the eyes of senior Pentagon leaders, America’s global posture did not require significant changes after all. Instead, the review took credit for earlier decisions the Biden administration made about the U.S. military footprint, and left the door open to future alterations following the release of the National Defense Strategy in early 2022. In response, the inability of the posture review to produce new announcements about U.S. basing, access, or force deployments — particularly in the Indo-Pacific — has been met with disappointment and exasperation from many onlookers.
Such frustration is warranted. U.S. military posture has long been incongruent with broader U.S. defense strategy, instead reflecting outdated interests and requirements and the sticky, inelastic nature of force movements and basing access. The review missed an opportunity to realign U.S. military presence overseas with the strategic priorities laid out in the interim National Security Strategic Guidance, which explicitly calls for changes to force posture in the Indo-Pacific and the Middle East — increases in the former and reductions in the latter. To its credit, the review did make some useful procedural changes, namely in streamlining the processes required to determine future force deployments and posture revisions. Despite these procedural improvements, however, the review delivered too little, too late.
The administration should now move swiftly to close the say-do gap by immediately working to align global posture to its strategy. The National Defense Strategy will give the Defense Department an opportunity to reinforce China as the priority challenge and clarify the global posture changes needed to counter Beijing both today and tomorrow. However, the Pentagon does not need to wait for the release of the National Defense Strategy to start altering U.S. military presence overseas. If it does, it will find itself once again doing too little and far too late to produce meaningful change. Quick wins for the administration would include improving infrastructure at a wider array of existing bases in the Indo-Pacific to enhance survivability and further curbing unnecessary deployments to the Middle East. These efforts, although seemingly small, will bolster America’s military advantage while longer-term negotiations with allies and partners about opening new bases and expanding access mature.
Plus Ça Change
The review was a corrective to some of the impulsive and imprudent changes to posture announced by the Trump administration, which often came at the expense of long-standing and important alliances, like the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Germany. By undoing such changes, the review reaffirmed commitments by permanently stationing additional forces and promising consultations before any future posture changes. It also informed decisions to withdraw high-demand, low-density assets from the Middle East that had been placed in the region in the wake of attacks from Iran. The end result largely reverted America’s global military presence back to what it had been before the Trump administration, but with additional firepower in Europe.
What the posture review did not do was significantly alter the global constellation of U.S. bases. It did not announce expected new basing opportunities in and increased deployments to the Indo-Pacific. Instead, the review made marginal improvements to U.S. basing infrastructure in important territories such as Guam and the Northern Marianas. It also promised increased access in Australia based on growing ties from the nuclear submarine and technology sharing agreement known as AUKUS. Overall, however, the review did not reflect the growing importance of the Indo-Pacific in the upcoming defense strategy and how posture improvements could contribute to managing the Defense Department’s “pacing challenge.”
In the Middle East, general expectations for a reduced footprint reflect Washington’s decision to accept risk against other threats and in other regions in order to prioritize the Chinese challenge in the Indo-Pacific. On this line of thinking, altering the U.S. presence in the Middle East not only frees up forces and capabilities for the Indo-Pacific but also translates into investments in military readiness and modernization needed to improve U.S. military efficacy in future conflicts. But the review punted on the Middle East, stating that more studies were needed before altering the U.S. regional architecture there.
Process Makes Perfect, Eventually
Despite the high expectations reinforced by its lengthy timeline, it was unlikely that the review was ever going to drastically revise America’s global presence or actualize the desired pivot to the Indo-Pacific. Posture is incredibly difficult and slow to change because global access and basing cannot be determined by the United States alone. Forward presence requires the permission of the sovereign nations that host U.S. forces and facilities on their soil. Changes to posture — whether increasing or decreasing presence — tend to involve long and arduous negotiations with allies and partners, especially when concrete has already been poured. The posture review created a mechanism for the Biden administration to engage with allies and partners about its desired modifications to U.S. presence around the globe. But altering access, or getting permission to move forces in or base forces in another country’s territory, is a deeply political and sensitive issue that cannot be overcome by a single review.
For instance, improving U.S. warfighting effectiveness and enhancing deterrence in the Indo-Pacific would require deploying U.S. forces to a larger number of distributed bases, rather than remaining concentrated on a few large bases. This, in turn, would require both access to new facilities and permission to position new forces and capabilities. Obtaining access depends on a number of factors, including many that are outside Washington’s control, such as domestic politics and threat perceptions of China. In the Middle East, reductions to the permanent U.S. presence elevate the importance of contingency access, or the ability to quickly surge forces during periods of heightened threats. But obtaining contingency access while regional partners accuse Washington of retrenchment and abandonment is no small feat. The posture review at least started the lengthy consultative process required to make bigger changes to posture.
Another overlooked element of the review are its adjustments to the process of assessing force deployments, with the aim to better enable future changes to U.S. posture. While the Department of Defense already has a process to adjudicate emergent requests for forces against resourcing and readiness tradeoffs, the current global force management process favors the U.S. combatant commands. Establishing a “disciplining framework” for more rigorously assessing posture subtly put the combatant commands — the most voracious consumers of force deployments — on notice, signaling that their near-constant requests for forces will be evaluated more critically by the Pentagon. Posture changes driven by combatant command demands have complicated previous administrations’ attempts to revise and align global posture with broader defense strategies. For example, the sizable U.S. Central Command’s successful requests for big-ticket assets like carrier strike groups and increased force deployments in the name of deterring Iran upended the Trump administration’s desire to shift away from the Middle East. In many respects, this disciplining framework is a bureaucratic victory that better ensures the Biden administration’s desired future posture changes are not upended by emergent combatant command needs.
But Timing Is Everything
Despite its bureaucratic and process victories, the global posture review was full of procedural missteps related to the timing, messaging, and sequencing of the review. One of the main problems with the review is that it delivered less than expected on a longer-than-promised timeline. But this problem stems more from overhyped expectations given the timeline and messaging, rather than the review’s results. The review, which emerged from a request from President Joe Biden, was initially intended as a quick, six-month assessment of the U.S. global footprint to roll back what the administration viewed as unhelpful posture changes made by the Trump administration. Messaging about the review overpromised, as it never intended to fundamentally reimagine U.S. basing and forces worldwide. Instead, the posture review created merely a return to normal, rather than positioning Washington to implement its preferred strategy to better manage the future challenges it may face.
Moreover, the major elements of the global posture review were completed long before its public release. While the review was initially envisioned as a quick-turn corrective to reassure allies, the prolonged process raised expectations, as many believed the delay was due to progress in negotiations with allies and partners to alter access and posture. The failure of the review to deliver meaningful changes has only added to make several allies and partners feel more insecure and less confident in the administration’s willingness to translate its words to action. The lengthy timeline only further served to make it feel like a letdown to many.
This optics problem was further compounded by the incremental roll-out of posture changes informed by the review, including freezing the removal of 12,000 troops from Germany in April 2021, the withdrawal of air and missile defenses in the Middle East in June 2021, the deployment of 500 Army personnel to Weisbaden, Germany, in September 2021 and the announcement of the AUKUS security agreement that same month, and improvements to Tinian and Anderson airbases in the 2022 budget. As these announcements preceded the public release of the actual review, they suggested that additional changes were forthcoming as part of the ongoing look at posture.
The decision to release the posture review before the upcoming National Defense Strategy was yet another blunder. If the review had been swiftly completed and advertised as merely a corrective to the unhelpful posture changes of the previous administration, it would make sense for more changes to come after the defense strategy laid out global priorities. Instead, delaying releasing the results of the posture review has blurred the lines between process and aims. While Department of Defense officials have claimed that the posture review will inform the strategy, the order should be flipped: The priority threats and missions elucidated by the National Defense Strategy should determine the necessary alterations to U.S. force presence around the globe. The National Defense Strategy may still decide additional posture changes are needed, but the sequencing of the review and the strategy will only further delay the posture changes needed to counter America’s future priority challenges.
Implementing the Review Right
Despite problems with the timeline and messaging and disappointment about the lack of tangible results, there was some good news from the review. It reversed some bad choices that did not strengthen deterrence and threatened long-standing relationships, made a few small alterations to posture to free up high-demand capabilities, and revised bureaucratic processes and established mechanisms to enable future posture changes more effectively. But the future is now, not tomorrow, and the Biden administration should act to capitalize on the meager gains of the review to make meaningful changes to America’s global posture. A failure to do so means more than a misalignment between strategy and posture. It risks weakening deterrence in the Indo-Pacific over time, compounding readiness issues and survivability risks to U.S. forces around the globe, and an inability to implement the operational concepts developed to prevail against China in a potential conflict.
As China continues to modernize, it is critical that the U.S. military adapt its posture to enhance survivability and improve deterrence in the Indo-Pacific region. There are steps the Department of Defense can take now to achieve some quick wins. These include properly resourcing the long-awaited infrastructure upgrades to existing bases and facilities in the Indo-Pacific in the next budget. Such improvements are needed to implement the operational concepts developed to counter China, many of which are predicated on distribution and dispersal. The Pentagon should also leverage its revised deployment process to curb deployments to the Middle East, particularly for heavy ground forces that may be of greater value in Europe, to recoup readiness and end a ceaseless deployment cycle. Moreover, in a distinct break with Trump-era approaches, Washington must build on its ongoing consultations with allies and partners to make the necessary long-term changes to posture. Engaging these partners quickly and honestly will help manage expectations — a missing component of the review.
The release of the National Defense Strategy will provide an opportunity to get the Department of Defense and U.S. allies and partners singing from the same hymn sheet to make sizable posture changes. In theory, the strategy will clarify the priority threats and missions and reinforce China as the main challenge. Within the department, the strategy provides a mechanism to plan, program, and resource base improvements, future facilities, new capabilities, and force deployments. Additionally, the public messaging of these priorities will communicate the rationale behind desired posture adjustments to allies and partners. This is deeply important since the Defense Department cannot simply wave a magic wand to quickly reposition forces around the globe. Getting allies and partners to understand why such changes are necessary is a critical step as they navigate aligning these requests for access with their own national interests.
The Pentagon cannot afford to dawdle. While altering posture may take time, the Biden administration should act now to make these changes. Time is not on its side. The Global Posture Review serves as a cautionary tale of the perils of moving too slowly and setting up unmet expectations. Conducting further studies or perfecting process will not improve the department’s ability to implement change. It is time to focus on faster execution and closing the say-do gap. If not, the United States will find itself in a continued state of arrested development in which it speaks of progress but fails to implement any meaningful change and finds itself unprepared for the future challenges it may face.
Becca Wasser is a fellow in the defense program and co-lead of the Gaming Lab at the Center for a New American Security.