Reconsidering Overseas Force Structure

Landpower has a deterrent capability we may have forgotten


The Value of Land Power

Now may be a good time to reconsider further reductions in U.S. overseas force structure in Europe and Asia. Though not the proximate cause, the events in Ukraine imply a loss in the deterrent ability of the United States. While it may be too late to maintain a large deterrent force in Europe, there may be a lesson for the United States with regards to current and near-term force structure and posture decisions. This is especially true for the U.S. Army. The drawdown of U.S. forces from Europe has been ongoing since the late 1980s as the justification for almost 250,000 U.S. Soldiers no longer existed with the demise of the Soviet Union. The fact that U.S. Soldiers have been permanently assigned overseas points to some key considerations regarding land power.

  While the U.S. Army has greatly reduced its forces in Europe and no longer has any armored forces there, further reductions may be strategically counterproductive

While the U.S. Army has greatly reduced its forces in Europe and no longer has any armored forces there, further reductions may be strategically counterproductive

All forms of military power have unique characteristics that provide utility in pursuit of strategic objectives. Focusing on land power, it is unique in its ability to control events on the ground – where political decisions reside. Land power can assure allies, deter aggression, coerce adversaries, and compel regime change. It is the only form of military power that has such a utility of force. While the preferences of policy makers will fluctuate, land power can serve all strategic ends when employed in concert with other elements of military power. Considering land power from the U.S. perspective requires some consideration of a unique limitation as well.

Land power, and the Army in particular, cannot project force strategically. Air and naval forces have inherent strategic force projection capabilities to fly or sail embarked forces. Land forces must receive support from other services for strategic mobility. This limitation differentiates land forces in several ways. First, the decision to deploy land forces implies a greater commitment of the United States because of the risk Soldiers may face once deployed and because of the resources required to support the deployment.

Second, land forces are less transient than air or naval forces, which provide allies a greater level of reassurance of commitment. Among U.S. land forces, there is a spectrum of reassurance – from special operations forces to embarked Marine forces to large armored Army forces. Third, the commitment of land forces raises the stakes for potential adversaries, which may serve to deter aggression. Some may seek historical examples of U.S. land forces not serving as an effective deterrent, such as in Beirut or Mogadishu, but such examples pale in comparison to counter-examples. The aforementioned U.S. forces in Europe during the Cold War and the deterrent posture of U.S. forces in Korea from 1953 to 2004 when South Korea assumed primary responsibility for security along the Korean Demilitarized Zone both speak to the deterrent value of U.S. land forces. These forward-assigned forces served U.S. national security objectives even as their purpose evolved.

The Evolving Purpose of Forward Forces

The early post-World War II purposes of U.S. forces in Europe and Asia were to assure American allies and deter communist aggression, but this evolved to providing the United States with forward bases from which to protect its national security interests. During the post-Cold War drawdown in Europe, one of the two Army corps the United States deployed in support of the First Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm) came from Europe. This was a pattern continued following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

  Allies, like the Republic of Korea, are major purchasers of U.S. military equipment. The ROK Air Force flies a modified version of the F-15, the F-15K

Allies, like the Republic of Korea, are major purchasers of U.S. military equipment. The ROK Air Force flies a modified version of the F-15, the F-15K

The United States used bases in Europe to support operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq. This support came in the form of forward-stationed combat forces, command and control support, and sustainment operations. U.S. bases in Europe formed a theater logistics hub and a bridge for medical support. Political discord between the United States and its European allies made the deployment of forces from Europe for operations in Iraq more difficult than they had been for Desert Storm. The fact remains, however, that forces an ocean closer made theater operations easier for U.S. forces.

In the future, forward-stationed forces will be a necessity for the Army to respond in force quickly. Forward Army basing enables the Army to establish a theater of operations quickly and provides policy makers with a full menu of options when considering the use of military power. This basing serves U.S. interests even as allies benefit.
The Security Subsidy

The presence of U.S. forces garrisoned overseas does subsidize allied security, but that should not discount the strategic benefit the United States receives by this presence. In addition to forward-stationed forces enabling force projection, they also strengthen alliances, and help the United States influence allied security policy decisions. Forward basing has helped deepen U.S. ties with its allies. This is quite evident in the Asia-Pacific region where both South Korea and Japan include the United States in their defense planning, and both countries show a preference for U.S. military hardware. Foreign military sales to U.S. allies have led the United States to become the world’s top arms exporter, with 30 percent of the total global market in 2012. In fact, more than half of U.S. foreign military sales occur in Asia. Forward-stationing also boosts Allied-U.S. military cooperation.

Because of the long-term presence of U.S. forces overseas, U.S. allies have tied their security development to that of the United States. The NATO adoption of various standards largely has its origin in U.S. military hardware development. The desire for interoperability with the United States has led countries to purchase U.S. military hardware and ensure their domestic weapons and systems are compatible with U.S. systems. In execution, this has helped to secure U.S. interests even when the United States has attempted to maintain a low profile. European allies were able to conduct strikes in Libya in 2011 because of this U.S.-centric standardization. U.S. leadership and demonstrated commitment to its NATO allies has obligated those allies to harmonize some of its security policy decisions with those of the United States. While the continuous U.S. overseas presence does cost marginally more than stateside stationing, there are clear benefits unavailable stateside.

  U.S. forces in Korea under the UN Command have supported deterrence and containment of the North Korean regime since 1953.

U.S. forces in Korea under the UN Command have supported deterrence and containment of the North Korean regime since 1953.

Reconsidering Restationing

While the United States cannot reclaim overseas bases it has turned over to host nations, the loss of influence that has accompanied overseas U.S. force reductions should inform future decisions. The confluence of events that enabled the peaceful stationing of U.S. forces on allied territory is unlikely to occur again. Policy makers involved with basing and force structure decisions should keep in mind that bases returned are bases lost. Not only does the United States lose physical ground that may have strategic and operational value later, there is also a loss of influence and a signal of lessening commitment. As the United States seeks to shift its emphasis to the Pacific, this is an important lesson.

Looking to the Pacific, permanently stationed forces in the region – mainly in Japan and South Korea, have served to strengthen ties between these countries and the United States. The Army, in particular, can assure regional allies and help deter aggression because land power’s strengths and limitations. The Army does not have the strategic mobility of the other services, but where the Army goes, it can maintain an enduring presence. These two characteristics of the U.S. Army make it an ideal foreign policy instrument. Keeping the Army forward-stationed may allow it to best serve policy ends


Irvin Oliver is a U.S. Army officer. He has participated in several operational deployments to the Middle East and the Balkans and holds an MA from Columbia University. The opinions expressed are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government


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Header image: Soldiers of Iron Troop, 3rd Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment roadmarch Strykers through the Estonian.