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Overseas Rebasing and Defense Transformation
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Defense transformation is turning out to be a far larger project than the Bush administration envisioned when it first embraced the concept during the 2000 presidential campaign. Far from being a “cheap hawk’s” answer to America’s post-Cold War defense needs or a justification for new weaponry, transformation involves a world’s worth of new missions for the U.S. military, which is fast becoming the “global cavalry” of the twenty-first century. Among the most vital components of this transformation is the radical overhaul of America’s overseas force structure, which seeks to create a worldwide network of frontier forts.
It will be interesting for future historians to determine just what President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had in mind when they resolved to “transform” the U.S. armed forces for the post-Cold War era. To the Republican Party of the late Clinton years, the idea of defense transformation was irresistible, offering a chance to reclaim the issue of military readiness while avoiding any significant increase in government spending. By skipping a generation of weaponry, downsizing global military commitments, and dodging dead-end peacekeeping missions, the United States could recapitalize the force, economize costs, and prepare for the rise of some future “near-peer” competitor–all at the same time.
Then came September 11 and the so-called war against terrorism. From our current post-Afghanistan, post-Iraq point of view, the scope of the transformation project is proving far larger than the relatively narrow, initial focus on introducing new technologies and new operational concepts to a military that is already, by far, the finest on the planet. Rather, what has been transformed is the geopolitical and strategic context in which American military power is exercised. With essentially the same force structure as fifty years ago, the United States has been called upon to fight a new series of campaigns in a new kind of war–a war that has only just begun.
This conflict is striking in that, while global in scope like the Cold War, its flashpoints are far from its predecessor’s focus on the Central European plain. Much academic ink has been spilled over the last decade trying to chart an “arc of instability” that wends from the Mediterranean through West, Central, and South Asia to terminate somewhere in the Pacific Rim. But what was initially conceived as a thin crescent has metastasized into a much larger, globalized mass that defies any attempt at regionalization.
Indeed, in this war, the center of strategic gravity, the schwerpunkt, cannot be found in any particular country. There is no capital of “Islamism,” the anti-American, anti-modern political movement that is our enemy. Rather, this radically violent and nihilistic ideology is spawned across the Greater Middle East by authoritarian regimes that externalize their own domestic, political failures; it is sheltered in myriad failed or failing states, with porous borders, weak governments, and endemic corruption. Its operatives can even be found lurking in the collapsed corners of modern, prosperous nation-states–for instance, the Muslim-majority slums of Western Europe. To the extent a common thread runs through these far-flung places, it is their rejection of the liberal, global order; in the words of Thomas Barnett, a Defense Department analyst, “Disconnectedness defines danger.” But despite this distance, both physical and psychological, the enemy revealed on September 11 the ability to “project power” into the American homeland.
As the leader and guarantor of the current liberal international order, it falls to the United States to organize and sustain the defense of the Pax Americana against this threat, to inspire and institutionalize the tools of power needed for a large, diffuse, and potentially long struggle. This is the purpose of military transformation: not simply to contain the enemy–who is, in fact, quite weak, if dispersed–but to close with him, disrupt his plans, preempt his attacks, and destroy him. As Vice President Cheney remarked in the wake of al Qaeda’s suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia last May: “There’s . . . no policy of containment or deterrence that works to deal with this threat. We have to go find the terrorists. . . . The only way to ensure stability . . . is to go eliminate [them] before they can launch any more attacks.” To accomplish this, our military must transform itself not only in a tactical and operational sense, but strategically as well–beginning with the reform of the U.S. global force posture.
‘Everything Is Moving Everywhere’
Today’s U.S. global force posture is an anachronistic, but entrenched, inheritance of the Cold War. More than 80 percent of U.S. soldiers in Europe are stationed in Germany, waiting for a Soviet invasion that will never happen. In the Pacific, over 75 percent of U.S. troops are bottled up in South Korea and Japan. The Bush administration has recognized that the status quo is no longer acceptable; that the preeminent mission of the U.S. military is no longer the containment of the Soviet Union, but the preemption of terrorism. This is the strategic reality that is driving the realignment of the network of American bases and installations overseas. “Everything is moving everywhere,” said Douglas Feith, under secretary of defense for policy. “There is not going to be a place in the world where it’s going to be the same as it used to be. We’re going to rationalize our posture everywhere.”
Just as the Cold War led the United States to build a ring of military bases from Western Europe to Northeast Asia to defend against the Soviet Union, the twenty-first century will require a force posture that is similarly bold and forward-thinking. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy Andy Hoehn, who has been quietly leading the review of U.S. global military posture inside the Pentagon, underscored the scope of the coming changes in a recent interview: “The unprecedented destructive power of terrorists–and the recognition that you will have to deal with them before they deal with you–means that we will have to be out acting in the world in places that are very unfamiliar to us. We will have to make them familiar.”
Already, details of the Pentagon’s plan for the global force posture have crept into view. General James Jones, the former Marine commandant who is now commander of the U.S. European Command (EUCOM) as well as Supreme Allied Commander of NATO Operations, is one of the most prescient and ardent advocates for the realignment of U.S. forces abroad. In his own area of responsibility, General Jones has spoken repeatedly of the need to draw U.S. forces out of their Cold War-era garrisons and redeploy them to new bases in Eastern European countries such as Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Poland. These installations would serve as “forward operating bases,” allowing the Pentagon to project power more quickly and effectively into the geopolitical hotspots of the Middle East and the Caspian region. Although the precise location and disposition of the new bases remains under discussion, the expeditionary nature of these deployments will require that they be more flexible and more mobile than their Cold War antecedents.
In fact, this future vision of a European force posture is already well on its way to reality. In Bulgaria and Romania, U.S. bases were established in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and–after the diplomatic contretemps with Turkey foreclosed the use of other U.S. installations in southeastern Europe–they proved invaluable. Training exercises traditionally held in Germany have shifted to the Czech Republic and Poland, drawn there by the vast tracts of open land, cheap operating costs, and more permissive environmental regulations.
An American military presence would also provide a security guarantee to the new democracies of Eastern Europe, thus consolidating the Pax Americana. In addition, it would provide a huge economic boon to struggling, post-communist economies. For both these reasons, local governments are eager to host U.S. soldiers. “It’s an accidental Marshall Plan,” says General Charles Wald, deputy commander of EUCOM.
Some commentators have suggested that the European realignment is driven not by the imperatives of global strategy but by the Bush administration’s anger with Germany for failing to back the United States in the war against Iraq. This line of argument, however, ignores the fact that the Pentagon has made clear that it intends to keep a great deal of infrastructure in Germany; Ramstein Air Base, for instance, is not going anywhere. More to the point, it also overlooks the force posture review unfolding across the rest of the globe–not just in Europe.
The Middle East
In the Middle East, victory against Saddam Hussein has allowed the Pentagon to begin pulling U.S. forces out of Saudi Arabia, making our access to the region less dependent on the fickle loyalties of the royal family and denying Osama bin Laden one of his main talking points. While 10,000 U.S. military personnel and 200 aircraft were deployed at Prince Sultan Air Base during the height of Operation Iraqi Freedom in March, everything but two small training missions will be gone by the end of this summer. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz has called this withdrawal an “almost unnoticed but huge” benefit of the war: “Just lifting that burden from the Saudis is itself going to open the door” to a more peaceful Middle East.
Even as the United States winds down its presence in Saudi Arabia, it is constructing a new force posture in the region. Although the Bush administration has promised that American troops will remain in Iraq “not a day longer than necessary” to secure a stable and decent government there, the protection of the embryonic Iraqi democracy is a duty that will likely extend for decades, much like our commitment to defend the fragile democracies of Western Europe from the Soviet Union after World War II. The Pentagon has disavowed reports in the New York Times and Jane’s Defence Weekly that it hopes to establish four quasi-permanent airbases in Iraq-at Bashur in the Kurdish north; Tallil in the south; H-1 in the west; and Baghdad International Airport–but the logic of such an arrangement is undeniable. At the same time, the United States will maintain access rights to airstrips and seaports across the Gulf, from Oman to Bahrain, which can be activated and expanded in the event of a regional crisis.
Nor will U.S. forces soon withdraw from Central Asia. At Manas Air Field in Kyrgyzstan, the Pentagon is upgrading its infrastructure from tents to mobile homes. “This place is so deep into Central Asia you’d hate to lose it,” says Colonel James Forrest, deputy commander of the base.  Although established in late 2001 to support operations against the Taliban in Afghanistan, Manas, and Khanabad Air Base in Uzbekistan remain valuable assets given U.S. interests in the region, which range from continued concern about Islamic militants to the massive oil and gas reserves there, not to mention proximity to the People’s Republic of China. At the same time, however, rebasing in Central Asia has required the United States to enter into defense pacts with corrupt, undemocratic regimes-the very kinds of government that are, in part, responsible for the broader problem of global terrorism. As the Pentagon engages in the broader exercise of reassessing its global force posture, its strategic analysis must be careful to balance the tactical advantages of these installations against their potential political costs.
A further realignment is afoot in East Asia. In South Korea, the administration has already announced plans for moving the 2d Infantry Division off the Demilitarized Zone and away from Seoul; most of the discussion has focused on how these changes might shift the correlation of forces on the peninsula, but an equally important concern is whether and how some elements of the Korean garrison could be redeployed elsewhere in times of crisis. With a total force that is perilously small given the increasing demands put on it, locking away a division and more in Korea may prove just as dangerous as any threat of invasion by Pyongyang.
Across the East China Sea lie questions about the disposition of American forces in Japan and in particular of the Marine garrison on Okinawa. There, 20,000 Marines are trapped on a tiny island, and friction with the local population is a recurring problem. Redistributing the Marines throughout the Pacific is both strategically and politically desirable, but is only slightly less controversial than leaving them in Okinawa. The basing of naval and air forces–including the permanent home-porting of an aircraft carrier–on the Japanese main islands remains operationally essential.
Indeed, U.S. force posture in Asia must find a delicate balance between the war on terrorism, concerns about the rising military power of China, and of course, the continuing conundrum of North Korea. In the meantime, the United States is continuing to expand defense and intelligence cooperation with governments in Southeast Asia in an effort to root out island-hopping Islamic fundamentalists. In this context, the rebasing debate may prove to be less about permanently stationing U.S. troops throughout the region and more about joint training exercises with local forces and pre-positioning material near potential trouble spots.
Perhaps the best measure of how radical the transformation of the U.S. military posture abroad might become can be found in recent statements–and facts–about the expanding American military presence in Africa. Although “national security” and “Africa” together in the same sentence has historically been understood to border on oxymoron, the war against terrorism has begun to challenge this unfortunate and dangerous decoupling. Just as Romania and Bulgaria’s proximity to the Middle East has elevated them in Washington’s strategic calculus, Defense Department planners quickly grasped after the September 11 attacks that the Horn of Africa and the Persian Gulf are separated less by geography than by our ignorance of geography. And unlike Eastern Europe, East Africa has long been a stomping ground of al Qaeda.
Perhaps the most visible manifestation of this shift in strategic thinking is the decision last year to establish America’s first long-term military base in sub-Saharan Africa. The base is in Djibouti, a small country on the Horn of Africa at the chokepoint between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden-and a mere thirty miles across the water from the Arabian Peninsula. Although U.S. forces have been there since at least the spring of 2002, their mission–Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA)–was not formalized until December 2002. Under the authority of the U.S. Central Command, CJTF-HOA is responsible for combating terrorism in six East African countries–Somalia, Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Djibouti–plus Yemen. Most of its 1,800 personnel are based at Camp Lemonier, a heavily fortified compound in Djibouti’s capital.
CJTF-HOA and Camp Lemonier offer telling hints as to the kind of “frontier fort” the Pentagon intends to establish astride the arc of instability. Unlike the sprawling “mini-Americas” built at Ramstein and Heidelberg during the Cold War–complete with elementary schools, grocery stores, and suburban-style housing for the spouses and children accompanying our soldiers abroad-no families are to be found at Camp Lemonier. Its purpose is not to deter a geographically delineated adversary like the Soviet Union, but to serve as a launching pad from which the United States can project power into the surrounding region. As a result, CJTF-HOA is a light and flexible expeditionary force-a term that Vice Admiral Arthur Cebrowski, the director of the Pentagon’s Office of Force Transformation, has defined as “carrying your capabilities with you.”
The potential of the task force to carry its capabilities far from Djibouti was in evidence in mid-May 2003, after intelligence indicated that Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, an al Qaeda operative wanted for the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, as well as the November 2002 bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa, was back in Kenya, planning a major attack there. The response of CJTF-HOA was swift: U.S. forces were reported deployed to Kenya’s borders with Sudan and Somalia-two states in the region known to shelter Islamic fundamentalists. Marines, in plainclothes, were seen in Nairobi keeping watch on embassies, foreign residencies-even an outdoor shopping center popular among Westerners. The United States and Britain, concerned that al Qaeda might try to shoot down an airliner with a shoulder-mounted missile, announced that they would aid Kenya’s antiterrorist unit in setting up a round-the-clock watch of flight approach paths to its airports. In the words of one U.S. military source: “Kenya is in a state of complete and utter lockdown.”
Despite this mobility, however, CJTF-HOA deflates the hopes of those who argue, post-Iraq, that the United States should cut its reliance on foreign bases and depend strictly on air and sea-based platforms of power projection. The Africa task force was originally headquartered onboard the U.S.S. Mount Whitney, which has been described as the most sophisticated command, control, communications, and intelligence ship ever commissioned. Nonetheless, the Pentagon recently chose to move the command center ashore and has been exceedingly blunt in expressing its intention to stay there for the foreseeable future. Why?
Because, in a war predicated on gathering intelligence and making friends, there is no substitute for having boots on the ground. Specifically, the mission requires joint training exercises between U.S. forces and local militaries, day-to-day interaction on command and operational levels, and–put simply–a degree of mutual trust. It also requires a sense that the United States has a genuine, long-term commitment to the region–a sense that is not advanced by keeping American forces in quarantine, several miles offshore. It is for this reason that CJTF-HOA is working to set up security cooperation agreements with regional governments, developing an information-sharing network with host nations and coalition partners, carrying out training programs with the Djiboutian, Kenyan, and Ethiopian militaries, and–last but not least–operating out of Camp Lemonier.
And Djibouti is just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. While northeastern Africa is in the U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility, most of the continent falls under the U.S. European Command–taking us back to Brussels and General James Jones. In addition to advocating bases in Eastern Europe, the former Marine commandant is proving equally outspoken about oft-overlooked U.S. security interests in Africa. In April 2003, he remarked in an interview: “In Africa, you certainly have a developing problem in terms of large, ungoverned regions. There is a potential hotbed for terrorism, for massive poverty and all kinds of criminal elements that can find a nest there. . . . I think we are going to have to pay attention to that area.”
And indeed, increasingly, we are. According to a recent story in the Wall Street Journal, defense officials are in the early stages of considering semi-permanent bases in North Africa, where the Pentagon would maintain a small number of troops and then rotate through a larger force. There are also rumors of more austere facilities being sought in Senegal, Ghana, and Mali. The rationale for these deployments is-surprise!-concern about the confluence of radical Islamism and oil wealth in West Africa. General Wald, deputy commander of EUCOM, expressed this line of reasoning in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times: “Eight to fourteen percent of [U.S.] oil comes from Nigeria. . . . All of a sudden the west coast of Africa becomes an area of strategic interest and you start saying to yourself, ‘I’d like to have some forward bases in Africa.’” He added: “The world has changed.”
In sum, the strategic imperative of patrolling the perimeter of the Pax Americana is transforming the U.S. military, and those few other forces capable and willing of standing alongside, into the cavalry of a global, liberal international order. Like the cavalry of the Old West, their job is one part warrior and one part policeman–both of which are entirely within the tradition of the American military.
Even as the military remains ready to wage a full-scale war focused against a specific aggressor nation, the realignment of our network of overseas bases into a system of frontier stockades is necessary to win a long-term struggle against an amorphous enemy across the arc of instability. The forces that have drawn the U.S. military to Djibouti will draw it many other places, as well. Although countless questions about transformation remain unanswered, one lesson is already clear: American power is on the move.
1. Greg Jaffe, “Pentagon Prepares to Scatter Soldiers in Remote Corners,” Wall Street Journal, May 27, 2003, p.1.
2. CNN Transcript, “Vice President Cheney Speaks at Luncheon,” May 13, 2003. Accessed at www.nexis.com on June 12, 2003.
3. Esther Schrader “U.S. to Realign Troops in Asia,” Los Angeles Times, May 29, 2003, p. 1.
4. Jaffe, “Pentagon Prepares,” p. 1.
5. Jeffrey Fleishman, “U.S. Forces in Europe Set Sights East, South,” Los Angeles Times, May 30, 2003, p. 5.
6. Sam Tanenhaus, “Bush’s Brain Trust,” Vanity Fair, July 2003.
7. Jaffe, “Pentagon Prepares,” p. 1.
8. “Cebrowski: Emerging Global Threats Require New Methods of Operation,” Aerospace Daily, May 14, 2003.
9. Emily Wax, “Marines Comb Borders As Worries Rise in Kenya,” Washington Post, May 17, 2003, p. A17.
10. Daniel Rubin, “Military Sees Smaller Bases in Its Future,” Miami Herald, April 5, 2003, p. 21.
11. Greg Jaffe, “In a Massive Shift, U.S. Plans to Reduce Troops in Germany,” Wall Street Journal, June 10, 2003, p. 1.
12. Jeffrey Fleishman, “U.S. Forces in Europe Set Sights East, South,” Los Angeles Times, May 30, 2003, p. 5.
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