Skip to main content
Article

Come Partly Home, America: How to Downsize U.S. Deployments Abroad

Michael E. O’Hanlon

Introduction

During last year’s presidential campaign, then-Texas Governor George W. Bush pilloried the Clinton administration for its supposed mishandling of the nation’s armed forces. Alleging that U.S. troops were no longer ready to respond to major conflicts, in August Bush listed his complaints about the status quo: “Lack of equipment and material. Undermanning of units. Overdeployment. Not enough time for family. Soldiers who are on food stamps, and soldiers who are poorly housed.”

To help solve these problems, Bush proposed slightly higher defense spending. He also argued for cutting back on overseas military deployments—particularly those involved in peacekeeping. As incoming National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told The New York Times in October, “The United States is the only power that can handle a showdown in the [Persian] Gulf, mount the kind of force that is needed to protect Saudi Arabia, and deter a crisis in the Taiwan Strait. And extended peacekeeping detracts from our readiness for these kinds of global missions.” Incoming Secretary of State Colin Powell has also weighed in, stating that “our plan is to undertake a review right after the president is inaugurated and take a look not only at our deployments in Bosnia but in Kosovo and many other places around the world, and make sure those deployments are proper. Our armed forces are stretched rather thin, and there is a limit to how many of these deployments we can sustain.”

Many of the Bush team’s criticisms of Clinton’s military legacy went too far. For example, although overall readiness is indeed down from its early-1990s peak, by most measures—training rates, the condition of equipment, the experience and aptitude of troops—it remains comparable to Reagan-era levels, when there was still a Cold War to fight. Meanwhile, the charge that the Clinton administration wantonly deployed forces around the world for peace operations was also greatly exaggerated. Today, as a decade ago, the vast majority of American military personnel deployed abroad are not participating in peacekeeping operations in the Balkans or anywhere else. Rather, they are protecting the United States’ core interests and allies on long-standing and eminently sensible missions.

Despite the exaggerations, however, the new administration is right to see a problem in today’s military. Although the number of U.S. troops overseas has been cut in half since 1990, most of the reductions have come from bases abroad (notably Germany), where U.S. personnel can enjoy the company of family and many of the comforts of home. By contrast, the number of personnel deployed away from home bases and families has declined little. More than 100,000 U.S. troops remain so deployed—primarily in South Korea, the Persian Gulf region, the waters of the western Pacific, the Balkans, Okinawa, and the Mediterranean. Due to the demands of training and other activities as well as to actual deployment, the typical service member now spends at least 15 to 20 percent of his or her time away from home, and many far exceed that average.

The new Bush administration is also right—in instinct, at least—to think that reducing the American military presence abroad is part of the solution. U.S. strategic interests will not allow the American military to disengage fully from any region where its forces are now deployed, and the rationale for the cuts should derive from political and military good sense rather than a shift in America’s basic role in the world. But changed strategic circumstances, new technology, and creative thinking together make it possible to reduce the number of U.S. troops deployed in many theaters abroad and to improve the quality of military lives in the process. The Bush team should seize the opportunity.

Lessons Learned

The United States has already begun gradually reducing its military commitments in the Balkans. Indeed, the current force of about 12,000 personnel is just half that of 1996, and American personnel now constitute less than 20 percent of the international total in the region. The U.S. Army could certainly benefit from further reductions in its Balkan presence in the years ahead. But any additional cuts need to be made selectively and carefully.

Pulling all U.S. troops out of the region would fly in the face of the lessons learned from the consequences of America’s delayed participation in the two world wars and in the Bosnian war of 1992-95. For nearly three years, the United States stayed out of the U.N.’s ill-fated mission in Bosnia while American allies foundered—and lost dozens of soldiers to snipers, mines, and accidents. That was no way to treat allies or protect U.S. interests.

If the United States wishes to maintain its leadership of the NATO alliance, it must participate in difficult and dangerous European security operations such as the Balkan interventions. In addition, the less U.S. forces help out in the Balkans or any future European hot spot, the less Europeans are likely to participate in missions outside the continent, and the United States would have to keep picking up the slack. Washington should not condone such a division of labor, since most of the world’s most difficult and dangerous future military tasks will probably occur outside of Europe. Encouraging the Europeans to remain militarily insular could also reinforce existing differences in strategic perspectives between the United States and the European Union on matters such as policy toward Iraq and Iran. It is therefore imperative that the United States join its European allies in zones of active or simmering conflict on the continent.

Rather than abdicating, scaling back the U.S. forces in the Balkans is the wisest course—and the bulk of the reductions should come from Bosnia, not from Kosovo. Bosnia, unlike Kosovo, has recaptured a degree of stability. Admittedly, the goals of reintegrating the Muslim-Croat and Serb sectors into a single functioning entity and allowing the displaced to return to their homes may never be achieved. But such potential failures will likely not lead to renewed violence. The reasonably equitable territorial settlement reached at Dayton, Ohio, in 1995 may help convince Bosnian Muslim, Croat, and Serb leaders and armies not to resume warfare. A stabilizing force of foreign troops certainly remains highly desirable, but it no longer needs to include as many Americans.

By contrast, Kosovo remains a disputed territory over which competing claims have never been resolved. Both Serbs and ethnic Albanians consider Kosovo entirely their own. Neither side is prepared to see the other enjoy sovereignty over the region, and no reasonable concept for formal or informal partition now exists. Even without the encouragement of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Miloÿsevic’s inflammatory rhetoric and military aggressiveness, many Serbs remain willing to use violence to reassert control of Kosovo. And on the other side, with the ethnic Albanian population in Kosovo fervently in favor of independence, elements of the former Kosovo Liberation Army might be prepared to fight for it—particularly if left unprotected, and unchecked, by a strong and credible NATO force. U.S. troops remain essential to providing this strength and credibility.

Therefore, cuts in American forces in the Balkans should focus on Bosnia. The Bush administration could pare the current U.S. deployment—5,000 to 6,000 troops—roughly in half during its first term without causing significant harm.

Ending the Occupation Legacy

The United States keeps nearly 20,000 marines on Okinawa. These troops are an important part of the 100,000 U.S. military personnel based or deployed in the western Pacific region. In light of ongoing security concerns in the Taiwan Strait and on the Korean Peninsula, the Clinton administration felt it important to establish a floor below which U.S. military strength in the area would not drop. This goal was accomplished by the Pentagon’s 1995 Nye report—designed to articulate post-Cold War U.S. military strategy for the Asia-Pacific—which found that maintaining 100,000 service members in the region was an important symbol of sustained U.S. commitment. But six years later, that number needs rethinking.

About half of the marines on Okinawa are deployed there for several months. That makes Okinawa by far the largest regular Marine Corps commitment—in fact, forces there at any given time usually exceed all other worldwide Marine Corps deployments combined. Since the preparation and conduct of these missions is at the heart of the corps’ raison d’etre, the marines rarely complain about such deployment. In addition, the marines’ presence on Okinawa saves U.S. taxpayers money, since Japan foots much of the bill for operations and base needs.

But the advantages of the deployment—a diplomatic show of U.S. commitment to the Asia-Pacific, the lack of Marine Corps opposition, and its cost-effectiveness—do not add up to a strategic rationale for keeping the marines there. And the Okinawa mission carries downsides as well that are not commonly recognized.

The marines, with their expeditionary philosophy and capabilities, provide too valuable an asset to squander on a deployment that is not militarily or strategically essential. By default, putting them on Okinawa effectively consumes operational resources that could be used elsewhere: peace operations in the Balkans (to give the Army a break, for example), a humanitarian intervention or peace operation (should another genocide occur in Africa or elsewhere), exercises with foreign militaries, or responses to crises.

In addition, the marines on Okinawa are not so much forward-deployed as they are marooned. Okinawa itself is not at risk, and Japanese forces have the capacity to defend it even if it were. Furthermore, the three amphibious ships based in Japan can transport only the 2,000 marines of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, which patrols the region, to areas of actual threat elsewhere in the Pacific. The other 15,000 marines on Okinawa could not quickly deploy elsewhere with their equipment. In the event of a war, these troops could be flown to Korea without their heavy weaponry to help in noncombatant evacuations or similar missions. But they would have no advantage over infantry soldiers airlifted from the United States or local South Korean infantry troops.

Keeping so many marines on Okinawa also places a major strain on U.S.-Japan relations, as George Washington University Professor Mike Mochizuki has argued and as an increasingly broad swath of the U.S. defense community now recognizes. In terms of acreage, three-quarters of U.S. bases in Japan are on Okinawa, taking up almost 20 percent of the land of an island that is small and, as home to more than a million people, densely populated even by Japanese standards. Changes to the base structure agreed to in the 1990s will reduce the acreage of the U.S. bases on Okinawa by only about a fifth, even if they are carried out in full. (Local resistance to moving the marines’ Futenma air base has stymied efforts to enact much of the plan.) Meanwhile, marine flights continue in and out of Futenma—located right in the middle of Ginowan City—with the associated risks of accidents. Polls in recent years showed that more than 80 percent of all Japanese consider the Okinawa arrangement undesirable and unfair to local citizens. By trying to hold on to all of its bases in Japan, the United States risks causing a backlash and ultimately losing everything, including those facilities with the greatest military benefit for crises in Korea, the Taiwan Strait, or elsewhere—notably, the Kadena Air Force base on Okinawa and U.S. Navy and Air Force facilities on Japan’s main islands.

Washington should therefore scale back the number of marines on Okinawa to about 5,000. The 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit should remain, as should enough forces to maintain storage and staging facilities for use in a crisis. But most other marines should go elsewhere in the region or return home, and most Marine Corps facilities and training ranges should be returned to Japanese use. Compensating steps should be taken, notably increased storage of U.S. military supplies on Okinawa or on ships in Japanese ports to facilitate rapid deployments in the region. Tokyo might well pay for the necessary equipment and many of the redeployment costs. Ideally, Japan would also increase its direct military contributions to the alliance. But major reductions in the marines on Okinawa need not await the normalization of Japanese security policy.

Staying Afloat

The U.S. Navy maintains a nearly continuous aircraft carrier presence in both the western Pacific Ocean and the Persian Gulf. For six to eight months of the year, it also keeps a carrier in the Mediterranean. The Persian Gulf and western Pacific deployments remain strategically important. But the U.S. naval presence in the Mediterranean lost much of its justification with the end of the Cold War.

Having a carrier in the Mediterranean certainly reinforces the U.S. claim to leadership in NATO’s southern command, which lies at the center of a volatile geopolitical zone. This command has handled the various Balkans operations and also borders the unstable Middle East. Furthermore, NATO’s greatest internal dispute (between Greece and Turkey) also falls in the ambit of the southern command.

Yet despite these considerations, maintaining a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean for six or more months a year is excessive. Unlike during the Cold War, Soviet forces no longer directly or indirectly threaten U.S. allies such as Turkey, Greece, and Israel. Ongoing problems with illicit migration from North Africa into Europe may understandably concern many European governments, but maritime immigration control at European borders is hardly a proper focus for the U.S. Navy. Washington is directly concerned with NATO’s internal stability, but the U.S. ability to prop up the cold peace between Greece and Turkey has less to do with American aircraft carriers—which would not be used against an ally, anyway—than with the broader strategic and economic importance of the United States for both countries. Nor does Washington need the navy to back up its ongoing efforts to broker a settlement between Israelis and Palestinians.

In the event of a crisis, it might help to have U.S. naval forces available for a quick action in the Mediterranean. But the proximity of U.S. forces already stationed in much of Europe, along with the potential availability of land bases in half a dozen friendly countries along the Mediterranean rim, means that alternatives to a carrier force can generally be counted on. That is even more the case now that various types of U.S. combat aircraft are stationed at Aviano in Italy and at Incirlik in Turkey.

To be sure, European friends and allies might not always see a crisis where Washington does and therefore might not always be willing to offer their bases for U.S. operations. In 1986, only the United Kingdom permitted American forces to use its bases for air strikes on Libya. During the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the United States could supply Israel only from facilities in Portugal. But for situations in which American lives are at direct risk, or where general Western security is threatened, base access can generally be presumed. For missions like the strike on Libya, moreover, carriers could always be rapidly sent from the United States to the Mediterranean. In fact, the policy of maintaining a presence in the Mediterranean was counterproductive in 1999, when the Navy felt unable to sustain a carrier on station in the Adriatic at the very moment when NATO initiated combat operations against Serbia. In the future, both deterrence and war-fighting purposes would be better served by a more flexible naval presence that would allow for carriers to be sped to the Mediterranean when necessary.

Gulf Air

Since shortly after the 1991 Persian Gulf War against Iraq, the United States and the United Kingdom have maintained no-fly zones in Iraqi airspace, which deny Baghdad the use of military aircraft over large parts of Iraqi territory. These zones were not specifically authorized by the U.N. Security Council resolutions that ended Operation Desert Storm but were initiated in response to Iraq’s unwillingness to comply with the U.N. weapons inspection program, its oppression of internal foes, and its belligerent troop movements. Washington and London hoped that aerial restrictions would limit Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s ability to threaten his own population and his neighbors, make him pay a price—at least in prestige—for impeding the work of weapons inspectors, and possibly embolden internal Iraqi resistance forces.

Carrying out these missions has been demanding, particularly for the U.S. Air Force. In the fall of 2000, the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf region totaled some 25,000 troops, largely devoted to no-fly-zone operations. It featured about 60 aircraft in Turkey, about 130 aircraft on the Arabian peninsula, and about 70 Navy aircraft on a carrier in the Persian Gulf.

The costs of conducting the current no-fly-zone operations, especially in terms of strains and stresses on the U.S. and U.K. militaries, now appear to be outweighing their benefits. It is therefore worth contemplating a fundamental change in how the operation is carried out, particularly in southern Iraq, where most U.S. assets are deployed. In that way, a substantial reduction in the current U.S. Persian Gulf military presence is possible.

The United States should still keep fighter aircraft in the region to deter Saddam’s moves against his neighbors and his own minority groups. But the numbers of aircraft can be reduced and less emphasis placed on maintaining constant airborne patrols over Iraq. Instead, the United States should use robust air-to-ground attacks to punish large-scale Iraqi aggression or evidence of renewed Iraqi pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. Strikes against airfields could occur if Iraq violated the no-fly zone, as Air Force Brigadier General David Deptula has suggested. Bombers operating out of Europe or Diego Garcia (a British-American naval support base in the Indian Ocean) could participate in such attacks as well, especially if larger stocks of precision munitions were allocated to those locations. In a crisis, the Air Force’s new Air Expeditionary Forces could also provide rapid reinforcement.

This proposal would cut the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf region from 25,000 to less than 20,000 service personnel. The relief would be greatest for the Air Force, the service that has suffered the most from deployments to the Persian Gulf: its aircraft now maintaining the southern no-fly zone might be reduced by roughly 50 percent. That single step would essentially solve the service’s ongoing equipment and personnel problems, caused by the demands of a high operational tempo.

Although this change in policy might appear as a tactical retreat from the U.S. strategy of containing Iraq, it would not sacrifice that policy’s main goals. Sanctions would not be affected. And U.S. forces in the region would still be sufficiently robust to deter the most strategically significant acts of Iraqi aggression—attacks against Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, or large-scale internal repression of Kurds or Shi’ites.

Seize the Day

Together, these proposed cuts in overseas U.S. military forces would allow the United States to bring home 25,000 of its 250,000 troops now based or deployed abroad. Most would be taken not from the Balkans but from Okinawa and the Persian Gulf, where U.S. interests are less humanitarian than strategic. Making all these reductions at once could raise eyebrows around the world and require special efforts to reassure friends and foes alike that the United States was not disengaging overseas. But the 25,000 troops in question amount to just ten percent of the existing overseas force posture in its entirety—hardly an overbearing fraction. They would account for about a quarter of all U.S. military personnel routinely deployed away from home bases and families, however, and so the impact on troop morale, and military readiness, would be significant.

More

Get daily updates from Brookings