Rebalancing U.S. Forces: Basing and Forward Presence in the Asia-Pacific

  • Published
Rebalancing U.S. Forces: Basing and Forward Presence in the Asia-Pacific edited by Carnes Lord and Andrew Erickson. Naval Institute Press, 2014, 240 pp.

If you picked up Rebalancing U.S. Forces expecting a discussion of where the United States might bed down its forces in the coming years—Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines—or how the nation might further reposition its fleet and bases as it pivots to the Pacific, you will be disappointed. The editors chose only locations where US forces are hosted presently. There is no grand scheme or forecasting of future basing structure in this volume. What you will find, however, is an excellent and timely discussion of the countries and locations presently hosting US bases in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.

In this anthology, Lord and Erickson, both professors at the Naval War College, have assembled a team of eight authors from the United States, England, and Australia who are familiar with the politics, history, and problems of basing US forces not just in the Asia-Pacific region, but also the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. Their goal is not to provide an extensive basing strategy but to have the reader “rethink fundamentally the American forward presence in Asia in light of the rapid growth in recent years in the ‘anti-access/area denial’ (A2/AD) capabilities of the armed forces of the People’s Republic of China.” Examining six locations—Guam, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Singapore, and Diego Garcia—on the periphery of perceived adversaries China and North Korea, the authors address some of the pertinent issues and advantages relative to each hosting location. Two additional chapters take a slightly different twist. In chapter seven, Alexander Cooley, author of several works on basing, addresses some general overseas basing lessons learned from the US experience in Central Asia that should be considered as the nation rebalances. In the final chapter, Sam Tangredi discusses sea basing in brief and reflects on its viability for the future.

Rebalancing U.S. Forces is informative on current US presence in the region, although adjustments to the introductory chapter would be helpful. The maps at the beginning of the chapters provide an overview of that chapter’s particular location, giving the reader some reference point. However, a larger regional map or two with annotated distances or transport times to potential foes or other bases might have put things in better perspective and added more depth to one of the major issues in the Indo-Asia-Pacific. The vastness of the area from Alaska to the Gulf of Aden merits more discussion as the United States addresses rebalancing. Secondly, in light of flat budgets, some additional discussion on US and host-nation costs at the various locations would have provided more context involving rebalancing tradeoffs and added to the understanding of how much these nations are contributing toward regional protection.

The strength of Rebalancing U.S. Forces lies in the well-written discussion of current US overseas basing, the tradeoffs to be contemplated, and the wealth of footnotes supporting the research. Amid the flat-to-declining budgets for the United States and the rising security challenges posed by China, North Korea, and Russia, the authors address concerns of our host nations—the internal politics and external politics of basing, some of the economic drivers in the host country, national sovereignty issues, and the potential for engagement as a supporter of the United States. Those host-nation concerns are complemented by tradeoffs the United States must consider.

While the authors accomplished their goal to have the reader take a fresh look at US forward presence in this vast region, they push the reader toward several questions. Certainly, one must think through the time and distance concerns and, with those, accessibility relative to proximity issues to potential conflict areas. Should the United States focus on unhindered access at greater distances or potentially hindered access well within range of the threat? Guam, Australia, and Diego Garcia provide favorable access, but only Guam is a US territory with no permissions required; furthermore, all three are great distances from potential flash points. The proximity to China of South Korea, Japan, and Singapore, while decreasing response time, also poses concerns about miscalculations, alliances, and overreactions. Freedom of operation and use from those vital but vulnerable locations is not guaranteed, as the Chinese may employ coercive diplomacy or other measures to deny use.

The authors also challenge the reader to think through a flexible, light footprint base relative to permanent bases. If locations like Singapore, where the United States has a relatively light but constant forward presence, are the model for US flexible force posturing, how do we balance that against the South Korean example of permanent basing for displaying our defense commitment? Finally, with increased anti-access and area denial capabilities employed by China, how does the United States protect its logistics bases and prepositioned ships from attack given that adversary’s increased weapons ranges and improved accuracy? How does the United States continue to reassure its friends and allies in the region as it changes relationships with South Korea and Japan or pulls its forces further from the conflict zone? What are the other options?

Rebalancing U.S. Forces is a very informative anthology providing context of where the United States bases forces currently. The authors make a good case for continued and expanded basing in the region to support our friends, partners, and allies. They leave the reader to ponder tradeoffs that make this region logistically difficult. This is a book for planners, analysts, and State Department or congressional staffers concerned with the region. They should spend time reading Rebalancing U.S. Forces prior to making decisions about our future in the region.

Col Steve Hagel, USAF, Retired

Defense Analyst, Air Force Research Institute

Maxwell AFB, Alabama

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."