U.S. Military Permanent Basing Overseas Needs Reconsideration

The military’s top officer, and the president’s senior military adviser, is joining a growing chorus of senior defense officials who have questioned the need for basing overseas.

Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, shared concerns on Thursday that the post-World War II/Cold War-era model of sending troops and their families overseas for years-long tours is no longer the best idea.

“I think it’s time we take a hard look at that,” Milley said during remarks at the virtual Washington Defense Forum. “I think we have too much infrastructure overseas, and too much permanent infrastructure.”

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That large and obvious presence is an insurance policy for some allies, he said, as it makes them feel safe from adversaries like Russia, China, and North Korea. “But I think from a strategic standpoint and an operational standpoint, I’m not so sure that is a strong move,” he added,

That presence puts a target on American troops, and more importantly, the families they bring with them to duty stations in Japan, Korea, Germany, and more. “I have a problem with that,” he said. “I don’t have a problem with us, those of us in uniform, being in harm’s way ― this is what we get paid for. This is what our job is, right?” The answer is probably more rotational deployments, he added, like those that already happen in Korea, Germany, and Guam, where U.S.-based units forward deploy for nine months, or so, without making a full permanent-change-of-station move.

The Defense Department has been making baby steps in that direction for several years, with the Army’s brigade rotations to Korea and Germany, and, more recently, the Air Force’s bomber task force to Guam, among others.

Former Defense Secretary, Mark Esper, in July announced another push in that direction, calling for the drawdown of the Germany-based 2nd Cav Regiment back to the U.S., to be replaced by another heel-to-toe rotation that would forward deploy to Eastern Europe.

That model has also been on the table for the Indo-Pacific, where most U.S. troops are stationed on full-service bases with their families, in northeast Asia. But DoD is looking to spread that out as it continues to manage China’s growing influence in that massive swath of the world, taking a look at rotational deployments to train with smaller countries like Palau, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Papua New Guinea, and others.

“I don’t think we’re looking to have fixed bases in fixed places, right?” an INDOPACOM official told reporters in Hawaii in early September. If there are, Milley said Thursday, they should have an express strategic purpose, rather than out of tradition. “That will be a major muscle movement for the Department of Defense,” he said. “And, frankly, there’s not a lot of enthusiasm to do what I just said, but I do think that’s necessary.”

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