Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Rebalancing US Forces

Rebalancing U.S. Forces: Basing and Forward Presence in the Asia-Pacific
by Carnes Lord (Editor), Andrew S. Erickson (Editor)Rebalancing US forces

Note: This review is due to be published in the Australian Army Journal. My copy of the book was courtesy of the journal.

There’s an old joke military officials like to tell. Amateurs do strategy, professionals do logistics. For most of us self-proclaimed ‘amateurs’, how the US positions itself in the Asia-Pacific is one of the key strategic questions of our time. As Lord and Erickson’s new book Rebalancing U.S Forces: Basing and Forward Presence in the Asia-Pacific admirably demonstrates, this is also fundamentally a question of logistics.

This is a very timely and important book given the many questions that are being asked of the US role in the Asia-Pacific. Among allies the question focus on how the ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalance’ is being implemented, and how force presence translates into promises of force. For those concerned about US presence, the questions are whether the US is targeting them and whether its intentions are offensive or not. Finally for the US itself, there are questions about the long term capacity of America to afford and sustain an expanded presence in this remote region.

Whatever your viewpoint on these questions, this book is a rich source of details and data to help guide assessment. Foremost the eight case studies demonstrate the substantial presence the US already has in the region. One-fifth of all US forces are in the Asia-Pacific, involving at least 330’000 civilian and military personnel, five aircraft carrier groups, 180 ships, 1’500 aircraft and substantial Marine and Coast Guard capacity. All this aptly demonstrates the wisdom of those who questioned how the US could pivot to a region it had never actually left.

Yet for those who doubt US commitment to the Asia-Pacific, the Obama Administration’s intention to have 60% of the naval fleet in the Asia-Pacific and increased Marine presence in Australia do little to prove the US presence will endure. As several chapters clearly detail, the nature of US presence in these countries is as much about historical legacy as contemporary strategic policy. This is especially true for the base locations. As former US Defence Secretary Rumsfeld has noted of US bases in South Korea ‘our troops were virtually frozen in place from where they were when the Korean War ended in 1953’.

This obvious point should help defray Chinese concerns that the US is attempting to encircle it. As Toshi Yoshihara elegantly demonstrates in the chapter on Japan, Beijing has paid significant attention to the location and presence of US bases. It also seems to have come up with a worst-case ‘solution’ of attacking via ballistic missiles. While Yoshihara identifies a number of questionable assumptions behind this approach, it does encourage serious reading of the final chapter on Sea-Basing as an alternate approach. Yoshihara’s analysis also strengthens the merits of more remote and sustainable bases for the US such as Guam, Australia and Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

Moving out to more remote bases, either outside China’s A2/AD zone or a serious effort at remote offshore balancing as advocated by Barry Posen and others, would require changes to the way the US approaches regional security and its allies. The logistics at the heart of the US presence in the Asia-Pacific, and almost uniformly endorsed by the authors in this book is that distance still matters and the shorter distance from base to crisis point the better. Continuing America’s preferred strategy of quick and decisive force will be much harder to sustain if its fleet has to move to locations five to seven days sailing time away. This is where the nut of strategy meets the screw of logistics. Close in means greater threat but a quicker response, further away is more safety yet less immediate capacity.

Complications also exist in the political circumstances of the bases themselves. While Guam and Diego Garcia are under US control, there are still tensions around US bases in Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and Australia. As all the chapters, but especially Alexander Cooley’s insightful chapter on Central Asia demonstrates, those who host the US are not mere passive recipients. Leaders in host countries argue between themselves and with Washington over locations, they seek political pay offs, and they ‘cheap ride’ in the provision of their own security forces. Some like South Korea have event tried to claim a veto over what the US can and can’t do with American forces based in its territory. Important questions such as the support the US receives from its allies can only be answered with a clear understanding of just how much the US does for its allies today.

Inevitably an edited book like this will have stronger and weaker chapters, and for those reading about their own countries, the bar for authors to say anything new or important will be that much higher. Any Australians who is likely to pick up this book is likely to be aware of most of the details McCaffrie and Rahman outline. The Australia chapter also feels one of the driest, in terms of just listing names and places, as much as the authors try to dress it up.

Still, the most significant step in the US-Australia relationship in the last few years has been a question of basing, and understanding how the Darwin deployment fits into the wider picture of US presence, and the message the US tries to send with its force posture is vital. Too many arguments around the US approach to the Asia-Pacific still treat military force as something that is entirely a question of will or desire. If nothing else, this book demonstrates how short sighted that view is.

As the authors rightly argue ‘it is puzzling that serious students of American national security policy have paid so little attention to the subject of overseas basing over the years’. This is not just a question for those interested in the sharp end of conflict. As the debates over the pivot and the South China Sea have shown, presence matters. Too little presence and your commitment comes into doubt, too much and your intentions can look menacing. All the while trying to manage the tension between the message you send to opponents and allies via your presence, with the inevitable trade-off between security, capacity and speed of response. This book deserves to be on the shelf of all those who want to move beyond amateur games of risk about the Asia-Pacific and contribute to the full scope of professional analysis.

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