Center for Arms Control

Security Spending

An Overdue Military Redeployment

This article, written for by Christopher Hellman, first appeared in the “Garden City Telegram” On August 25, 2004.

The Bush Administration recently announced plans to bring home roughly 70,000 U.S. troops currently based overseas. This proposal has met considerable resistance from critics who worry that it signifies America’s withdrawal from the world and who question the expected savings to the U.S. taxpayer. Yet the plan will help the United States develop what it has needed since the end of the Cold War — a military that is smaller, lighter, and more mobile; one better prepared to face the true threats to our national security.

In fact, any savings will be modest and won’t appear immediately due to the lengthy realignment process, and the upfront costs of bringing home thousands of people and tons of material and upgrading the bases that will receive them. But saving money is not the main reason to undertake such a fundamental change in U.S. security policy. We must shift from our current policy emphasizing a small number of huge overseas deployments to one that increases our access around the globe.

Some critics make it sound like we are abandoning our traditional allies, yet this is far from true. The 70,000 troops being withdrawn from Europe and Asia represent only one third of total U.S. forces stationed in those areas. Despite the drawdown, thousands of U.S. troops will remain in Germany, South Korea and Japan, and throughout these regions.

Further, the huge forces in these three countries are exceptions to the evolving U.S. basing strategy, not the rule. The roughly 40,000 troops in South Korea, 40,000 in Japan, and 75,000 in Germany represent two-thirds of all U.S. forces permanently based overseas, not including those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of the over 130 countries where the United States has forces, nearly eighty percent have fewer than 100 U.S. troops stationed there.

Nor does reducing our presence mean we are weakening our commitment. In South Korea, for instance, the U.S. force has always been insufficient to play a decisive role in case of a North Korean attack, but serves as a “tripwire,” relying on additional troops being sent to the region to turn the tide of battle. This function could easily be fulfilled by a smaller force. Meanwhile in other regions of the world the United States is able to demonstrate its commitment simply through such activities as joint training exercises, temporary deployments, and prepositioning equipment.

Clearly, given the current situation on the Korean peninsula, it would be preferable to make any withdrawal of U.S. forces contingent on improvements in North-South relations or some concession by North Korea on nuclear weapons, but this specific situation is not enough to justify scrapping the entire rebasing effort. Moreover, actual implementation of the withdrawal could still be linked to a compromise with the North.

In addition to improving our security strategy, the proposal could address several problems created by keeping large numbers of troops overseas. First, taking so much of the military “out of circulation” places a greater burden on other units. Second, troops based overseas become targets, as were the Marines in Lebanon and U.S. forces stationed at the Kobhar Towers in Saudi Arabia. Third, having large numbers of troops overseas often has an unfavorable impact on host communities; the Marines deployed in Okinawa being just one example.

If there is a downside to the Pentagon’s proposal, it is it’s likely impact on the Defense Department’s plan to conduct a new round of military base closures in 2005. There is already discussion in communities across the country about delaying or shutting down the process entirely in light of the Pentagon’s decision, or at least trying to get some of the returning forces stationed at their local bases in the hope that facilities receiving new units will be less likely to close. This will put considerable new pressure on members of Congress to “go to bat” for bases in their districts, and will further undermine the already shaky support on Capitol Hill for this critical cost-saving process.

The United States needs to adopt a policy of “global reach” rather than “global presence.” When called upon to do so, the U.S. military should be able to “reach out and touch someone” anywhere our vital national interests are at stake. Only this kind of flexibility will allow us to successfully meet future challenges to our security.

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