We Should Permanently Post More U.S. Troops Abroad

As the United States attempts to assure allies and deter adversaries on the Korean Peninsula and in Europe, it’s clear the U.S. Army’s force posture is out of balance today, with insufficient units and soldiers stationed overseas.

Since the end of the Cold War – during which hundreds of thousands of soldiers were stationed overseas – the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of a U.S.-stationed Army.

This has forced the Pentagon to rely on rotational deployments lasting 9 months each for continuous – or what’s often referred to as “heel-to-toe” – presence for the purpose of achieving deterrence and assurance effectively and at reasonable, sustainable cost.

More specifically, the Department of Defense is spending more than was originally anticipated to maintain rotational heel-to-toe presence in Europe and South Korea.

In fact, rotational heel-to-toe presence is more expensive than forward stationing in terms of current operating costs – that is, excluding infrastructure investments.  

In terms of diplomatic factors, forward stationing is preferred by American allies overseas over rotational deployments. Allies perceive forward-stationed U.S. forces as a sign of a stronger, more enduring American commitment, and of course they appreciate the positive local economic impact of military personnel and their families.

At the same time, there is strong anecdotal evidence indicating both families and troops are dissatisfied with increasing reliance on lengthy, routine rotational deployments.

They feel as if they’re being asked to take on many of the same hardships as for a wartime rotation, but without the benefits – like combat pay or tax-free income – of a deployment to Afghanistan or some other combat zone.

More worrisomely, this strong anecdotal evidence is reinforced by lower reenlistment rates for some units that have completed rotational deployments to Korea or Europe.

In terms of which type of presence results in better combat effectiveness, it’s certainly true that rotationally deployed units arrive in Europe or South Korea at a higher level of readiness, and they’re able to maintain that readiness throughout their 9 to 10-month deployment thanks to a very high level of activity.

GettyImages-829703004 U.S. soldiers participate in a change-of-command ceremony at the Yonsan U.S. army base on August 11, 2017 in Seoul, South Korea. Chung Sung-Jun/Getty

However, that advantage is balanced out by two factors.

First, forward-stationed units are manned at high rates – typically 95 percent – than most rotationally deployed units. And second, forward-stationed units typically are more knowledgeable of foreign culture, allied military units, regional geography, local political leaders.

The Department of Defense has begun to recognize it needs to restore balance to the Army’s overseas force posture and has earmarked additional force structure for forward stationing in Europe.

However, there’s more to be done. First, to minimize the negative morale associated with lengthy heel-to-toe rotational deployments, the Defense Department should end such rotations and instead conduct shorter-term, periodic but regular rotations to South Korea and Europe.

Second, to minimize recurring fiscal costs, the United States should forward station in Europe and South Korea heavy and/or equipment-intensive units such as armored units and combat aviation, instead of rotationally deploying them.

Third, to maximize the interoperability advantages that come with forward stationing, the United States should forward station those units that require the greatest depth of knowledge of local rules, regulations, customs, terrain, airspace, and/or counterpart units and officials, such as division and corps headquarters units as well as logistical enabling units.  

Fourth, in the case of Europe, U.S. forces should be forward stationed in Poland – in whole or in part, through split-basing. This would provide greater assurance to Eastern Europe and more effectively deter aggression than rotational forces.  

Fifth, when periodic, shorter-term rotational deployments are necessary in Europe or South Korea, the Defense Department should rely on infantry brigades or other lighter maneuver units.

Finally, DoD should try to increase forward stationing through growth in total military end strength rather than through relocating a unit that is already stationed in the United States.

In any case, the Defense Department should strive for a strong interagency consensus on the importance of increased forward presence, and to continually inform Congress of the benefits in terms of morale and family readiness, fiscal cost, diplomacy, and interoperability.

Regardless of the specific overseas force posture adopted by the United States or the particular blend of rotationally deployed forces and forward-stationed forces ultimately arrayed in Europe and South Korea, the Army and DoD must engage in a careful study of the alternatives. 

Analysis must precede conclusions, not the other way around. Recent history has shown that to do otherwise, for example, in order to achieve short-term objectives or fulfill myopic political imperatives, can waste taxpayer money and strategically disadvantage the United States.

John R. Deni is Research Professor of National Security Studies and Gen. Douglas MacArthur Chair of Research at the Strategic Studies Institute.