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The Rationale for a Robust U.S. Army Presence in the Pacific Basin

March 14, 2012

The contest of wills between the United States and the Soviet bloc that defined international relations for much of the previous century has given way to a far less rigid strategic competition among many more actors. American armed forces have been continuously engaged in active combat operations in the Middle East for more than a decade and are likely to remain so for several more years. However, the Middle East is not the only place where bold actors challenge American interests, nor is it likely that the armed services will confront only one type of conflict in the near future. Indeed, every global trend—including such diverse dynamics as America’s uneasy withdrawal from Iraq and uneasy persistence in Afghanistan, rapid weapons proliferation, international economic challenges, widespread internal political upheaval, demographic shift, natural disaster and numerous others— indicates increasing complexity, uncertainty and unpredictability.

Precisely because of this complexity and the diversity of American interests, the United States is heavily invested strategically in numerous geographic regions and is fully committed to international security partnerships around the world. However, new guidance for the Department of Defense (DoD) in Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense (January 2012) recognizes that the United States “will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia–Pacific region.”1 In particular, primary missions of U.S. armed forces include the deterrence of aggressive states; the projection of American power in the face of anti-access/area denial efforts by competitors; the provision of a sustained stabilizing presence via the strengthening of partner capacity and alliances; and ongoing stability, counterinsurgency and humanitarian and disaster relief operations. It is therefore useful to evaluate the security tools that can be employed in pursuit of American goals there. The real significance of the Pacific theater is not the territory itself but its people, its impact on the global economy and the potential for competition over the power to control people and resources.

American ground forces offer flexible and often unique capabilities to prevent conflict via their ready posture, shape the international environment through strong relationships with partners and win decisively if necessary in the Pacific theater. Specifically, certain characteristics of American ground forces prove to be well-matched to the security issues caused by the trends of complexity, uncertainty and rapid change—issues confronted by the primary missions identified in the January 2012 defense guidance. Capable ground forces are therefore ideal for development as a strategic hedge against whatever unforeseeable issues may arise. In particular, investment in adaptable ground forces is an efficient means of preserving options for American responses to foreseeable but undefined emergencies. American ground forces also continue to be invaluable components of existing plans to overcome particular, known security challenges. Essentially, this moment of transition demands an American strategy of continued engagement with emphasis on building allied partner capacity to reinforce deterrence and NSW 12-2 8 March 2012 2 increase U.S. influence—a task well-suited to the capability set of the American Soldier—and will test the United States’ excellence at conducting truly joint military operations.

Following are four observations about America’s strategic interests in the Asia–Pacific region, beginning with more general observations and narrowing to the more specific. Each implies that ready U.S. landpower continues to be a cornerstone underlying the pursuit of a broad range of American interests as well as wider interests shared by many allies and partners.