Academic journal article Military Review

The Role of Forward Presence in U.S. Military Strategy

Academic journal article Military Review

The Role of Forward Presence in U.S. Military Strategy

Article excerpt

Today's Army maintains significant forces stationed and rotating overseas that provide a visible and credible deterrent. However, should war occur, we must terminate the conflict on terms favorable to the United States. ... In the end, the deployment of the American Army is the ultimate display of American resolve to assure allies and deter enemies.

--2016 Army Posture Statement


As the United States considers changes to its military forces and global force posture, decision makers should fully appreciate the historic role and continued relevance of the joint forces' forward presence. Since the end of World War II, the United States has maintained a global forward presence, particularly in East Asia, in the Middle East, and in Europe with our NATO allies. However, some in the United States are now questioning the strategic value of a globally engaged military, wondering if the Nation would be better off with fewer global commitments.

As discussions over our strategic posture unfold, decision makers need to keep in mind the origins of the current world order and what is required to preserve it. Overlooking or underappreciating the positive influence of forward-positioned forces, both stationed and rotational, may lead to decisions that will undermine future U.S. efforts to prevent war and ensure the stability of the international system. U.S. retrenchment risks destabilizing regional security architectures that have taken decades to build and are essential to secure U.S. national interests. A present joint force deters wars, assures allies, favorably shapes the security environment, and enables contextual and cultural understanding. Moreover, the U.S. Army component of the joint force forward presence has been, and should remain, a prominent element of U.S. national security strategy since, as will be discussed, the Army is central to each of these critical missions.

Deterring War

Preventing war and the human suffering it entails has long been a core element of U.S. national security strategy and military strategy. Although diplomacy and economic power have significant roles in forestalling conflict, our military is the ultimate means of deterring aggression.

To deter enemies means to prevent them from taking hostile action by persuading them that the cost of the action will outweigh the benefits. This can be accomplished through two principal approaches: deterrence by threat of punishment or deterrence by denial. Deterrence by punishment is threatening to inflict pain against aggressors if they take an action that threatens U.S. national interests. Deterrence by denial is accomplished by dissuading potential adversaries from taking actions contrary to U.S. interests by making it clear that these actions cannot succeed. (1) Specifically, the adversary calculates that the likelihood of success is so low the probable gain is not worth the effort. (2) This type of deterrence is preferable under a range of circumstances, especially when deterrence by threat of punishment could be undermined by carefully limited enemy action, designed to stay below the U.S. threshold for response. An example is Russia's operations in the Ukraine, which stayed below the U.S. threshold for response. Additionally, the threat of punishment has its risks, as it might result in the expansion or escalation of conflict.

Deterrence requires capacity, communication, capability, and will. (3) Indeed, the adversary's perception that you will use military force is central to deterrence. While we can never know exactly what conveys evidence of will, deterrence resides in the mind of the adversary. We do know that physical presence conveys both commitment and intentionality. U.S. security strategies since World War II also provide lessons of practice that buttress deterrence theory. We know from broad experience what does and does not work, and this knowledge can inform us how to position our forces for the deterrent outcomes we seek. …

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