For the past six decades the U.S. military has enjoyed
preeminence in the Western Pacific, but there are increasing
questions about whether this advantageous position is
sustainable given a combination of budget cuts, asymmetrical
military threats, and local opposition to bases. The bottom line
is that the United States can and must retain a robust military
presence in the region, taking advantage of new partnerships,
technologies, and operational concepts—while recognizing that
many of the challenges we face are not entirely new. Inertia and
incrementalism will not work, however. The United States will
need to develop a holistic strategy that builds on all the
instruments of national power as we rebalance toward Asia.
U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) faces a fundamental budget
challenge: even with an administration pledge to hold U.S.
capabilities steady in Asia while cutting force structure
elsewhere, $487 billion in planned cuts means hollowing out
other commands’ assets in ways that will ultimately force
cannibalizing of PACOM assets when crises hit the Middle East or
elsewhere. Moreover, upgrading, consolidating, and dispersing
U.S. bases and facilities in the PACOM area of responsibility
will cost money–even if the result is a smaller footprint. Any
serious strategy for sustaining a presence will have to take
this into consideration.
The military challenges to U.S. forward presence are also
growing. China’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities
are increasing the risk to U.S. assets located within the
so-called Second Island Chain (south from Japan through Guam).
The quantity, range, and lethality of Chinese and even North
Korean ballistic missiles have grown several-fold in the past
decade. This threat has prompted some experts to propose pulling
critical U.S. assets out of missile range so there will be a
conventional retaliatory capability in the region. This proposal
is both ahistorical and counterproductive, however.
The United States actually tried such a strategy in the 1930s.
Under “War Plan Orange,” a decrepit Asiatic Squadron left in the
Philippines to deter attack was easily swept aside by the
Imperial Japanese Navy, while the supposedly safe haven of Pearl
Harbor proved far too vulnerable to air attack. Moreover, as the
previous chief of naval operations has stressed, “you cannot
surge trust.” Influence and engagement in the region depends on
Finally, it is worth remembering that the United States faced
equally serious missile threats from the Soviet Union during the
late Cold War. The response was not to scuttle and run, but
instead to double down on air and naval assets and to integrate
defense planning even more closely with Japan in order to
complicate Soviet planning and enhance deterrence. That strategy
worked, and the asymmetrical military challenges to our presence
will require a similarly bold approach today.
The political challenges to U.S. forward presence in the Western
Pacific are almost entirely local, but they matter. The most
acute problem is in Okinawa, Japan, which has been forced by
dint of history to host 80 percent of the U.S. military
facilities in Japan. Efforts by the U.S. and Japanese
governments to reduce that footprint by transferring 8,000
Marines to Guam have been hung up on local environmental permits
needed to consolidate replacement facilities in Okinawa
(specifically an order to close Marine Corps Air Station Futenma).
Meanwhile, escalating costs and questions about the capacity of
Guam to absorb the new forces have further complicated the
budgetary and political environment. Early in 2012, the U.S. and
Japanese governments agreed to reduce the number of Marines
going to Guam to 4,700 and to proceed with the move without
waiting for the new facility to replace Futenma. That created
some sense of forward movement, but it did not solve the basic
problem of where to base Osprey and other aircraft the Marines
need forward deployed. A solution will not come in a bilateral
U.S.- Japan context alone; the Defense Department will have to
find a way forward that involves new thinking about the Marines’
rotational practices in the region as a whole.
Therein lays the opportunity for a fresh look at forward
presence and engagement in the Western Pacific. China’s
aggressive diplomatic and military assertion of its territorial
claims in the East and South China Seas has prompted almost
every neighboring state to seek closer ties to the United States
and a more sustained U.S. military presence. The U.S. response
cannot be uniform and must take into account the unique nature
of our different bilateral relationships in the region, as well
as our partners’ sensitivities vis-à-vis Beijing. However, the
overall trend should be toward more jointness, integration,
collaboration, and presence across the region.
• In Japan, this means development of joint strategies and
coordinated requirements to implement the U.S. concept of Air
Sea Battle and the parallel Japanese concept of a “dynamic defense.”
• With Korea, the key will be implementing Seoul’s defense
reforms and establishing a more balanced set of relations among
all the services (and not just the armies) as wartime
operational command is transferred to Seoul in 2015.
• In Australia, polls show over half the public support hosting
U.S. bases, and agreement has been reached for the regular
deployment of up to 2,500 Marines in the north. Further
opportunities exist in western Australia and at HMAS Stirling,
where U.S. submarine operations were based in World War II.
• In Southeast Asia, the only fixed presence is in Singapore,
where the United States will base littoral combat ships.
Permanent bases, however, do not have to be the only model for
regular presence, and countries like the Philippines are seeking
alternative options to keep U.S. forces engaged in their
Across the region, PACOM and the Defense Department should seek
to reinforce patterns of cooperation in which the United States
helps to provide maritime domain awareness that would enable
navies, coast guards and air forces of all sizes to assist with
search and rescue, antipiracy, and other multilateral
The United States faces a range of budgetary, military, and
political challenges to sustaining a forward presence in the
Western Pacific, but a strategy for our bases and facilities in
the Pacific that is embedded in a larger vision for building
partnership capacity and greater jointness with our allies will
give PACOM and the Defense Department considerably more
flexibility as they proceed. This will require not only a
whole-of-government approach within the administration, but also
with critical committees and members of the Congress who are now
more focused on questions of U.S. base realignment plans in Asia
than they have been for decades.