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Shifts in Deployment Must Be Made Gently

Fifteen years ago, the Berlin Wall had not yet fallen. Today, America’s military is actively involved in training, as allies, forces in Georgia and several other former Soviet republics.

Fifteen years ago, Saudi Arabia and Germany were on the forward edge of American geopolitical interests, and actively sought increased American military presence. Today, our presence in Germany is but a

fraction of the 1988 level, and we are in the process of pulling out of Saudi Arabia altogether.

These are portents of a much bigger shift in which American power will be deployed around the world. Ten years from now, I expect we will see far fewer American troops on the territory of traditional allies.

There are some good reasons behind that shift, but some concerns as well. Cost, strategic location, and the safety of American forces and their dependents may argue for relocation, and technology makes many new options possible. Politics, though, demands that we make the changes gently.

In a time of unsettled international relations, it is rewarding to see a number of countries actively seeking American military presence.

It may seem odd to traditionalists to think of American military bases in Poland, Hungary or former Soviet republics. But those and other nations may offer more strategically relevant basing locations, and — at least initially — a lower cost to the American taxpayer. [IMGCAP(1)]

I should qualify that by saying lower financial cost. It worries me to think of the cost in political ties incurred by withdrawing from the European nations with whom we have made common cause for so long.

To be sure, it is a happy fact that American tanks are no longer needed to protect Western Europe from a massive attack. Some may argue that loyalty to existing allies may be outweighed by the benefits of engagement with new ones, particularly if that relationship yields an American presence close to potential adversaries. But as we move to work with new friends, I hope we will recognize that saying farewell does not mean we are saying goodbye to our long-standing friends. To completely abandon all of our current bases, along with the security relationships that helped us build a freer, more democratic world order, would be shortsighted.

Where will we go instead? Sometimes, to nowhere. We saw in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and earlier in Kosovo and Afghanistan, America’s ability to create infrastructure essentially on demand. The most significant example of that is the massive air base in Qatar, created in months from bare desert, that was so central to the liberation of Iraq. In other cases, American forces may land on a lilypad. That’s what Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman Gen. Peter Pace calls bases with infrastructure in place but almost no manning, to be activated when needed.

The current national security strategy advocates taking on threats as far from the United States as possible. That would seem to argue for more overseas basing, rather than less. But technology and innovation have combined to mean that we may see more U.S. forces in the United States. The past few major wars have shown that American power can be projected from bases here at home to any point on the globe. The exploits of bomber crews on multiday missions are exemplary, but the Navy’s carrier battle groups and forthcoming conventionally armed SSGN submarine also prove the value of sovereign platforms dispatched from bases in the United States.

The value of domestic basing is, in part, why the Navy proposes to create more, smaller naval groups; they will take less time to move from pierside to deployment, and thus cut down on the time between the order to go and arriving, fully capable, on the scene. That is also why the Army is on course to become lighter and more deployable. A world of smaller, more frequent conflicts and more diverse threats means that a stateside base is no less likely to be close to the action than one elsewhere on the globe, and America’s domestic transportation infrastructure means that the right force can arrive where it is needed sooner than if it was coming from a geographically closer location with lesser infrastructure. And the monetary costs of providing for our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and their dependents are certainly smaller here.

I hope, though, that other countries looking at these changes do not take them as either an abandonment or a rebuke. The world is no smaller. America’s commitments have not shrunk, nor have we shrunk from meeting them. But in a world of broader threat, and so many demands on the defense dollar, it seems to me important that we take advantage of today’s technologies to meet threats in a sensible way. In some cases, that will mean moving away from friends, but I hope it will not mean walking away from their friendship.

Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) is ranking member on the Armed Services Committee.

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