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Stop the Cycle
End Rotational Deployments and Expand Forward Basing
I like to workout. It’s good for my body, my mental health, and my self-esteem. I like some forms of cardio, and I like lifting heavy, but I don’t like too much of either. I believe in balance in all things, and in order to achieve that balance, I have to prioritize certain workouts over others, not to regulate my caloric intake. If I tried to go all out and train for a marathon and the thousand pound club over the same time period, while taking in far fewer calories than I need, my body would break before I got to my race day. By creating new rotational deployments and thereby maintaining a high op tempo as money, personnel, and supply chains decline, we are ruining our body and inviting disaster. We are betting that deterrence will succeed so we never have to actually fight with our exhausted force.
Peacetime rotations are shell games, hiding what’s inside by moving forces in and out of theater. It’s MILDEC except the only people we’re fooling are ourselves. Our recruiting numbers are way down, our purse strings are getting shorter, but the missions are growing more numerous as we compete with our enemies around the world. This is not to say those missions aren’t worthwhile, in fact I’ve supported and recommended several of them in previous articles, but we’re going about it in the wrong way. Treating presence and deterrence missions like the worst habits of the Global War on Terror (9 month rotations, ride it out, hand off the problems to the next guy) is the wrong way to go about global competition. We’re feeding out strategy with fast food and candy rather than the health foods we need to train: stability, permanent forward presence, and capacity to surge forces when necessary. So how do we do that? How do we make the joint force healthy while meeting mission? By shedding our bad habits and returning to what we did in the last cold war: hosting a large, permanent forward presence on Allied territory that can handle surge capacity when peace turns to war. We still have this in some countries like Germany, Korea, and Japan, and we should expand our presence and capacity to meet our competitive needs without burning out the force. Let’s talk about it.
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Note: For the sake of simplicity and smooth writing, I’m using soldiers as a catch-all because that’s what I’m most familiar with and that’s who is most impacted by these rotations. However, many of these same constraints and costs apply to the Air Force as well. The Navy also has its own service specific constraints which I talk about a bit near the end.
First, let’s discuss exactly why rotational deployments are so harmful to the force. Allow me to briefly explain the rotational training cycle for those unfamiliar. Training up for a rotation takes up a lot of resources. Not only are soldiers and commanders moving in and out of units every 18-36 months, a train up for a deployment can last about 6-12 months starting with individual and small unit skills and tasks and culminating usually in a CTC rotation (intense training centers where your brigade gets certified for deployment). If there’s a gap between your CTC rotation and your deployment, you’re probably losing half of your soldiers to PCS (they leave for another unit on a new contract) season so your unit is certified but that doesn’t mean your soldiers are! Due to resource constraints, you’re probably getting some additional training in between that monthlong CTC rotation and your deployment. Your unit will deploy forward in phases over a few weeks, switching out with whatever unit is already there, and learning your roles and responsibilities from them. Once everyone is on ground, your train-up begins anew as you work on the whatever mission/project your unit is assigned for the rotation. Usually you’re training for whatever you’ll be doing if a war breaks out, but sometimes it’s not that specific. Depending on where you are, you can expect that halfway to two-thirds of the way through your nine-months (sometimes much sooner), your unit will have another culminating exercise where it certifies on the mission you deployed to support!
By the time that’s done, it’s probably almost time to start planning for redeployment back home and the next unit will start reaching out to learn the job you just trained for. Once you get home, your unit loses priority and everyone leaves to go somewhere else. All in all, this is a 2-3 year cycle that essentially results in the buildup and sudden expulsion of institutional knowledge for any given mission. It meets the requirements from DC, that someone be somewhere in case something happens. It checks a box, but it doesn’t actually make the forward unit or the joint force writ large, more prepared for war. There’s no incentive for a professional to retain all of that knowledge beyond general operations and tactics because the next job they have probably won’t require them to know any of it. An effective forward presence and war-ready force requires subject matter experts (SMEs) for the region and conditions that they’re expected to operate in. You need teams, squads, platoons, companies, and battalions whose culture embodies the mission. By farming out missions to rotational forces, we expend a whole lot of resources and time without actually growing capabilities and readiness with any sort of long-term ROI. And the fact is that the DoD knows this because we still have permanent basing with permanent party! We just cut it due to the 1) false premise that it’s cheaper and 2) the GWOT institutionalized the rotational force as the default because that’s how we ran that war and it turned out great. Here’s some math: for every unit deployed, you’ve got one unit training up and another recovering. That means you need three units for every mission you assign in order to meet demand when you rely on rotations.
All in all, you get a unit that is maybe full manned and mission ready a few months out of every cycle, and it costs you so much more. Not only do we expend great resources on the rotational cycle, we burn out our people. The war is over, and yet the force is working harder than ever. That’s not a good thing, it is simply unsustainable. Soldiers may not get killed on a peacetime rotation, but you may still lose them because their families are tired of the tempo during peacetime. And then they go home and tell their friends and family not to join up because they were separated from their loved ones for what seemed like no good reason. We’re already in a manning shortfall, no need to make it worse when we have options.
Moreover, by constantly changing our units, you’re disrupting our ability to build lasting partnerships at the personal level between us and our allies. Yes, people will still come and go, but being on station for 2-3 years can mean a much deeper allied relationship than 8-9 months. You probably made a few friends your first semester of college, but how did those friendships grow and change over four years? Alliances aren’t built on speed dating principles!
A Better Option
Now, let’s talk about how forward presence makes life and readiness, better. As I said earlier, we already have a lot of permanent party personnel stationed forward in places like Germany, Korea, and Japan. In fact, we’re working on expanding that presence in Eastern Europe and the South Pacific. So how is that helpful? Well first, it helps a lot with logistics. We need people on ground ready to help troops and supplies flow through a region toward the sound of battle before the war starts, the more people forward, the fewer we have to force through our logistics bottle neck stateside to get to the front. But even more important than that, building permanent basing with permanent personnel provides us the opportunity to build out surge capacity.
I’ve talked about surge capacity in the past in the context of a Taiwan fight, but I’ll break it down again here. Surge capacity is not only how many additional troops you can get into theater for a war, but how fast you can get them there. Like any supply chain, bottlenecks are everywhere, and the further from the front the greater the bottle neck, the more resource intensive it is to remediate. For example, if I have 20,000 troops in Kentucky that I need to get to the Philippines, that’s a lot of long haul flights that probably require multiple stops. That strains aircraft, people, and reduces personnel resupply frequency at the front. Alternatively, if I have more capacity at a base in say…Australia, I can get those people from Australia to the Philippines fairly quickly with shorter turnaround times. When you have more permanent basing abroad, it provides you more points from which to operate in a contested environment, at a faster and less costly pace. This isn’t exactly new science I’m presenting here.
1st Armored Division maneuver during Talisman Saber 23. Source: DVIDS
So what about the units in peacetime, what do they get?
Well, for starters they get to live in a more stable environment for 3 or more years at a time, with their families accompanying them abroad (in most cases). I hate to remind everyone of this but morale matters. If your strategy requires long haul commitment, that commitment has to go both ways. Moreover, you get units with steady missions where commanders, staff, and average soldiers can really dig into the problem set and actually have some focus as opposed to the last 20 years of ADHD operations. You get units that become proud of their mission and that retain institutional knowledge about the area of operations from commander to commander and soldier to soldier. And here’s the best part: this isn’t some proposed experiment, WE ALREADY KNOW THIS WORKS. It worked during the first cold war, it works with the units we already have positioned forward, this is just a matter of policy and culture shift. If your entire strategy is built upon leveraging networks of allies and partners, of dispersing units and reducing strain on limited logistics, funds, and personnel, then this idea is entirely in line with that strategy.
So how do we make this happen?
DoD and the State Department need to coordinate their efforts and push for more permanent basing arrangements that can actually support the full range of training units require to be ready to fight. If our allies want us there, it’s okay to ask for what we need to make their security, ours. Sometimes that requires spending some money up front, better to spend it now so we don’t have to spend it in war. Specifically, we should focus on expanding basing and capacity in Australia, the Philippines, and the Compact States. We are already starting more rotations and visits to these countries, but making them permanent really allows us to move faster in support of Pacific deterrence and expanding surge capacity in the event of war. I know I make fun of State (a lot) but we don’t get basing agreements without them and it’s easier when they know what DoD wants and (ideally) someone from the White House makes them understand the importance.
Using the above countries as launch points, we can then use smaller units at the Battalion and Company level to train with other partners that don’t host permanent missions on shorter timelines (a month or so). The Army has Pacific Pathways and associated programs that already do something like this, but by building these out from permanent forward units, it would further reduce strain on the mission while building new relationships.
Expanding permanent basing and presence to the National Defense and Security Strategy’s lines of effort should be a priority in the next round of strategic documents. Calling this out specifically identifies how we need to change from the inter-Cold War period. This not only makes it easier within the Pentagon, it makes it easier to communicate to Congress how and why we need to fund these basing expansions.
Speaking of Congress, Congress can preemptively authorize funds (yes, this environment isn’t the easiest) for overseas military construction in support of our Pacific presence mission. We did that for Europe under Operation Atlantic Resolve. Which reminds me, we need a named mission for the Pacific to make all of this a lot easier. I know that may sound silly to some folks, but you wouldn’t believe the power of a named mission in appropriations.
We need to identify which forces we want staged forward. In the case of the Army, do we want mechanized units forward since they take the most time to move from the US (up to a month or two), or do we move light forces forward (like the 101st Airborne Division) because they’ll be more immediately relevant to a fight in the Pacific. Personally, I’d keep the light forces as close to Taiwan as possible, and keep the armor based in Australia.
While I’ve been focusing on the Pacific (that’s kinda my thing), these proposals apply to all rotational missions. We should be doing the same for Europe that I’ve proposed here for the Pacific. Why have three divisions training for Europe when one armored division permanently stationed in Europe will suffice?
For the Navy, additional forward basing should be tied into maintenance and shipbuilding hubs within our host partners. I’ve argued before in Plan Noble the need for a real Arsenal of Democracies, and additional forward basing would provide an excellent opportunity to kickstart allied cooperation on shipbuilding. AUKUS should only be the start of a new age of partnerships. Additionally, the Navy is strained under its presence mission, and more basing would allow the Navy to work shorter missions at sea, with more ships available, while maintaining presence in the region. Simply pushing ships forward from the West Coast or other theaters isn’t enough. Moreover, during wartime, expanded basing means more places to rearm and repaid, thereby reducing the time and distance for a single vessel to return to battle.
Finally, permanent basing demonstrates our commitment to the region. For every permanent base we build, we should be developing new training exercises and critical infrastructure for our hosts. We can fund that under a named mission, too. It’s not enough to show up, we have to play the whole game.
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