Let’s flash back to 1993. General Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is constructing his post-Cold War Base Force. He writes:
The changed strategic landscape permits a dramatic but carefully managed reduction in forward stationing, worldwide... [and] fiscal realities mean fewer resources will be available for defense… While we can maintain our long-standing overseas commitments, the nature of our forward presence operations can change significantly. In addition to forward stationed and rotationally deployed forces, smaller temporarily deployed forces, either joint or single Service, will take on increasing importance…. These programs promote access and cooperation overseas with a small investment in resources.
Sound familiar? It should – changing the nature of U.S. presence overseas featured significantly in the new defense strategy rolled out in January. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta described at that time how our presence will adjust to help accommodate the fiscal reality of $350 billion less in ten-year defense spending while still maintaining our commitments:
Wherever possible, we will develop low-cost and small- footprint approaches to achieving our security objectives, emphasizing rotational deployments, emphasizing exercises, military exercises with these nations and doing other innovative approaches to maintain a presence throughout the rest of the world.
Secretary Panetta is adjusting a much smaller global posture than General Powell faced – we have only 28% as many troops in Europe as we did in 1991, for instance – but our overseas forces are still predominantly in Germany, Italy, Japan, and Korea, just like in 1991. Such an enduring legacy suggests why Secretary Panetta’s innovation borrows so much from the plan General Powell advocated 20 years ago, but is also a measure of how difficult these changes can be to implement.