WASHINGTON – The top U.S. military officer said Thursday the United States should reconsider its decades-old practice of stationing troops and their families in allied countries at risk of war, like South Korea and in the Persian Gulf.
In remarks on the future of warfare, Army Gen. Mark Milley said he believes the military should be more selective in its presence abroad. He said he strongly favors an overseas U.S. presence but prefers that it be rotational or “episodic” rather than permanent. He was not referring to counties like Afghanistan and Iraq, where U.S. forces have been involved in wars for nearly two decades and are not accompanied by family members.
“Large permanent U.S. bases overseas might be necessary for rotational forces to go into and out of, but permanently positioning U.S. forces I think needs a significant relook for the future,” not just because of the cost but also because it can leave military families vulnerable in high-risk areas, he said.
“I think that is something that needs a hard, hard look," he said. "Much of that is a derivative of where World War II ended.”
He specifically mentioned Bahrain, a longtime U.S. security partner that hosts the Navy's 5th Fleet headquarters across the Gulf from Iran, a key U.S. adversary. He also cited South Korea, where about 28,000 troops are stationed, many with families, as a holdover from North Korea's invasion of the South in 1950. The Trump administration has been in a diplomatic impasse with Seoul over Washington's demand that the Koreans pay a far larger share of the cost of maintaining the U.S. presence.
The U.S. also has tens of thousands of troops permanently based in Japan and in Europe.
In the event of an armed conflict with North Korea, “we would have a significant amount of non-combatant U.S. military dependents in harm's way," Milley said. “I have a problem with that.” More broadly, he said, ”I think we have too much infrastructure overseas and too much permanent infrastructure."
He added: “Frankly, there's not a lot of enthusiasm to do what I just said, but I do think that's necessary.”
Milley, who is in the second year of a four-year term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discussed several other issues that are likely to be on the agenda of the incoming Biden administration, including the prospect of shrinking Pentagon budgets and a defense strategy on China.
Milley is expected to be a source of continuity at the Pentagon during the transition from President Donald Trump to President-elect Joe Biden, who has yet to announce his nominee for secretary of defense.
Without mentioning the transition, Milley said he sees little chance of defense budgets growing by the 3% to 5% target that was set when the Pentagon published a defense strategy nearly three years ago that focuses investment on weapons, equipment and technologies designed to compete with China. He said he will argue the case for increases in the 3% to 5% range.
“But it's also a reality, a fact, that it is highly unlikely that we are going to get that,” he said in an online forum with the United States Naval Institute. “I don't see that as a realistic thing in the coming years. I see us as being flat or even a downturn in the Pentagon budget,” in part because of the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.
Milley said the Pentagon will be compelled to search for budget savings. That inevitably creates tension in priorities — investing in modernized forces for the future versus spending to keep current forces ready for war. Milley said he is biased toward modernization, mainly because of the challenge presented by China.
Separately, the Pentagon announced that Trump has nominated Adm. John Aquilino to lead U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, whose area of responsibility includes China. Aquilino currently serves as commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet.
Milley said that competing effectively and peacefully with China requires a vastly larger U.S. Navy, including robotic surface and underwater vessels. The Navy currently is aiming to increase its fleet to 355 ships by 2035. Shortly before he was fired by Trump in early November, then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper proposed a goal of 500 manned and unmanned vessels by 2045.
“You're going to have to have a much larger fleet than we have today if we're serious about great power competition and deterring great power war and you're serious about having dominant capability over something like China,” he said. “If you're serious about that, 500 (ships) is probably your entrance ticket.”