Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan (Ret.), U.S. Army
By the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, the U.S. Army gave every indication of retreating from the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. Forces withdrew from Vietnam and the Republic of Korea, an infantry brigade in Alaska deactivated, and the Eighth Army in Korea and U.S. Army Japan became independent major commands reporting directly to Army headquarters in the Pentagon with the inactivation of U.S. Army Pacific.The reality was different. The U.S. Army never fully left Asia and the Pacific, as world events including the Cold War and continued unrest in North Korea delayed and eventually halted what could have been the almost complete withdrawal of U.S. Soldiers from the region. Looking forward another 40 years, there is every reason to believe the U.S. footprint of formal military bases could remain small in the region. Yet the Army will remain heavily engaged in humanitarian and confidence-building missions with a widening group of allies and partners, holding joint exercises and other partnership-forming exercises.
Some of the world’s most politically stable countries form the backbone of the region. Most also belong to multilateral organizations, providing even greater stability. There also are serious pockets of instability, however, including the notoriously volatile North Korea, pockets of violent extremism in India, Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines, and the presence of transnational extremist groups. The military coup in Thailand in May 2014 and continuing unrest in Burma, which left 100,000 people living in confinement for what the government said was their own safety, show that elections do not always resolve deep political divisions.
Planners built the post-Vietnam War withdrawal around a strategy to keep enough Soldiers in the region to evacuate U.S. citizens in a crisis but to leave warfighting to other nations, which might be offered financial aid and the ability to purchase U.S.-made weapons. The end of conscription, which left the U.S. Army with fewer but more professional active-duty Soldiers, helped fuel the changes. Withdrawal of British forces from Malaysia and Singapore — leaving only a garrison in Hong Kong — made the U.S. movement seem less dramatic. The U.S. transitioned toward a total withdrawal from South Korea but for various reasons decided at the last moment to leave behind elements of the 2nd Infantry Division, which remain there today to fight, if necessary, alongside the Republic of Korea and the sister services of U.S. Armed Forces.
Things did not go completely as planned. As the U.S. and Britain withdrew, the People’s Republic of China increased its influence and the then-Soviet Union established a base in Vietnam, with opposing forces facing off. Economies in Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan experienced rapid growth (the countries became known as the Four Asian Tigers). However, a coup in South Korea in 1979; the attempted assassination in Burma of the South Korean president in 1983, which killed four members of his cabinet and 13 others; and the 1987 bombing of Korean Airline 858, which left 115 dead, fueled instability.
The U.S. also took a greater interest in South Asia and the Indian Ocean after the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War, with the U.S. Army pre-positioning war stock for an armored brigade off Diego Garcia atoll, with additional stockpiles in Korea and Japan. Army units in Hawaii and Alaska were expanded and the 1st Special Forces Group was reactivated, with two battalions at Fort Lewis, Washington, and one battalion in Okinawa. By the early 1980s, the U.S. Army was involved in bilateral training exercises in Asia, such as the Cobra Gold series in Thailand, which was launched in 1982 and has five or more participants as well as observers from nine other nations.
During the 1991 Gulf War, the Army used units dedicated to Asia-Pacific contingencies for other duties and in 2003, when the U.S. launched Operation Iraqi Freedom, one brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division in South Korea was redeployed to the U.S. While attention had shifted, there were still concerns. During the first Gulf War, the U.S. deployed attack helicopters and surface-to-air missiles to the Korean Peninsula to provide extra combat power even as it withdrew nuclear weapons from the region. Ballistic missile interceptors were installed in Alaska in 2004, operated by the Alaska National Guard. In 2005, air defense brigades were assigned to South Korea and Okinawa.During the initial phases of the post-Cold War period, reductions were made to the size of the Army and reductions throughout the U.S. Department of Defense. Accordingly, the Army executed a carefully designed transformation of itself that ensured specific crucial capabilities remained. Prepositioned stocks were placed afloat in the Indian Ocean, at Camp Carroll in South Korea and at Sagami Army Depot in Japan, with full equipment sets for heavy and light combat teams and for specialized missions. Also protected were command and control headquarters, training facilities and a robust partnership program.
The renewed focus on Asia and the Pacific has been building. In 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama said in a speech in Japan that the U.S. was looking to “strengthen old alliances and build new partnerships,” and to look at alliances in Asia and the Pacific as “not historical documents from a bygone era, but abiding commitments to each other that are fundamental to our shared security.” After all, President Obama said, “We have a stake in the future of this region, because what happens here has a direct effect on our lives at home.”
The U.S. set the course for several generations by increasing its presence through regular and extended deployments, increasing resources by building capacity for pre-positioned fuel, ammunition, bridging equipment and war stocks, and by building stronger relationships with other nations. This has involved joint exercises, multinational forums and leadership seminars and helping allies develop specific military capabilities.
The U.S. and U.S. Army commitment to Asia and the Pacific, which survived the post-Vietnam and post-Cold War drawdowns, seems unlikely to diminish in the next 40 years. While the U.S. footprint of permanent installations is smaller than 40 years ago, dramatic improvements in technology, transportation and tactics make it possible for the U.S. and its Pacific partners to remain a formidable force for peace and stability throughout the Pacific basin.