Napoleon is believed to have said “never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.” If President Trump actually requires nations hosting U.S. forces to pay all of the costs plus 50 percent more for the privilege, rogue states and revisionist powers should take a long break and allow the United States to unravel its global defense posture.
Trump’s plan would increase the cost of every U.S. military operation, require expensive new bases back home for the troops, and force the military to revise its operational war plans — all of which depend on forward bases, logistical support, and access to intelligence assets.
Burden-sharing is part of every alliance, but there would be little sharing if Trump has his way; more than the complete burden would be placed on our allies. And if host nations do choose to pay the bill, what will they demand in return? Surely they will expect far more if they have to pay far more. What will they require of the U.S. Mercenary Force?
A conspiracy theorist might believe Trump’s plan is a clumsy and inelegant way to end the permanent overseas presence of U.S. forces. If host nations balk at the new pricing structure, Trump will have an excuse to pick up his marbles and take them home. But this desire is based on the very flawed assumption that the United States has foreign bases only to defend allies and therefore must be paid for doing so. The truth is we station forces overseas because it is in the U.S. strategic interest to do so; benefits to host nations are secondary.
Losing our overseas bases would reduce America’s ability to project power and sustain operations abroad. It would increase the cost of every operation because all support would have to come from the continental United States, requiring long-distance travel by sea and air rather than shorter distances from regional theater bases. This would demand an even greater naval capability to secure the routes across these long distances. Right now, most forces deployed in Europe and Japan provide a forward staging capability that allows other military units to deploy to conflict areas such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, and be more efficiently supported from nearby locations. Follow-on forces can also deploy to these staging bases before moving directly into the conflict zone.
Without foreign bases, the U.S. would lose interoperability with key militaries around the world; the erosion of long-term relationships with allied forces would lead to increased friction and risk during combined operations. Ultimately, the risks to U.S. forces will rise significantly without the flexibility and options provided by forward bases.
If host nations refuse to pay “cost plus 50,” U.S. officials will face two bad choices: either shrink the armed forces substantially or spend billions on new bases at home. Over the past 25 years, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) has optimized U.S. bases for the current force structure, so there is little space to spare for returning forces. Thus, we would have to reduce the U.S. military force structure by the size of our overseas presence. Combat air wings will be deployed to the boneyard in Arizona, Seventh Fleet warships in Asia will be mothballed or sunk as reefs. The Army will reduced by about 75,000 troops, the number now stationed in Europe, Asia, and non-combat zones in the Middle East. (The Marine Corps will have to be shoe-horned into existing facilities, because current law mandates the existence of three active Marine divisions and three active air wings.) And in turn, these reductions in the size of the U.S. force would severely restrict sustained overseas operations yet result in more troops deploying for longer periods of time.
Or if the size of the armed forces isn’t cut back, U.S. bases would have to expand to absorb some 130,000 troops, a fleet of naval vessels, more than a dozen air squadrons and all the associated tanks, personnel carriers, artillery, trucks, and support equipment. This will require a huge investment in military construction at taxpayer expense. And all the costs currently borne by host nations would end up coming out of American taxpayers’ pockets.
Losing foreign bases would also require the complete revision of strategic concepts and operational war plans that depend on the assumption that we will have access to those bases and can project power from locations within the relevant region or theater. We would also lose our eyes and ears when our intelligence assets are redeployed to the United States, rendering the military strategically deaf, dumb, and blind. For example, we would no longer be able to station fixed radars and other support equipment overseas to help missile defense systems protect the United States. In short, the lack of permanent overseas force presence puts the homeland at risk.
Put all these problems together, and the global security system will be completely upended. The United States will no longer be able to provide strategic reassurance and strategic resolve. Rogue states and revisionist powers would seize the advantage. Life in such a national-security environment would be, as Hobbes put it, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
Trump’s “cost plus 50” plan would cut off our nose to spite our face. It would turn U.S. troops into mercenaries, not defenders of shared interests, and weaken our ability to project power. If enacted as proposed, this will weaken the U.S. military and America’s ability to defend itself when and where required.