A MORE FLEXIBLE APPROACH TO THE ISSUE OF US MILITARY BASES: THE CASES OF AUSTRALIA AND THE PHILIPPINES

Over the last few months we have been witness to debates and agreements concerning the hosting of US military personnel and assets in some countries, including Australia and the Philippine Islands. The presiding approach, that of a flexible regular deployment of rotating units, combined with the pre-positioning of forward-deployed equipment, merits attention in potential NATO member states equipped with first-class harbors.

Australia and the United States Marine Corps (USMC)

Canberra agreed some months ago to see the US Marine Corps rotate a unit through Darwin, in the country’s northern coast. It will only be the marines themselves coming and going, since their equipment will be permanently positioned there.

The Philippine Islands: Back to Subic Bay

Manila, which decided to terminate basing agreements with the US in 1991, announced last year that Subic Bay, once home to the 7th Fleet and the largest American overseas base, would be hosting US forces there on a “semi-permanent basis”. Visiting Forces Agreement Director Edilberto Adan (a retired general and former chief of staff of the Armed Forces) said that “President [Benigno] Aquino has authorised this, as have both houses of Congress, and it is a move widely popular with the Philippine people”. Adan explained that “The US will not return to the bases they gave up in 1991, but they will be here regularly and are welcome here”, adding that the resultant increase in joint military exercises would contribute to better interoperability, and improved Filipino doctrine and equipment. Edilberto Adan believes that “It improves our security and, to be honest, gives people in Southeast Asia peace of mind”.

Asia Moving Towards More Flexible Basing Arrangements: The Keys

We can thus see in the Asia-Pacific region a clear trend towards more flexible basing agreements, where instead of emphasizing big bases the stress is on a larger number of (often dual-purpose) facilities and formal agreements to provide for regular non-permanent rotations of US units and facilitate their deployment at a time of crisis.

The following are some of the factors favoring this new approach:

  • Fiscal constraints in the US militating against expensive large-scale permanent deployments.
  • The need for flexibility and the quick deployment of troops in any potential trouble spot. In today’s world it is difficult to know where the next crisis may be.
  • An emphasis on local capabilities. The US needs strong partners, with well trained professional forces able to interoperate with other allies and devoted exclusively to doing their job, without any temptation to play politics. The Philippines are often cited as the country with the weakest military in South-East Asia, a delicate position to be in given persistent Chinese territorial claims on the South China Sea and a long string of incidents.
  • Technological changes requiring fewer personnel to operate some key systems. UAVs are a case in point.
  • The reluctance by some countries to host large number of US or other foreign troops on a large scale and permanent basis. Regular rotations may be more palatable, while still guaranteeing security and robust bilateral relations. Australia is a good example, being a strong ally of the US which however prefers not to be home to permanent American bases.

Potential NATO Members With Pending Infrastructures Observing the Trend

Every region in the world is of course different, but some of the factors described above are clear for all to see in other continents too, including Europe. Therefore, we can expect existing and potential NATO members to follow carefully how Australia and the Philippines reinforce their security resorting to this more flexible approach to US basing.

In the case of countries in need of developing both their security structures and communication and transportation infrastructures, the following may be of particular interest:

* The renewed emphasis on local forces and interoperability. Although the US has always been careful to build coalitions, this new emphasis may well result in even more opportunities to participate in bilateral and multilateral exercises, send personnel to US military academies and training centers, and benefit from the latest technologies and techniques. This is of course of interest to countries with an uninterrupted military tradition, but is even more so for those tasked with rebuilding their defense structures.

* The resulting opportunities for technology transfer. The civilian economy often benefits from the know-how originally developed in the military sector. Some observers have pointed out how, for example, countries like Israel and South Korea have seen their civilian economy benefit from the training and technology transferred by US forces.

* Increased scope for two-way high-tech trade. Countries are naturally reluctant to spend large amounts on US-built weapons systems without the corresponding opportunity to export and participate in multilateral consortia. However, selling one’s components to other countries is not just a matter of quality and price, but also requires the right contacts and familiarity with their military. Any country trying to move up the added-value ladder and join international defense industry projects needs to be very clear about this, and regular rotations and contacts are one of the best ways in which these contacts can be built.

* The benefits for civilian infrastructures. Can we really talk about “purely civilian” infrastructures? Probably not, ports being a good example. It does not make sense, from a financial perspective, to purpose-build military harbours. On the other hand, the dual use of existing or future civilian ones offers a number of advantages, among them:

  • A renewed incentive to make sure they are properly maintained and connected to other infrastructures. It is clear that no serious port in Europe can be isolated from the continent-wide railroad lines, having a military presence in that port would reinforce that essential message and give fellow allies a stake in guaranteeing it. The same goes for airports.
  • The opportunity to benefit from military “best practices”, including developments in logistics and security. Having the same level of security as that prevailing in the most advanced countries has become also a matter of competitiveness, with ports and airports not up to the mark in danger of losing key business opportunities.

* Public opinions still not fully used to frank debates on defense and security may be more ready to accept rotating deployments, even more so if clearly framed in terms of the training of local forces, the development of essential civilian infrastructures, and the economy’s move towards higher value-added sectors.

Alex Calvo

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