September 21, 2020

Overcoming the Tyranny of Time: The Role of U.S. Forward Posture in Deterrence and Defense

By Billy Fabian


"You may ask me for anything you like except time."

— Napoleon Bonaparte

The Bottom Line

  • The United States can no longer rely primarily on rapidly projecting power at the time of need to defend allies and partners in the Western Pacific and Europe against Chinese or Russian aggression.
  • Combat-credible U.S. forward posture in the Western Pacific and Europe can offset the United States’ time-distance disadvantage and buttress deterrence and defense in these key regions. Forward posture can help deny a quick and cheap Chinese or Russian victory, while buying time for the full weight of U.S. power to be brought to bear.
  • For U.S. forward posture to be combat-credible: (1) it must be sufficiently lethal and resilient to fight outnumbered on highly contested battlefields from the start of a conflict; (2) it should be integrated with the forces of allies and partners to form a cohesive, combined defensive posture; and (3) it must receive rapid reinforcement and resupply in the event of a war.
  • The Department of Defense (DoD) has recognized the importance of forward posture and undertaken efforts to strengthen it in recent years, but more work remains to be done. The next defense strategy has the opportunity to codify the critical role of forward posture and direct DoD to solidify and reinforce the progress of the past few years.

Introduction

The United States possesses a “Western Hemisphere military for Eastern Hemisphere problems.” That is, the bulk of U.S. military might resides in the continental United States, but U.S. interests are global, and the most vulnerable points in the U.S. alliance structure, specifically the Eastern marches of the NATO alliance and the archipelagos of the Western Pacific, lie at opposite ends of the Eurasian landmass. U.S. lines of communication stretch both east and west from North America across vast oceanic distances, while potential future battlefields are located in the backyards of the United States’ great power competitors. In a sense, the United States confronts the most daunting central position in history.

The bulk of U.S. military might resides in the continental United States, but U.S. interests are global.

As the world enters an era of renewed great power competition, the time-distance challenge of defending far flung frontiers undermines the United States’ ability to deter and, if necessary, defeat Chinese or Russian aggression against allies. No longer can the United States primarily rely on rapidly projecting power overseas at the moment of need, because the might of the U.S. military would likely arrive too late to change the outcome. The United States must find a way to overcome this tyranny of time. Otherwise, America risks the very real possibility that it could lose a war in the Western Pacific or Eastern Europe.

Robust forward posture could help offset the United States’ time-distance disadvantage and buttress deterrence and defense in these key regions. By providing a formidable defense force that would already be in theater at the start of a conflict, combat-credible forward posture could strengthen deterrence by complicating Chinese and Russian strategic calculus. And should deterrence fail, forward-postured U.S. forces, fighting alongside allies and partners, could help blunt Chinese or Russian attacks and buy time for critical reinforcements to arrive.

No longer can the United States primarily rely on rapidly projecting power overseas at the moment of need.

DoD has recognized the importance of forward posture and has made significant progress in strengthening it in key regions in recent years, particularly in Europe. But more work remains to be done. Moreover, the progress made over the past few years is tenuous, with the Trump administration’s recent announcement that it plans to relocate 12,000 U.S. personnel from Germany, including more than 6,400 that are leaving Europe entirely. The next defense strategy should codify the importance of forward posture to deterrence and defense in the Western Pacific and Europe, while identifying targeted posture investments that solidify and advance the progress made over the past few years.

The Tyranny of Time

Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. military has primarily adopted a power projection–centric model that relies on rapidly reinforcing limited forward-deployed forces as the crisis or conflict unfolds, rather than posturing the bulk of forces overseas. Although this approach has proved viable for deterring and responding to aggression by middleweight powers and rogue states such as North Korea and Iraq, it is underpinned by several assumptions that are increasingly untenable in an era of renewed great power competition. Foremost among these assumptions is that the United States will have sufficient time to react in the face of Chinese or Russian aggression.

Although war between the United States and China or Russia remains unlikely, it is not unthinkable, and the potential consequences of such a conflict could be severe—if not catastrophic. There are several friction points along the edges of the U.S. security perimeter where, whether through miscalculation or other mechanisms, a crisis could potentially spiral into a war between the United States and either China or Russia. All of these friction points are significantly nearer, geographically, to China and Russia than they are to the center of U.S. military power: the U.S. homeland.

In defending allies and partners from Chinese or Russian aggression, the United States must contend more with the tyranny of time than the tyranny of distance. While the U.S. military could eventually project massive combat power into the affected region, even in the face of Chinese or Russian counter-intervention campaigns, it likely could not do so fast enough if it continues to rely on a power projection–centric approach. Should a crisis escalate to a conventional conflict, Chinese or Russian forces could steal a march and accomplish its aggressive objectives before the United States and its allies were able to respond, thereby creating a fait accompli.

In defending allies and partners from Chinese or Russian aggression, the United States must contend more with the tyranny of time than the tyranny of distance.

After the failure to defeat the initial attack, the United States would face a choice between three suboptimal options. First, it could attempt a massive, difficult, and bloody counterattack to reverse the opponent’s gains. By the time the United States had massed sufficient forces, however, it could already be too late, because the war might have already been lost. During the extended period it would take to prepare a counterattack, the adversary could leverage all elements of national power to sap political will, fracture alliance cohesion, and terminate the conflict on terms favorable to them. Even if the United States could maintain sufficient political will and alliance cohesion to launch a counterattack, the campaign would be very costly, could fail, and could risk triggering nuclear escalation.

Second, the United States could attempt to punish the adversary into abandoning its gains and terminating the conflict on terms favorable to the United States. But given that the aggressor would have pursued a course of action that risked all of the consequences of a conventional war with the United States, it would likely have already priced into its decision calculus the cost of a U.S. punishment campaign. It is therefore unlikely that the United States could easily inflict enough pain to convince China or Russia to give up.

Finally, the United States could accept defeat and seek to negotiate a new status quo with the aggressor. None of these options would likely lead to outcomes that would be acceptable to the United States. With a more robust U.S. forward posture in the Western Pacific and Europe, however, an alternative approach could be adopted—defense by denial—that could deter or prevent a fait accompli in the first place.

The Role of Forward Posture in Defense by Denial

Robust U.S. forward posture will help make a defense-by-denial approach viable by providing an in-place force that can respond rapidly to attacks with limited or no warning, helping to offset the United States’ initial time-distance disadvantage. Such a force enhances deterrence by credibly demonstrating to Chinese or Russian leadership that victory in a conflict will not come quickly, easily, or cheaply—and possibly not at all—while signaling to both friends and potential foes that any aggressor must contend with U.S. forces from day one of the conflict. If deterrence fails, U.S. forward-postured forces, fighting alongside allies and partners, will serve to blunt an adversary’s aggression by degrading and delaying attacks and denying the rapid achievement of their objectives, thereby buying time for badly needed U.S. and allied reinforcements to arrive.

Given this role, it is critical that forward-postured forces be more than a mere tripwire whose purpose is simply to bleed in order to prove the United States has skin in the game. Forward-postured forces should be there to fight. As such, they must be combat-credible. That is, they must be sufficiently lethal, resilient, and ready to fight outnumbered on highly contested battlefields from day one of a conflict. Although major combat formations such as warships, fighter squadrons, and brigade combat teams represent vital and highly visible elements of a combat-credible forward posture, they are insufficient by themselves. Forward-postured forces should also include the critical enabling capabilities, such as command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) and sustainment, that allow the major combat formations to fight effectively. Moreover, forward posture is not just about forces, but also the basing and logistics networks that support them, the stocks of munitions and other sustainment materiel they consume in combat, and the exercises and activities that allow them to increase readiness and build interoperability with allies and partners. Efforts to strengthen forward posture should not overly focus on combat forces at the expense of critical enablers, supporting infrastructure, and war materiel.

Cost concerns and the need to maintain flexibility place an upper bound on the level of forces the United States can reasonably forward-posture. As such, even a more robust forward posture will need to be reinforced, and rapidly so, from the continental United States in the event of a conflict. Critically, there must not be a significant gap in the flow of U.S. forces into a theater that China or Russia can exploit to overwhelm the forces already there before adequate help can arrive. The leading elements of follow-on forces must not only be ready and able to deploy quickly, but, after arriving in theater, they must also be able to transition to combat operations as quickly as possible. Enabling this rapid transition from reception to combat requires robust and resilient theater setting forces and lines of communication that can operate even while under multi-domain attack.

Cost concerns and the need to maintain flexibility place an upper bound on the level of forces the United States can reasonably forward-posture.

Allies and partners provide vital contributions to U.S. posture. Not only do they provide access and basing in their territories, but allies and partners also augment U.S. combat power. Building a cohesive and interoperable combined U.S.–allied posture, however, is challenging, even in Europe, where the NATO alliance provides a standing military command structure and integrated planning mechanisms. The difficulty only grows in the Pacific, where U.S. defense relationships primarily consist of a series of bilateral alliances and partnerships.

Recommendations

To buttress U.S. deterrence and defense against Chinese or Russian aggression, the next defense strategy should stress the need for robust and combat-credible U.S. forward posture in the Western Pacific and Europe. It should also identify opportunities to build on the significant progress of the past few years and further strengthen forward posture. As part of the deliberations supporting the development of the next defense strategy, three considerations should be kept in mind in this regard:

  • Combat-Credible Forces: To enable a defense-by-denial approach, forward-postured forces in the Western Pacific and Europe must be sufficiently lethal, resilient, and ready to fight outnumbered on highly contested battlefields from day one of a conflict. Making forward-postured forces combat-credible is about more than adding tanks, warships, and fighters to the forces already present overseas. It is also about ensuring those combat forces are adequately supported by critical enablers and resilient basing and logistics networks; have access to sufficient stocks of munitions, fuel, and other sustainment needs; and conduct exercises to hone their fighting skills and build interoperability with allies and partners.
  • Rapid Reinforcement: Even more robust and formidable forward-postured forces will not be enough to win a war against China or Russia on their own. They must be rapidly reinforced with additional forces and resupplied with munitions and other war materiel. It is not enough for these reinforcements and resupply to reach the affected theater quickly; they must all be pushed into the fight as soon as possible, all while under attack by an adversary’s precision strike capabilities.
  • Integration with Allies and Partners: Allies and partners are a major source of the United States’ strength. Forward posture consisting of cohesive and integrated forces drawn from the United States, allies, and partners will be a formidable and effective deterrent. As such, the United States should make every effort to approach forward posture as a combined endeavor.

Conclusion

Changes in the strategic environment necessitate reevaluation of current force employment models. In an era of renewed great power competition with China and Russia, defending the Western Pacific and Eastern Europe primarily with forces based in the continental United States is no longer viable. As such, the United States must move away from the power projection–centric model it has employed since the end of the Cold War and reinvest in robust forward posture. DoD has recognized the importance of this to deterring and defeating aggression at the distant edges of the U.S. security perimeter, and has undertaken efforts to strengthen it in recent years. But more work remains to be done. The next defense strategy has the opportunity to codify the critical role of forward posture, and to direct additional resources toward strengthening it even further.

About the Author

Billy Fabian is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at CNAS and a Senior Analyst at Govini. He has previously served as Research Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments; a Senior Strategic Analyst in the Department of Defense, where he worked on the 2018 National Defense Strategy; and an infantry officer in the U.S. Army.

Learn More

From July to December 2020, CNAS will release new papers every week on the tough issues the next NDS should tackle. The goal of this project is to provide intellectual capital to the drafters of the 2022 NDS, focusing specifically on unfinished business from the past several defense strategies and areas where change is necessary but difficult.

Defense

The Next Defense Strategy

About this commentary series Regardless of who wins the next presidential election, by statute the DoD must deliver a new National Defense Strategy (NDS) to Congress in 2022. ...

Read More
  1. This phrase was coined by a former colleague of the author on the Army staff.
  2. For example, the Taiwan Strait in the Western Pacific and the Suwalki Gap in Eastern Europe.
  3. At the geostrategic level, the central position is a state that faces threats in multiple directions, but whose shorter interior lines of communication may allow it to swing forces rapidly between fronts. Imperial Germany is a classic example. In the case of the United States in the 21st century, its interior lines stretch across transoceanic distances.
  4. For example, see Congressional Research Service, Paul Belkin and Hibbah Kaileh, The European Deterrence Initiative: A Budgetary Overview, CRS Report No. IF10946 (June 16, 2020), https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/IF/IF10946. U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) 2020 SECTION 1253 Assessment Executive Summary: U.S. Indo-Pacific Command' s (USINDOPACOM) Investment Plan for Implementing the National Defense Strategy Fiscal Years 2022-2026, https://int.nyt.com/data/documenthelper/6864-national-defense-strategy-summ/8851517f5e10106bc3b1/optimized/full.pdf.
  5. Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “U.S. Will Cut 12,000 Forces in Germany,” The New York Times, July 29, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/29/world/europe/us-troops-nato-germany.html. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, “Opening Statement” (U.S. European Command Force Posture Policy Press Conference, July 29, 2020), https://www.defense.gov/Newsroom/Speeches/Speech/Article/2292081/us-european-command-force-posture-policy-press-conference-secretary-espers-open/source/GovDelivery/.
  6. Chris M. Dougherty, “Why America Needs a New Way of War” (Center for New American Security, 2019), 7, https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/anawow.
  7. Dougherty, “Why America Needs a New Way of War,” 10–31.
  8. Elbridge Colby, “How to Win America’s Next War,” Foreign Policy, May 5, 2019, https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/05/05/how-to-win-americas-next-war-china-russia-military-infrastructure/.
  9. These include Taiwan, the East China Sea, and the South China Sea in the Western Pacific; and the Baltic and Black Sea regions in Eastern Europe.
  10. For a more detailed discussion of the fait accompli problem, see Colby, “How to Win America’s Next War”; Dougherty, “Why America Needs a New Way of War,” 34–35; and Billy Fabian, Mark Gunzinger, Jan Van Tol, Jacob Cohn, and Gillian Evans, “Strengthening the Defense of NATO’s Eastern Frontier” (Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2019), 3–6, https://csbaonline.org/uploads/documents/Stengthening_the_Defense_of_NATOs_Eastern_Frontier_WEB_1.pdf.
  11. This is the role envisioned for the blunt layer of the Global Operating Model articulated in Department of Defense, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America, 7, https://dod.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2018-National-Defense-Strategy-Summary.pdf.
  12. Colby, “How to Win America’s Next War”; Fabian et al., “Strengthening the Defense of NATO’s Eastern Frontier,” 14–17.
  13. For the importance of intratheater mobility in Europe, see GEN Curtis M. Scaparrotti, USA (Ret.) and Ambassador Colleen B. Bell (Ret.), “Moving Out: A Comprehensive Assessment of European Military Mobility” (Atlantic Council, Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, 2020), https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Moving-Out_Military-Mobility-Web.pdf.
  14. NATO has pursued several alliance-wide efforts to improve its defensive posture and response timelines along its Eastern frontier, including the Enhanced Forward Presence Battlegroups, Very-High Readiness Joint Task-Force, and 30-30-30-30 Initiative, as well as efforts to improve combined military planning, coordination, and interoperability. For an overview of these measures, see NATO, “Deterrence and Defense,” May 26, 2020, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_133127.htm.
  15. There are numerous studies, both internal to DoD and by outside organizations, that make detailed posture recommendations for the Pacific and Europe. Some examples include: Department of Defense, Indo-Pacific Strategy Report (June 1, 2019), https://media.defense.gov/2019/Jul/01/2002152311/-1/-1/1/DEPARTMENT-OF-DEFENSE-INDO-PACIFIC-STRATEGY-REPORT-2019.PDF; U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, J. P. Clark et al., Striking the Balance: U.S. Army Force Posture in Europe, 2028 (June 2020) https://publications.armywarcollege.edu/pubs/3729.pdf; Fabian et al., “Strengthening the Defense of NATO’s Eastern Frontier”; Mark Montgomery and Eric Sayers, “Addressing America’s Operational Shortfall in the Pacific,” War on the Rocks, June 18, 2019, https://warontherocks.com/2019/06/addressing-americas-operational-shortfall-in-the-pacific/.

View All Reports View All Articles & Multimedia