YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — The drawdown of U.S. troops from overseas bases has likely run its course for now, America’s top military commander said Thursday.
Some U.S. lawmakers have been pushing for more troops to return to Stateside bases, but Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin E. Dempsey said Thursday he doesn’t think there will be further dramatic changes in the U.S. military’s forward presence, even in light of recent budget cuts.
“We have pared that back as far as we reasonably can and still have the influence that we do. I don’t think you will see dramatic changes in our forward situation,” Dempsey told servicemembers gathered at a Yokota hangar on Thursday.
“I’m an advocate of having a significant portion of the force forward-stationed in places like Europe, Japan, Korea and Australia.”
In Europe, the U.S. military presence has declined steadily from a high of 400,000 personnel during the Cold War, and it’s set to drop below 70,000 with the inactivation of two Germany-based Army brigades.
In South Korea, where there were 37,000 servicemembers a decade ago, there are now 28,500 with plans to move the bulk of the force south of Seoul. There are still 50,000 troops in Japan, but 9,000 Marines are scheduled to move from Okinawa to Guam and Hawaii in coming years.
U.S. overseas bases reassure America’s allies, particularly when families accompany servicemembers, Dempsey said, adding that overseas assignments help develop military leaders who spend a portion of their career immersed in a foreign culture.
In an interview that followed his talk with the servicemembers, Dempsey took issue with a Senate Armed Services Committee report this month that suggests the U.S. is bearing a bigger share of the cost of maintaining the foreign bases than in years past.
South Korean contributions “have not kept pace with the growth in U.S. cost,” the report said. From 2008 to 2012, while South Korean contribution grew by $42 million, U.S. non-personnel costs grew by more than $500 million, the report said. In Japan, where the United States spends $2 billion annually to support its troops, the host-nation’s contributions to a voluntary cost-sharing program have fallen from more than $1 billion in 1992, to $200 million in 2012.
However, Dempsey said Japan and South Korea have been generous with support over the years.
“They are going through challenges in their fiscal positions as well and we have to work with them,” he said.
As the U.S. moves to rebalance forces to the Pacific, some forward presence could be sustained at less cost by rotating units to the region for training, he said.
“Costs are significant when we move a serviceman or woman and their family into a place like Japan,” he said. “I think we have to save some of that.”
That might mean a soldier spent four months forward deployed and a year back at their home base, he said, but noted that service branches have different standards.
Dempsey also acknowledged that there will be fewer resources available to the U.S. military to engage globally.
“We are going to have to find a way to accomplish the same thing but with smaller force structures,” he said.
In China, where Dempsey met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and his counterpart in the People’s Liberation Army – Gen. Fang Fenghui – earlier in the week, officials asked if the U.S. planned to reduce its global military presence, he said.
“There are plenty of people in the world who would very much like us to do less,” he said,
But Dempsey noted America’s vital role in securing freedom of the seas and open markets for the global economy.
“The world we live in today, particularly the global economic system, is really the product of the security that we all have provided globally,” he said. “You won’t see us withdraw to fortress America because we can’t afford to do that.”