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The Impact of Missile Threats on the Reliability of U.S. Overseas Bases: A Framework for Analysis

Authored by Mr. Joel Wuthnow. | January 2005

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U.S. national security strategy requires access to overseas military bases, but in the coming decade, that access will be threatened both politically and militarily. U.S. strategy demands continued reliance on bases for two basic reasons. First, in peacetime, U.S. forces stationed overseas provide evidence of a commitment to defending U.S. and allied interests. The 2004 NationalMilitary Strategy explained:

Overseas, U.S. forces permanently based in strategically important areas, rotationally deployed forward in support of regional objectives, and temporarily deployed during contingencies convey a credible message that the United States remains committed to preventing conflict. These forces also clearly demonstrate that the United States will react forcefully should an adversary threaten the United States, its interests, allies, and partners.1

Despite significant base closures, particularly in Western Europe and with more on the horizon (particularly in Germany and South Korea), the United States continues to operate 35 large or medium-sized installations abroad.2 These include air bases, naval facilities, and U.S. Army barracks. These facilities are mostly located in allied territory, specifically North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Europe, Turkey, Japan, and Korea.

Second, in times of conflict, overseas bases provide operational benefits for U.S. combat forces. With the exception of a limited number of long-range bombers and certain naval vessels, the United States cannot project combat power without access to bases in the area of operations. Ground forces require supply centers and sea- or airports through which to deploy, except in instances in which long-range forced entry operations may be effectively conducted. Most ships require repair and maintenance facilities, though not exclusively outside the continental United States. Likewise, most low-quantity, high-value aircraft (e.g., stealth fighters and airbornewarning and control systems [AWACS] early warning aircraft) require theater land basing. In some circumstances, combat forces may be generated and sustained from bases in allied territory, while in others (e.g., a conflict in the Middle East or Central Asia), temporary access agreements will have to be negotiated.

With the exception of Guam, all U.S. overseas bases are located on foreign soil, and all temporarily used bases will be located in foreign countries. Hence, both types of bases are subject to the willingness of foreign governments to grant access to the United States. Regarding permanent bases, states may request a withdrawal of U.S. forces. For instance, in 1991 nationalist opposition in the Philippines led to the end of a century-long U.S. military presence there. More commonly, states may disallow U.S. use of facilities for particular operations. In 2003, for example, Turkey refused to permit U.S. forces to use the NATO air base at Incirlik in support of the war on Iraq. Regarding temporary access, states may simply refuse to permit U.S. entry, or may strictly delineate the acceptable uses of their facilities. For instance, most Persian Gulf states denied the U.S. access during strikes on Iraq in 1998.

External military threats compose a second broad category of vulnerabilities to U.S. overseas bases. As early as the 1960s, all U.S. bases were within reach of Soviet ballistic missiles; the threat of a Soviet invasion was also a perennial concern during the Cold War. Today, the Department of Defense (DoD) identifies three ?levels? of military threats against its overseas installations. Level I includes terrorism, sabotage, and civil unrest; Level II includes guerilla and special operations attacks; and Level III includes conventional attack and missile strikes, including missiles tipped with nuclear, chemical, or biological warheads.3 Moreover, military threats are linked to political vulnerability. As the National Defense Panel has noted, ?For political reasons, allies might be coerced not to grant the United States access to their sovereign territory. Hostile forces might threaten punitive strikes against nations considering an alliance or coalition with the United States.?4

Thus, an overall assessment of the reliability of overseas basing must take into account both political and military factors. This is a difficult task, because it demands an analysis of the domestic politics of every state in which the United States currently possesses bases or is likely to desire to deploy troops. As suggested, decisions to deny access can result from circumstances particular to individual states or regions. An overall assessment also demands a review of each type of military threat listed above, including both the capabilities of all possible enemies and the resolve of those states actually to use force. As indicated by the current war on terrorism, the motives and resources of nonstate organizations must also be factored into any general risk analysis. Finally, analysts must attempt to understand the relationship between external threats and the domestic politics of host nations.

This monograph does not seek to make an overall assessment of reliability, but focuses on the ?Level III? problem of missile threats. Three factors suggest that the threat will be at least as significant in the coming decade as it was during the Cold War. First, several new actors are developing the means to target effectively and destroy fixed land locations?those states may lack the aggregate firepower of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), but may still develop missiles and missile warheads of sufficient caliber to threaten the United States at a regional level. Second, new missile-capable states may not exercise restraint in using missiles, as it was believed the Soviet Union did. The answer to the question of whether certain states, especially those labeled ?rogue states,? can be deterred is not clearly ?yes.? Third, missiles will provide old and newly capable states a uniquely powerful instrument to coerce host nations into denying access to the United States. This is a particular concern in the post-Cold War period because the United States will likely wish to operate in theaters such as the Middle East and Central Asia, in which it lacks formal allies and in which new missile states are appearing.

Nevertheless, emerging missile threats do not obviously spell an end of the reliability of overseas bases. Some factors may, indeed, work in the opposite direction. First, the United States has a lead in military technology which may be leveraged to provide for defense against missile attack; defensive capabilities may be especially effective against states on the lower end of the capabilities spectrum. Second, deterrence is not necessarily implausible. All state decisionmakers are interested in their own survival, and so must consider the possibility that any use of missiles will compromise the survival of their regime. Third, missile threats may actually make current and potential host nations more accepting of U.S. military presence; in the absence of sustained military cooperation with the United States, those same states may only be more vulnerable to increasing external threats.5

Some U.S. government reports in the past few years have begun to recognize the significance of missile threats on basing reliability. In 1997, the National Defense Panel wrote that, based on this threat, ?the days of the 6-month build-up and secure, large, rear-area bases are almost certainly gone forever.?6 In 2001, the DoD?s Quadrennial Defense Review noted that ?Saturation attacks with ballistic and cruise missiles could deny or delay U.S. access to overseas bases, airfields, and ports.?7 The few papers offering more detailed analysis of the problem have been, on the whole, technically-oriented. Meanwhile, sources that consider the higher-level subjects of coercion diplomacy and political decisionmaking have not dealt with the possible consequences for overseas basing.8

Thus, this monograph assesses the countervailing factors that will determine the impact of missile threats on basing reliability in the next decade. I will address this problem at three levels. Section II considers the balance of capabilities, covering the strategic reasons and proliferation environment that are driving states to acquire missiles, the quantitative and qualitative aspects of the offensive threat, and defenses available to the United States. Section III assesses the missile threat at the strategic level. The analysis attempts to estimate the effectiveness of deterrence as a strategy through which the United States will seek to prevent attacks on its overseas bases. Section IV analyzes the threat at a political level. The idea is that missiles may be used to coerce U.S. leaders to withdraw or fail to use overseas forces, or to coerce host nations into denying access to the United States. Section V draws these analyses together and concludes that missile threats will pose new and complex risks to overseas basing reliability at all three levels, but the impact is complicated by disparities and uncertainties. The remainder of the conclusion describes five methods of reducing the risk.

The anticipated contribution of this assessment is twofold: first, as a broad and comprehensive study of how missile threats will impact basing reliability. Given the state of the current literature, the concept of exploring this issue at three separate, but interlinked, levels represents a unique offering. Second, the assessment serves as a model for how to think about the impact of external military threats on U.S. force structure. To the extent that the assessment does not, and cannot, provide sufficient consideration of particular topics, the organization of the document is flexible so as to allow for the incorporation of additional information. While the conclusion may change according to those inputs, the way of reaching that conclusion remains constant.


1. Joint Chiefs of Staff, National Military Strategy of the United States of America, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2004.

2. That is, bases that are valued at over $800 million. For a complete list, see Office of the Deputy Undersecretary of Defense, Base Structure Report, Fiscal Year 2002 Baseline.

3. U.S. Joint Staff, Joint Publication 3-10: Joint Doctrine for Rear Area Operations,? Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, May 28, 1996, section I-5.

4. National Defense Panel, ?Transforming Defense: National Security in the 21st Century,? Report of the National Defense Panel, December 1997, p. 12.

5. Samuel J. Tangredi, All Possible Wars? Toward a Consensus View of the Future Security Environment, 2001-2 025, Washington, DC: Institute for National Strategic Studies, 2000, p. 110.

6. Ibid., p. 42.

7. Quadrennial Defense Review Report, September 30, 2001; available online at www.defenselink.mil/pubs/qdr2001.pdf.

8. For technical analysis, see John Stillion, Airbase Vulnerability to Conventional Cruise Missile and Ballistic-Missile Attacks, Santa Monica: RAND, 1999; Christopher J. Bowie, The Anti-Access Threat and Theater Air Bases, Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2002; and David A. Shlapak and Alan Vick, Check Six Begins on the Ground: Responding to the Evolving Ground Threat to US Air Force Bases, Santa Monica: RAND, 1995. On post-Cold War deterrence and coercion issues, see Daniel Byman and Matthew Waxman, The Dynamics of Coercion: American Foreign Policy and the Limits of Military Might, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002; Stephen J. Cimbala, Deterrence and Nuclear Proliferation in the Twenty-First Century, Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2001; Naval Studies Board, Post-Cold War Conflict Deterrence, Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1997; Keith B. Payne, Deterrence in the Second Nuclear Age, Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1996; DFI International/SPARTA, Inc., US Coercion in a World of Proliferating and Varied WMD Capabilities: Final Report for the Project on Deterrence and Cooperation in a Multi-Tired Nuclear World, Defense Threat Reduction Agency, February 2001; Michele Flournoy and Clark Murdock, Revitalizing the US Nuclear Deterrent, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) paper, July 2002. On political mechanics, see Irving L. Janis, Crucial Decisions: Leadership in Policymaking and Crisis Management, New York: The Free Press, 1989; and Yaacov I. Vertzberger, Risk Taking and Decisionmaking: Foreign Military Interventional Decisions, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998. Other country-specific citations appear below.