The U.S. Army in Southeast Asia

Near-Term and Long-Term Roles

by Peter Chalk

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Research Questions

  1. What is the current strategic outlook in Southeast Asia?
  2. What threats, if any, pose a direct challenge to regional stability?
  3. What type of roles and force posture should the U.S. Army adopt in the near term?
  4. What could cause the regional strategic environment to worsen or dramatically deteriorate over the long term?
  5. How would this manifest in terms of domestic and cross-border threats?
  6. What type of roles and force postures should the U.S. Army adopt under these conditions?

This RAND report explores the role and force posture of the U.S. Army in Southeast Asia, both now and out to 2020. The author argues that, under the current, largely benign conditions, the military will focus mainly on supporting defense reform and modernization, facilitating disaster relief response operations, providing assistance to address nonconventional transnational threats, and helping to balance China's increased influence into the region. If the security outlook in Southeast Asia remains favorable, these mission areas will not fundamentally change over the near term. However, should the general outlook deteriorate — perhaps as a result of a severe economic slowdown — the geopolitical environment will become far less certain and more prone to crisis. Governments that have derived legitimacy from rapid development would suffer from a loss of grassroots support. State-to-state rivalries would become more acute, especially with regard to the South China Sea disputes. And natural catastrophes would take on greater security relevance because of tighter fiscal constraints for underwriting disaster preparedness and response. To meet these challenges, the United States will need to adopt an agile strategy that is thin in physical presence but broad in programmatic execution. Specifically, there are four areas in which the Army should concentrate its efforts: (1) enhancing the defense capacities of partner nations to meet both conventional and nonconventional dangers; (2) concluding new base agreements for hosting small, mission-oriented expeditionary forces; (3) expanding support for regional humanitarian assistance activities; and (4) initiating appropriate responses to counter a more outwardly adventurist China.

Key Findings

The U.S. Army May Have Changing Roles in Southeast Asia

  • The current threat environment in Southeast Asia is largely benign: There is very little risk of a major interstate war in the region. Many governments have benefited from a high degree of domestic stability afforded by sustained economic growth. Most substate terrorist and insurgent groups have been largely contained, and none constitutes more than a local challenge. And the main regional hegemon, China, poses no meaningful external threat.
  • Under current conditions, the Army's role will focus on supporting defense reform and modernization, helping nations in the region address nonconventional transnational threats, and instituting appropriate means to balance increased Chinese penetration.
  • In the near term, if conditions remain similar to what they are now, these areas of focus will not change.
  • Should the general outlook deteriorate — perhaps as a result of a severe economic slowdown — the geopolitical environment will become far less certain and more prone to crisis. Governments that have derived legitimacy from rapid development would suffer from a loss of grassroots support. State-to-state rivalries would become more acute, especially with regard to the South China Sea disputes. And natural catastrophes would take on greater security relevance because of tighter fiscal constraints for underwriting disaster preparedness and response.
  • To meet these challenges, the United States will need to adopt an agile strategy that is thin in physical presence but broad in programmatic execution.

Recommendations

  • If regional security conditions do significantly deteriorate, the U.S. Army should enhance the defense capacities of partner nations to meet both conventional and nonconventional dangers. This effort should entail expanding military-to-military engagements, helping to build a more viable regional security architecture, and assisting with the procurement of appropriate equipment to augment the self-defense of ASEAN member states.
  • If regional security conditions do significantly deteriorate, the U.S. Army should conclude new base agreements for hosting small, mission-oriented expeditionary forces. Deployments of this type would furnish the U.S. military with the opportunity for a more flexible and assertive regional presence while also providing greater scope for a robust surge capacity.
  • If regional security conditions do significantly deteriorate, the U.S. Army should expand support for regional humanitarian assistance activities by funding additional tabletop exercises, gifting ground transport and airlift assets, and helping to establish regional disaster relief coordination hubs.
  • If regional security conditions do significantly deteriorate, the U.S. Army should initiate appropriate responses to counter a more outwardly adventurist China. The priority should be to institute defense arrangements that are affordable and that do not unduly provoke Beijing into undertaking unilateral action of the type that could threaten U.S. and allied interests.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    The Current Strategic Outlook in Southeast Asia

  • Chapter Three

    The Role of the U.S. Army in Southeast Asia: Near Term

  • Chapter Four

    The Role of the U.S. Army in Southeast Asia to 2020

  • Chapter Five

    Conclusions

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was sponsored by the United States Army and conducted by the RAND Arroyo Center.

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