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Research Questions

  1. Why does the U.S. Air Force need a global posture?
  2. Where does the U.S. Air Force need basing and access?
  3. What types of security partnerships minimize peacetime access risk?
  4. How much forward presence does the U.S. Air Force require?

U.S. Air Force (USAF) global posture — its overseas forces, facilities, and arrangements with partner nations — faces a variety of challenges: fiscal and political pressure to close overseas bases, an overseas political climate that is less conducive to permanently hosting large deployments of U.S. forces, and emerging military systems that pose a threat to forward bases. To inform USAF leaders as they adapt global posture to these new conditions, this report seeks to identify why the USAF needs a global posture, where it needs basing and access, the types of security partnerships that minimize peacetime access risk, and the amount of forward presence that the USAF requires. The authors describe a logical framework — the posture triangle — to link U.S. national security requirements to specific types of posture, and they draw on new and previous research to assess the utility of hundreds of airfields for almost 30 diverse scenarios. They discuss factors that affect peacetime access risk, and they offer insights on sizing USAF overseas forces.

The authors find that a global posture is necessary to maintain three critical U.S. security requirements: "Strategic anchors" are necessary to maintain security ties to close partners and key regions; access to forward operating locations is necessary to create and sustain operational effects; and support links on foreign territory are necessary to sustain global military activities. Regarding where the USAF needs access and basing, the authors identified 13 strategic anchor countries, 11 basing clusters, and 35 en route airfields as particularly valuable. Regarding what types of security partnerships minimize peacetime access risk, the authors find that regime type and the nature of the access relationship are the two most important considerations: Enduring partnerships with consolidated democracies are the ideal type of relationship, whereas transactional relationships with authoritarian states are least desirable. To address how much forward presence the USAF requires, the authors suggest an alternative approach to sizing forward forces that goes beyond the current theater campaign plan requirements process. The report concludes with five recommendations for future USAF postures, as well as a discussion of some misperceptions in the current debate about U.S. global posture.

Key Findings

Why Does the U.S. Air Force (USAF) Need a Global Posture?

  • A global posture is necessary to maintain three critical U.S. security requirements: "Strategic anchors" are necessary to maintain security ties to close partners and key regions; access to forward operating locations is necessary to create and sustain operational effects; and support links on foreign territory are necessary to sustain global military activities.

Where Does the USAF Need Access and Basing?

  • Across almost 30 diverse scenarios, 13 strategic anchor countries, 11 basing clusters, and 35 en route airfields are particularly valuable.

What Types of Security Partnerships Minimize Peacetime Access Risk?

  • Regime type and the nature of the access relationship are the two most important considerations: Enduring partnerships with consolidated democracies are the ideal type of relationship, whereas transactional relationships with authoritarian states are least desirable.

How Much Forward Presence Does the United States Require?

  • Where current forward forces can be shown as vital to meeting theater campaign planning requirements, they should be left in place.
  • Where enduring partners show a strong desire to maintain current forces, the Department of Defense (DoD) should seek to maintain a concrete symbol of U.S. commitment and capability, whether an Army or Marine Corps brigade, USAF wing, or substantial naval capability.
  • DoD, combatant commands, and the services should explicitly embrace a capabilities-based approach in determining overseas force size.

Global Posture for a Global Power

  • Current efforts to realign U.S. global posture into an increasingly agile and geographically diverse presence should be viewed as a strategic investment, one that will pay benefits in ways unforeseen and over a time horizon likely measured in decades.

Recommendations

  • Use an integrated framework to explain global posture. Such a framework should explicitly demonstrate how specific elements of posture are needed to meet specific national security goals.
  • Maintain strategic anchor locations in key regions and with enduring partners.
  • Use "basing clusters" to minimize access risk. These are facilities that offer similar operational benefits but are spread across multiple nations.
  • Expand access to potential forward operating locations in key regions. Eleven basing clusters are particularly valuable as sites for forward operating locations, and most of these would require no enduring U.S. presence.
  • Expand USAF capability to support rotational forces. Continuous rotational forces have proven to be an effective alternative in locations where a permanent U.S. presence is not politically viable, and they offer policymakers and commanders an agile policy instrument that can be used to support multiple policy objectives. However, it is much more costly to rotate forces than to permanently base them abroad, so continuous rotations should be minimized to the extent possible, recognizing that some critical presence missions can only be achieved this way.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    Why Does the USAF Need a Global Posture?

  • Chapter Three

    Where Does the USAF Need Basing and Access?

  • Chapter Four

    What Types of Security Partnerships Minimize Peacetime Access Risk?

  • Chapter Five

    How Much Forward Presence Does the USAF Require?

  • Chapter Six

    Findings and Recommendations

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was sponsored by the United States Air Force and conducted by RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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