From the Baltics to Taipei, allied governments continue to evaluate America’s staying power and willingness to employ hard power in defense of democracy. Recently, the standoff in Congress over funding for wars in Ukraine and Israel raised further questions about American resolve. Of course, this is not the first time this situation has existed. During the Cold War, the United States conducted annual emergency deployment readiness exercises in Europe to alleviate allied concerns about American military capability and commitment. These exercises strengthened American deterrence in Europe—and provide a blueprint that could be applied to other strategic problem sets facing the United States today.

Annually, beginning in the late 1960s, and stretching until 1993, thousands of US and NATO troops flooded into the German countryside, occupying pre-positioned weapons depots in a simulated defense of West Germany. These exercises were collectively named Reforger (Return of Forces to Germany). Their purpose was to assess and verify the capability of the US military and its NATO allies. Reforger trained the operation plan for moving troops across the Atlantic; a rapid process of reception, staging, onward movement, and integration with pre-positioned equipment; and deployment to the likely battlefields of West Germany.

It is time for the US military to consider a reintroduction of Reforger-style exercises—but in the Indo-Pacific. The initiation of these exercises would accomplish two major goals in the region: (1) test and improve the capability of the US military to rapidly deploy at the theater level, and (2) deter aggression through a demonstration of US capability and commitment to the defense of Pacific allies.

In 2022, President Joe Biden firmly stated the United States would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion, rhetorically breaking from a decades-long policy of strategic ambiguity. If a firm commitment to defend Taiwan is to be US policy, the US military should set the physical conditions for implementation. By the end of 2023, it was evident that American defense support would mirror the president’s rhetoric, with a grant to Taiwan for $80 million. This was significant because it was the first time US military aid to Taiwan was not in the form of a loan, punctuating American commitment to Taiwanese defense on top of billions of dollars in arms sales. However, in the wake of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, there remains broad international concern that American commitments to allies will not be fulfilled in the face of adversity. Taiwan is not the only potential flashpoint in the Indo-Pacific region, but its seriousness—and the United States’ commitment to deterring and if necessary defending again Chinese aggression—highlights both the imperative of being able to flow combat resources into the theater and the importance of signaling US resolve.

Throughout the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact members had the advantage of having millions of troops stationed along the Iron Curtain. In the event of hostilities and facing this numerical mismatch, the United States planned to rapidly deploy combat power to the continent to halt advancing Soviet armor formations. The Reforger exercises allowed US military planners to test systems and familiarize troops with defensible terrain, and at the highest levels these exercises signaled to the Soviet Union the United States and NATO’s capability and resolve to defend West Germany. These exercises encompassed all branches of service, testing the joint capabilities of critical assets such as Air Mobility Command and Military Sealift Command. Reforger 75 also incorporated elements of the US Marine Corps’s 36th Marine Amphibious Unit, the first Marine operation on European soil since World War I.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the need for rapid deployment of corps and divisions to distant battlefields dwindled. Following the Gulf War and the subsequent drawdown of US defense spending and forces in the 1990s, the post-9/11 wars brought two decades of highly orchestrated deployments. The muscle memory of how to conduct large-scale rapid deployments ebbed as the patch chart (deployment schedule) became rotational and predictable. Pacific Pathways has been an effective way to activate Pacific deployment muscle memory, promoting ally and partner interoperability and forcing planners and operations officers to troubleshoot long-distance sustainment issues in the area of responsibility of US Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM). And its continued evolution—under the name Operation Pathways—has expanded these important opportunities. However, even the largest of these exercises—Talisman Sabre involves thirty-five thousand personnel from thirteen nations—are much smaller than the total numbers involved in Reforger. And the scale of exercises has a direct impact on their deterrent effect vis-à-vis competitors like China or Russia. While INDOPACOM has also executed joint Warfighter exercises to enhance readiness in the Pacific, the time has come to consider a Reforger-level exercise with allies and partners in the region. To do so, of course, American officials should socialize the idea with these allies and partners to build consensus on location, scope, and a rotational schedule. But this fits naturally with the approach the United States already takes in the region. As General Charles Flynn, commanding general of US Army Pacific, has said, “We don’t do anything in any of these countries without their invitation.” In this new era of strategic competition and preparation for high-intensity, multidomain conflict, the US military’s capability to rapidly surge forces must be seriously tested, which has not occurred at the scale of the Reforger exercises in decades.

Stress Test

Across the globe, US allies and interests face the threat of aggression from states such as Russia and China and nonstate violent organizations that seek to benefit from a redrawn global political, economic, and military order. These threats, in the Western Pacific, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, are far from American shores, and in the event of a large-scale conflict, would pose a myriad of challenges in the rapid deployment of large formations. This capability to mobilize in force to defend allies and partners was last put on display in late 1990 when Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait prompted a massive multimonth buildup of multiple US corps elements and numerous coalition combat units.

The US Army currently deploys single brigade combat teams to Korea and Europe as rotational readiness units. The US government’s ability to call upon Civil Reserve Air Fleet and Merchant Marine assets at a scale necessary to wage conventional war has remained largely untested since the 1990s with the exceptions of the buildup ahead of the Iraq invasion in 2003 and to some extent the withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. With changes ongoing across the US military, the timeline for the mobilization and deployment of theater-level assets and formations could deviate from planning timelines. The US Navy’s National Defense Reserve Fleet (NDRF) is on order to deploy a fleet of one hundred heavy-lift assets in the event of a national emergency. Can strategic planners count on the accuracy of timeline estimates by the Department of Transportation Maritime Administration (MARAD) if they are not tested at regular intervals? Within the NDRF, even with the Ready Reserve Force of forty-six civilian-operated reserve merchant vessels that can be activated in five to ten days, the head of MARAD was “not at all confident” that ships could be crewed in a crisis, much less deployed.

At lower echelons of the US military, training exercises are conducted to ensure unit readiness. Tactical-level units like companies and battalions conduct live-fire events culminating in brigade-wide exercises at the Army’s combat training centers. An Indo-Pacific version of Reforger would be a higher-level readiness exercise beyond corps-level staff exercises like Yama Sakura to certify that US combat forces are ready and able to effectively deploy in the region. The establishment of the Joint Pacific Multinational Readiness Center offers an important organizational foundation on which to build out a larger readiness exercise. The training center already manages certification exercises for different units throughout the Indo-Pacific; its expertise could be leveraged to coordinate resources for the exercise and eventually measure units’ performance and facilitate after-action reviews.

History has demonstrated that the rapid mobilization and deployment of forces can win or lose a war, and if the system created for the deployment of troops and equipment has faults that are identified but not addressed, the system will likely fail in combat. The consequences for failure in wartime are much steeper than they are in the relatively safe confines of a training environment.

Demonstration of Commitment

The reintroduction of Reforger exercises would serve a dual purpose. The US military would get a chance to train for a major conflict, and this training would be highly visible, both to allies and partners and to potential adversaries. The demonstration of the power and reach of the US military, and the accompanying message of resolve and commitment to defend US allies and interests, would elevate deterrence, promote American interests, and strengthen alliances.

Since February 2022,the Department of Defense has “deployed or extended over 20,000 additional forces to Europe in response to the Ukraine crisis,” a strong demonstration to Russia that the United States will stand by its NATO allies. Permanent force realignment is taking place, with Poland, Romania, Spain, the United Kingdom, and Germany all hosting augmented US forces. In INDOPACOM, an optimal version of a Reforger-style exercise would also include allied forces and partners. The coalition involved in the signing of the AUKUS submarine deal in March 2023 represents a good starting point for exercises designed to contain aggression in the Indo-Pacific and would demonstrate overall Western resolve. Continued Indo-Pacific security relationships with Canada, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and the Philippines could also be leveraged to include these Pacific allies in operational planning and considerations.

Despite recent high-level exchanges between the superpowers, President Xi Jinping of China explicitly warned President Biden in December 2023 that Beijing still plans to reunify the mainland with Taiwan, and in a New Year’s address told the Chinese public, “The reunification of the motherland is a historical inevitability.” In January 2024, the Chinese defense ministry also reiterated that China will “never compromise or yield on the Taiwan issue.” Rather than be reactive to an invasion—or a crisis that emerges around any of the flashpoints in the region—the United States must coordinate with regional militaries on force flow. A Reforger-style exercise will demonstrate to China that the United States is still committed to its Pacific allies and partners.

A Reforger-style exercise for the Indo-Pacific coordinated by a strong bloc of interoperable US allies and partners offers the region enhanced strategic clarity. The United States should explore regional governments’ willingness to conduct the exercise in locations that already host Operation Pathways. Of course, there are risks involved, the greatest of which is a massive Chinese escalation. Any escalation would increase the chances of miscalculation and confrontation between the superpowers. Ultimately, however, the political environment in the region may make key allies and partners receptive to this significant step even if it might draw the ire of China. And fortunately, after the Biden-Xi Summit in November 2023, the US military and People’s Liberation Army reopened the US-China hotline. This hotline could be used to communicate American intentions and mitigate the risks of escalation during an exercise.

Any increase in American troop presence in the Indo-Pacific region will be heavily scrutinized. A Reforger-style exercise held in Taiwan itself could be seen as a direct contradiction of the United States’ longstanding “One China” policy; this option is not on the table right now and would likely provoke a crisis the United States can ill afford amid heightened tensions in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Historically, China has reacted belligerently to American acknowledgements of Taiwanese sovereignty, including demonstrating its capability to blockade Taiwan after a state visit by then Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Since then, in addition to weapons sales, several steps have been taken to bolster Taiwanese deterrence and capability. The US Navy and Air Force remain active in the Taiwan Strait, conducting several freedom-of-navigation operations every calendar year. There are also ongoing discussions about Taiwanese troops coming to the United States to gain additional training and expertise. However, all these steps stop short of a Reforger-style exercise in the region that could strengthen collective security for American allies and partners.

The US military should socialize and then introduce a Reforger-style exercise in the Indo-Pacific region to assess and improve its own ability to rapidly deploy theater-level military capabilities in the event of a major conflict and to serve as a form of strategic messaging. The US military already has a massive presence in the region—with 20 to 25 percent of the Army’s total active duty strength aligned within the US Army Pacific’s formation, US Army Pacific is twice the size of any other of the service’s theater armies. This is itself a strong message. Yet, a conflict in the region would undoubtedly require substantially more manpower and other resources. Rather than wait for China to build the combat power to match its rhetoric, the United States and its allies should embark on the planning and coordination of a Reforger-style exercise. Eighth Army in Korea hinges its mission on the “Fight Tonight” ethos; a Reforger for the Indo-Pacific will export this idea throughout the Pacific formation.

Major Michael Greenberg is a strategic intelligence officer and Council on Foreign Relations Term Member assigned to the United States Military Academy at West Point as an assistant professor of history. He is a Northwestern University graduate and earned an MA in terrorism, security, and society in the War Studies Department at King’s College London and an MA in history at New York University. His most recent operational assignment was in the Pacific where he served with 1-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team as a military intelligence company commander and infantry S-2.

Second Lieutenant Ben Phocas graduated from the United States Military Academy where he studied Defense and Strategic Studies. He was an intern for the National Center for Urban Operations and commissioned as an armor officer in May 2024.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Cpl. Kyle Chan, US Marine Corps