Military co-operation is nothing new. Throughout history, from the Hellenic league of city states in the 5th Century BC, through the conflicts that help write the pages of European history and two bloody World Wars, to the international coalitions of today, different groups have often banded together to combat the threat of a common foe.

Some of those associations have been little more than temporary expediencies. Others, such as the Anglo-Portuguese Treaty of 1373 – which began what remains the world’s longest running military alliance – have been rather more enduring, but all of them have tended to centre on the provision of fighting forces and materiel in time of need. Today, however, it seems the concept of military co-operation is set to go even further as some observers tip 2017 to be the year of the ‘base swap’.

Strengthening defence ties

Two high-profile examples have already been announced. In May, news emerged of Singapore’s planned upgrade and expansion of its military bases in Australia, which will see greater troop numbers stationed there, along with the joint development of additional military training areas and facilities. Three months later, the US and India signed a bilateral logistics exchange memorandum of agreement (LEMOA) that is intended to strengthen the mutual defence ties between the two countries and help facilitate the sharing of each other’s bases for repair and resupply.

“It’s looking like a bit of a growing trend and definitely something that major militaries and some of the big regional players are really starting to look at very seriously,” says defence blogger Newton Hunter.

"It’s looking like a bit of a growing trend."

He points out that the asset-sharing trend forms part of a much wider spectrum of collaboration that has seen US and Polish forces sharing a base in Ciechanow; France and Germany sign an agreement to share both C-130J Super Hercules transport planes and an air base in Orleans by 2021; and even some Dutch troops being merged into the German army.

“What we are seeing more and more,” Hunter adds, “is closer and more permanently structured co-operation in the defence sector, and bases could be playing a much bigger role in this.”

Kudos of association

According to Philip Ramirez, logistics and supply lead at the new think tank Defense Watch, base sharing offers some significant benefits to the parties involved. He says that particularly when smaller nations, or those with less advanced militaries, team up with bigger players, they gain what he describes as the “kudos of association” since many of these arrangements are struck on the basis of the hosted forces also enhancing mutual defence ties.

“Base sharing is a big, visible sign of who your friends are,” Ramirez says, “and for the US sharing a base is good news from the budget saving angle, and can help defray some of the anxiety over American-owned bases.”

That can be an important consideration. The implementation of the US-India LEMOA, for example, suffered delays as a result of fears – and, it seems, the spreading of some deliberate misinformation too – over the prospect of a permanent US troop presence, which it does not, in fact, allow.

Nor are the concerns all one-sided: last year David Vine, associate professor of anthropology at American University in Washington, DC, published ‘Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World’. Drawing on a six-year study, his book makes the case that having bases on foreign soil both undermines homeland security and diminishes US soft power around the globe, raising geo-political tensions, increasing anti-American sentiment and costing, Vine estimates, some $100bn a year to run.

Logistics bonus

Base swapping arrangements have clear advantages just as a means to help lessen those sorts of consequences, but Ramirez argues that there are often more directly practical benefits too.

“For smaller militaries, it can mean getting access to systems that you wouldn’t ordinarily have gotten the chance to use. I’m not so much talking about weapons systems – although that too does obviously take place – so much as better logistics systems. You maybe get to share better management systems, better delivery platforms, or better materiel and asset tracking. It can be a big bonus.”

Ramirez says tapping into the logistics infrastructure and developing a combined support-and-supply approach also benefits the larger partner in base sharing operations, and obviously also enhances the inter-operational capabilities of both forces for joint missions.

“The [US] Army has been honing the combined logistics support area concept in [South] Korea over years to allow for US/ROK [Republic of Korea] units to fight and win on the peninsula,” he explains. “It’s a case of spinning the same idea out across the new base shares.”.

The challenges of sharing

Nevertheless, there are some significant challenges to implementing truly integrated logistics, and according to Hunter, one of the biggest is dealing with the growth of smart devices, connectivity and machine-to-machine communication. He says that while this inevitably aids the levels of control and visibility that modern military logistics prizes so highly, it also demands that partners, and partnered bases, are running the same systems and operate under the same materiel management regime.

"Truly integrated logistics may mean having to share more than just physical real estate."

He points to the likes of the F-35 Lightning II as an example. The next-gen aircraft is heavily equipped with sensors that can communicate in real time with its own ground support system, and can effectively schedule necessary maintenance operations before it lands, allowing the required equipment and parts to be automatically pre-ordered and standing by once it arrives in the hangar. It means more efficient use of time and maintenance personnel, but it can obviously only work if the necessary systems are in place – and that could involve a level of de facto technology transfer that some military planners might find uncomfortable.

“Truly integrated logistics may mean having to share more than just physical real estate,” Hunter says.

It may also involve a few ruffled feathers. Sharing bases is unlikely to sit well with regional rivals, particularly when it threatens to change the geopolitical balance and upset the status quo.

Back in April, when US Defence Secretary Ash Carter and India’s Defence Minister, Manohar Parrikar, announced the agreement “in principle” for their landmark Indo-US logistics exchange, the response from China was distinctly guarded. As with the deal between Singapore and Australia, there is a widespread belief that these developments have come about as a response to growing Chinese assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region, and Beijing is not happy.

While logistics sharing between clear allies makes obvious sense, shifting times can also forge alliances between unlikely bedfellows. In 2015, US forces found themselves sharing the Taqqadum military base in Iraq with Iranian-backed Shiite militia, and more recently there was even some speculation that Turkey might permit the Russian air force to use Incirlik air base. While these arrangements may be pragmatic militarily, politically they are seldom universally welcome back home. It seems that there are diplomatic challenges – both domestic and international – that need to be met, every bit as much as practical ones, to smooth the path to base swaps.

Base 2.0

Although  Ramirez says the idea has not fully taken hold yet, he thinks there is a lot of potential scope for what he calls a “Base 2.0 concept”. Advances in transport logistics have already begun to erode the benefits of permanent forward military bases making it now often easier and more efficient to deploy direct from home base, and in addition, there is the taint of old imperialism to full-ownership bases on foreign soil. Add to that the cost of their operation, and he believes that the day of that model of overseas basing may be drawing to a close.

“But you’ll always need a safe haven for maintenance and repairs – a sort of support, supply and rest arrangement – so reciprocal basing could become increasingly the norm,” Ramirez says. “How quickly? That’s a lot more about politics than soldiering.”