Force Realignment Plans Not Seen as Dramatic for Asian Allies

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - U.S. military global realignment plans announced Monday by President Bush are not expected to include any dramatic or unexpected reductions in troop levels in Asia.

Over the past three years the Pentagon has been working on a review of the global U.S. force posture, to better equip the military to face new challenges such as terrorism.

Speaking in Cincinnati Monday, Bush announced that the U.S. would bring home up to 70,000 troops from Asia and Europe as part of a plan to develop "a more agile and more flexible force" over the next decade.

In background briefings after the president addressed the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, administration officials were quoted as saying around 50,000 troops would be withdrawn from Europe -- mostly from Germany, home to heavy U.S. Army divisions designed for Cold War-envisaged land battles.

Approximately 230,000 U.S. military personnel are stationed abroad -- excluding those in Iraq and Afghanistan -- of which about 45,000 are in Japan and another 37,000 in South Korea.

Aside from the 50,000 slated to leave Europe, the remaining troops to be pulled back to the U.S. are expected to comprise mostly 12,500 already earmarked for withdrawal from South Korea by the end of next year. That news was made public two months ago.

Of greater importance in Asia will be redeployments and base restructuring and consolidation within the regions, where the presence of U.S. military bases has prompted frequent protests over the years.

Already, infantry units in Korea are being pulled back from their bases near the Demilitarized Zone to "hubs" south of Seoul, and the two governments have been negotiating the move of U.S. Forces in Korea headquarters from central Seoul to a location further south as well.

Recently, 3,600 infantry troops left South Korea for a one-year stint in Iraq. U.S. officials said they were would likely eventually form part of the 12,500 to be withdrawn from Korea altogether.

In Japan, meanwhile, there have been reports that some of the 17,000 Marines stationed on the southern island of Okinawa - where their presence is often politically sensitive - may be relocated to other parts of Japan.

U.S. military officials have repeatedly stated that any changes in South Korea and Japan would be made in a way that does not compromise the defense and security of the two countries.

In the case of South Korea, the Pentagon has pledged an $11 billion modernization plan to help enhance the military's capacity to face hostility from North Korea.

Also, additional assets will deploy on the peninsula on a temporary basis. U.S. F-117A Stealth fighters have been training in South Korea, and the air force said this week a squadron of Alaska-based F-15E attack aircraft will head for the country next month, for up to three months of training.

Seoul on Tuesday played down the restructuring plan, which Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon said South Korea had been notified about beforehand - a reference to the announcement last June of the 12,500 pullback.

"I don't think there will be big changes for us," he said.

Another round of high-level U.S.-Korea military talks are due later this week, when Korean officials are expected to ask the U.S. to delay implementation of the withdrawal until 2006.

Japan's foreign ministry on Tuesday welcomed Bush's announcement, saying the new framework "will better suit the global security environment and further contribute to peace and stability."

Plans outlined for Asia

In a fact sheet, the White House said the focus of changes in northeast Asia would be to restructure command structures and presence in the allied nations, while improving capabilities in the region.

"Advanced strike assets will be stationed in the Western Pacific," it said.

There was no elaboration, but Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said Guam was at the center of new plans for the major realignment of U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific.

According to other officials, those plans include stationing additional air force and naval assets -- possibly including an aircraft carrier -- on the island.

Guam lies some 3,800 miles closer to the potential hotspots of North Korea and the Taiwan Strait than the next nearest U.S. soil with a major military presence, Hawaii.

As far as central and south-east Asia go, the White House said the U.S. was "working to establish a network of sites to provide training opportunities and contingency access both for conventional and special forces."

Last month the U.S. and Australian governments signed an agreement to set up combined training facilities in northern and north-eastern Australia.

Australian Defense Minister Robert Hill Tuesday welcomed Bush's announcement, calling it "a significant global security development."

Hill said the changes would improve the U.S. capability to contribute to international efforts to defeat threats such as terrorism and weapons of mass destruction proliferation.

"While the redeployments do not directly affect Australia, our two countries continue to work closely to enhance security cooperation in the region," he said, citing the joint training plans and Australian participation in the U.S. ballistic missile defense program.

U.S. forces also train regularly with other countries in south-east Asia, including Singapore and the Philippines, while in Central Asia, the military has developed strong ties with countries like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan since the Sept. 2001 terror attacks.

The White House said the planned troop realignment was the biggest since the 1950-53 Korean War.

Bush's announcement was criticized by some high-profile Democrats, including retired Gen. Wesley Clark and former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Richard Holbrooke - the latter mentioned as Kerry's choice for Secretary of State should he win the election.

Those welcoming the move included Ted Galen Carpenter of the libertarian Cato Institute, who said it was absurd for the U.S. to continue stationing 100,000 personnel in Europe, where there had been "no serious security threat" since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Heritage Foundation senior policy analyst Jack Spencer said Bush should be applauded for the base restructuring initiative, which for political, military and strategic reasons was in America's interests.

"The world has entered a new era, and it is well past time for U.S. global force structure to reflect this reality," he said.

See earlier stories:
US Has Big Military Plans for Small Pacific Island (Jun. 11, 2004)
US Confirms Plans to Substantially Trim Forces in Korea (Jun. 08, 2004)

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow