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Pentagon plans major shift of troops throughout Asia

Sunday, June 01, 2003

By Esther Schrader, Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon is planning a broad realignment of troops in Asia that may include moving Marines out of Japan and establishing a network of small bases in countries such as Australia, Singapore and Malaysia where the United States has never had a permanent military presence, senior administration officials say.

The moves in Asia, designed to include the transfer of troops away from the demilitarized zone in South Korea, represent the third phase of a sweeping plan by the Pentagon to reposition U.S. forces around the world to be closer to areas it considers unstable while cutting the U.S. presence in Cold War-era strongholds like Germany.

The shift is also likely to lower the U.S. military's profile in areas where its presence has provoked resentment and become a troublesome political problem, such as Seoul and the Japanese island of Okinawa.

The change is already under way in the Middle East, where U.S. forces have largely pulled out of bases in Saudi Arabia and Turkey over the last month, and in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, where the Pentagon has moved rapidly to establish bases in territories formerly controlled by the Soviet Union.

"Everything is going to move everywhere," Doug Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy, said in an interview. "There is not going to be a place in the world where it's going to be the same as it used to be. ... We're going to rationalize our posture everywhere -- in Korea, in Japan, everywhere."

Feith declined to divulge details, but some of the moves being considered for Asia were described by other defense officials. The United States is considering moving most of the 20,000 Marines on Okinawa to new bases that would be established in Australia; increasing the presence of U.S. troops in Singapore and Malaysia; and seeking agreements to base Navy ships in Vietnamese waters and ground troops in the Philippines.

In South Korea, as previously reported, the Pentagon is hoping to begin moving Army troops away from the demilitarized zone and out of Seoul by October.

The Pentagon has not yet made plans to reduce the overall troop level of 37,000 in South Korea, for fear of sending a signal of lack of resolve to North Korea. But eventually, one senior administration official said, such a reduction is probably in the cards.

"It's possible the numbers will be lower, but the capabilities will be greater," the official said.

Up to now, more than 75 percent of the 100,000 U.S. troops in East Asia have been concentrated in just two countries, South Korea and Japan. An additional 12,500 U.S. military personnel are on ships in the region.

The rationale for that deployment has been that U.S. forces needed to be prepared to defend Japan and South Korea, mainly against China. But in the post-Sept. 11 world, the threat from China is believed by Bush administration policymakers to pale beside that posed by any number of unstable countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East that are viewed as breeding grounds for terrorists.

At the same time, countries such as Vietnam, Australia and several nations in Central Asia and Eastern Europe are openly seeking a U.S. military presence and the security and economic benefits U.S. bases could bring.

Such countries are, by virtue of their geography, viewed as potential launching pads for moving U.S. forces quickly and clandestinely to future conflicts.

"During the Cold War, the general thought was the forces that we had in Europe were going to be used in Europe, the forces we had in Korea were going to be used in Korea, and so on," Feith said.

But, he said, what Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has been saying is "our history demonstrates that we have no idea where our forces might be used next, and we should not be devising basing arrangements and we should not be creating a force structure premised on the notion that the forces are going to be used where they are based."

South Korea provides one example. Under the agreement that has kept U.S. troops there since the Korean War, those forces have maintained a focus on just one contingency -- an attack on the South by North Korea.

The Army's 2nd Infantry Division is deployed along the DMZ. The remaining U.S. forces are headquartered at the Young Soon garrison in central Seoul and the Osun Air Base or are scattered around the country.

"That's a waste of manpower," said Derek Mitchell, a former Pentagon special assistant for Asian and Pacific affairs. "In an era where our forces are declining, we need to make those guys deployable. And in an era where Koreans have developed a new [military] capability, they should be allowed to take greater control over their own defense."

Reducing the number of U.S. troops in South Korea, or at least their visibility, could also serve to remove a major irritant. The troops' presence has been controversial for years, and the deaths of two girls run over by a U.S. military vehicle last year further inflamed anti-American sentiment.

A date for the withdrawal from Yong Soon is still being worked out with South Korean authorities, but administration officials say they would like to begin the move in October. The Pentagon plans to then consolidate its troops at several key hubs in South Korea.

"It's going to make them more capable and efficient. Both governments agree this makes sense," the senior administration official said.

For the 20,000 Marines based on Okinawa, most for months without their families, the United States is also considering a major shift.

Under plans on the table, all but about 5,000 of the Marines would move, possibly to Australia. The 24,000 or so U.S. troops based with their families elsewhere in Japan would remain where they were. But the Pentagon would increase the military equipment and weaponry stored and maintained at ports in Japan and elsewhere, allowing it to cut back the number of troops based in the region but leaving it able to deploy them rapidly to conflicts in the area.

Pentagon officials say such options are still being discussed and stress that no final decisions have been made.

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