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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, June 12, 2005


A Pacific forces reshuffle

By Richard Halloran

When Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld addressed the Shangri-la Security Dialogue in Singapore last weekend, most of the attention in the meeting and later in the press focused on his candid comments about China's military strategy, spending and modernization.

The secretary barely touched on the fundamental revision in the U.S. defense posture that is intended to counter a potential threat from China or to respond swiftly to contingencies elsewhere, pointing only to "a repositioning of U.S. forces worldwide that would significantly increase our capabilities in support of our friends and allies in this region."

American defense officials in Washington, at the Pacific Command at Camp Smith and in Asia have spent many months seeking to bring Rumsfeld's policy to reality. They have fashioned a plan intended to strengthen the operational control of the Pacific Command, enhance forces in the U.S. territory of Guam, tighten the alliance with Japan and streamline the U.S. stance in South Korea.

As pieced together from American and Japanese officials, who cautioned that no firm decisions have been made, the realignment shapes up like this:

Army: The Army headquarters at Fort Shafter would become a war-fighting command to devise and execute operations rather than to train and provide troops to other commands as it does now. The U.S. four-star general's post in Korea would be transferred to Hawai'i.

I Corps at Fort Lewis, Wash., would move to Camp Zama, Japan, to forge ties with Japan's ground force. Japan would organize a similar unit, perhaps called the Central Readiness Command, to prepare and conduct operations with the U.S. Army.

Japanese officials are considering elevating the Self-Defense Agency to a ministry and renaming Japan's Ground Self-Defense Force as the Japanese Army and the same for the navy and air force. Shedding those postwar names would reflect Japan's emergence from its pacifist cocoon.

In South Korea, the U.S. plans to disband the Eighth Army that has been there since the Korean War of 1950-53, to relinquish command of South Korean troops to the South Koreans, and to minimize or eliminate the United Nations Command set up during the Korean War.

A smaller tactical command would oversee U.S. forces that remain in South Korea, which would be down to 25,000 from 37,000 in 2008. That may be cut further since Seoul has denied the U.S. the "strategic flexibility" to dispatch U.S. forces from South Korea to contingencies elsewhere.

Marine Corps: The Marines, who have a war-fighting center in Hawai'i, would move the headquarters of the III Marine Expeditionary Force, or III MEF, to Guam from Okinawa to reduce the friction caused by the U.S. "footprint" on that Japanese island. How many Marines would move was not clear, but combat battalions would continue to rotate to Okinawa from the United States.

Some U.S. officers are displeased because local politics rather than military necessity dictated the move. They asserted that the Tokyo government, despite its desire to "reduce the burden" on Okinawans, has blocked U.S. attempts to move forces to other bases in Japan.

Other officers saw an advantage to having III MEF on Guam. If a Japanese government sought to restrict the movement of U.S. forces, III MEF would be able to operate without reference to Tokyo.

Air Force: The 13th Air Force moved to Hickam Air Force Base from Guam in May to give that service a war-fighting headquarters like those of the other services. General Paul V. Hester, commander of the Pacific Air Forces, was quoted in press reports: "We're building an air operations center and war-fighting headquarters that serves the entire Pacific region."

The Air Force plans to establish a strike force on Guam that would include six bombers and 48 fighters rotating there from U.S. bases. In addition, 12 refueling aircraft, which are essential to long-range projection of air power, would be stationed at Andersen Air Force Base there.

Further, three Global Hawk unmanned reconnaissance aircraft would be based on Guam. Global Hawks can range 12,000 miles, at altitudes up to 65,000 feet, for 35 hours, which means they can cover Asia from Bangkok to Beijing with sensors making images of 40,000 square miles a day.

In Japan, the Air Force is willing to share Yokota Air Force Base, west of Tokyo, with Japan's Air Self-Defense Force but has resisted opening the base to civilian aircraft, citing security concerns. Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara has demanded such rights.

Navy: The USS Kitty Hawk, the conventionally-powered aircraft carrier based at Yokosuka, Japan, is slated for replacement by 2008. The United States wants to station a nuclear-powered carrier there while some Japanese politicians want the last of the conventionally-powered carriers, the John F. Kennedy, to be chosen.

The Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, whose war-fighting element is Joint Task Force 519, has moved three attack submarines to Guam to put them in the western Pacific and would probably be assigned an additional carrier from the Atlantic Fleet to be based at Pearl Harbor.

All in all, these changes would take upwards of three years to complete, during which time Beijing can be expected to object in no uncertain terms.

Richard Halloran is a Honolulu-based journalist and former New York Times correspondent in Asia.