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Wolfowitz Denies U.S. Plans to Move Troops to Australia

May 31, 2003|Esther Schrader and Sonni Efron | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz told reporters in Singapore on Friday that the Pentagon is not planning to move most of the 20,000 Marines based in Okinawa to Australia, but he confirmed that the U.S. is talking with Japan and South Korea about realigning its forces for greater efficiency.

Speculation that Marines might be redeployed to Australia is "simply not right," Wolfowitz said.

"There have been no specific decisions" about movements for the more than 77,000 U.S. troops now based in Japan and South Korea, Wolfowitz said, stressing that the review was being conducted together with the U.S. allies.

On Thursday, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Pentagon was considering redeploying Marines from Japan to Australia as part of a broad reorganization of U.S. forces around the world. The presence of U.S. Marines in heavily urbanized areas of Japan and South Korea has been a growing source of friction with the civilian populations in recent years.

Pentagon sources told The Times that among the options being considered are moving most of the force to Australia, increasing the presence of U.S. troops in Singapore, and seeking agreements to base Navy ships in Vietnamese waters and ground troops in the Philippines.

A Pentagon spokesman traveling with Wolfowitz, Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Davis, denied that such moves were under top-level consideration. Davis said it was incorrect to say that "most" of the Marines would be moved out of Japan to Australia. Asked whether some of the Marines might be redeployed there, Davis declined to elaborate.

Later, U.S. defense officials in Singapore said privately that what is under consideration is a small reduction in the number of Marines in Okinawa but that it is not yet clear where they would go, and that any decision would be made in consultation with Japanese officials.

The question of where to base the Marines in the future is one of dozens of issues on the table as the Bush administration engages in a sweeping review of U.S. military forces and basing worldwide. In recent months, the Pentagon has withdrawn most of its forces from Saudi Arabia and Turkey. In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the Pentagon has moved rapidly to establish bases in territories formerly controlled by the Soviet Union.

Wolfowitz, in Singapore for a meeting of Asian defense ministers, is scheduled to travel to Seoul and Tokyo to discuss regional security issues.

While taking issue with elements of The Times story, Wolfowitz indicated that military planners were prepared to make significant changes.

"There's a lot in that story, including that point [about withdrawing Marines from Okinawa], that's simply wrong,'' Wolfowitz said. "We are in the process of taking a fundamental look at our military posture worldwide, including the U.S. "We're facing a very different threat than the one we have faced historically, our forces have very different capabilities and added capabilities to what they had before, and it's appropriate to look at how those forces are postured."

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Schrader reported from Washington and Efron from Singapore.

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