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U.S. to Cut Number of Overseas Bases

Some forces will be moved closer to global hot spots, Rumsfeld tells Senate panel. Relocation is to take place in the next six to eight years.

September 24, 2004|Mark Mazzetti | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Responding to new threats that have made America's military deployment obsolete, the Pentagon will reduce the number of U.S. installations abroad from about 850 to 550 and shift forces closer to global crisis points, Defense officials told Congress on Thursday.

Unveiling a plan more than three years in the works, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that the U.S. would consolidate its overseas bases and move as many as 70,000 personnel and their families back home from Cold War-era installations in Europe and Asia. At the same time, the Pentagon would set up barebones facilities in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. U.S. troops could be "surged" to those bases during difficult times.

Joined by Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and top U.S. commanders in Europe, the Pacific and the Korean peninsula -- the areas where the greatest troop realignment is planned -- Rumsfeld told senators that the overhaul would occur during the next six to eight years and was necessary to better respond to a post-Cold War world.

"This is something we have to do. And we're doing it," Rumsfeld said.

The sharpest reduction of installations will occur in Europe -- where 560 will be cut to roughly 360. In the half a century since the end of World War II, many of these massive European bases have grown into what are called "little Americas" -- complete with bowling alleys and Burger Kings -- to garrison hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops and their families.

With the threat of a ground war in Europe unlikely, the Pentagon's plan calls for removing U.S. troops from these large bases and moving them either back to the United States or into Eastern European countries closer to the Middle East.

In Asia, the Pentagon will move about 12,500 U.S. troops off the Korean peninsula, taking advantage of the improved capabilities of South Korea's military.

"I am very confident that this reduction will not increase risk," said Army Gen. Leon J. LaPorte, commander of U.S. forces in South Korea. North Korean leader "Kim Jong Il has always had a strategy of provocation. And he'll continue to do that, regardless of the number of forces that are resident in the peninsula."

With defense experts in wide agreement that such an overhaul is long overdue, Democratic members of the committee focused most of their attacks on the potential cost of the moves and on the general strain on U.S. forces. In recent weeks, Democrats have pointed to a May study by the Congressional Budget Office that predicted the initial costs of relocating troops could reach $7 billion, though eventual annual savings might be about $1 billion. Responding to the concerns raised by senators, Rumsfeld said that costs of inaction were much higher.

"We always want to look at what the costs would be if we didn't do it," Rumsfeld said. "And the cost if we didn't do it would be that we would continue for another 50 years mal- arranged in the world, arranged for the last century, not the current century."

Throughout the hearing, both Democrats and Republicans chided the Defense secretary for what they called the Pentagon's stubborn refusal to increase the size of a U.S. military that was strained by fighting wars both in Iraq and Afghanistan and that also had to be able to stave off potential threats from Iran and North Korea.

"It's clear, at least to most observers, that we don't have sufficient personnel," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Citing a recent study by the Defense Science Board, a group of outside experts that conducts analyses for the Pentagon's leadership, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) noted that the group concluded that the Pentagon did not have enough troops to sustain long-term peacekeeping commitments.

Rumsfeld dismissed the criticism, saying that the Defense Science Board might not have been aware of other Pentagon initiatives -- in particular, plans by the Army -- to create more front-line forces.

"I don't know if they were briefed on the extent of all the things we're doing in the department," Rumsfeld said.

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