An extensive and costly realignment of U.S. troops and bases overseas -- if implemented on the Pentagon's ambitious timeline -- risks exacerbating stress on the military and weakening its ability to respond to global emergencies, according to a government-appointed commission's report released yesterday.
The Pentagon plans to repatriate 70,000 American troops from Cold War bases in South Korea, Germany and elsewhere beginning this year, shifting to a reliance on U.S.-based forces that would rotate abroad -- a change the report called "too much too fast."
The military does not have enough sea and air transportation to rotate those forces rapidly enough to meet its timelines for responding to emergencies, the report says. Moreover, it says, the demand for additional extended rotations could strain U.S. military personnel and their families to the point that the nation could no longer maintain its all-volunteer force.
"Not slowing the pace and reordering the process puts our nation at unnecessary risk," said Al Cornella, a South Dakota businessman and Navy veteran who is chairman of the Commission on Review of Overseas Military Facility Structure of the United States. The six-member commission, made up of former military and national security officials, was created by Congress in late 2003.
Cornella estimated that a delay of "a year or a number of years" is needed to ensure that the equipment, facilities, legal arrangements, funds and overarching strategy are in place for this historic shift in the U.S. global military posture. The panel estimated the cost of the Pentagon plan at $20 billion, about double the Defense Department's projection and five times the $4 billion budgeted for the global-basing strategy for fiscal 2006 to 2011.
The call for a more deliberate approach comes as the Pentagon prepares to launch by mid-month a new round of domestic U.S. base closures in conjunction with the reposturing of American forces overseas.
The report strongly recommends that Congress and a wide range of federal agencies weigh in on the plan, which it criticizes as being "too much the purview of a single agency -- the Department of Defense."
The Pentagon yesterday rebutted several of the commission's main assertions. "Our global force realignments are a result of intensive study and extensive coordination within the government, the Congress and our allies," spokesman Bryan Whitman said.
"With respect to the fact that they think this is being done hastily, the analysis has been very rigorous, and these decisions are necessary for our national security," he said. "Everything that we have done with respect to our global force posture has been done to increase our global military capabilities, as well as our strategic flexibility."
The Pentagon plan draws down large permanent bases in Western Europe and Asia, and creates a network of smaller but expandable "lily pad" bases where U.S. forces can stage, refuel, train and conduct operations -- often using prepositioned stocks of equipment.
In Asia, the plan calls for redeploying 12,500 U.S. troops from South Korea in three phases starting this year, through 2008, pulling out a heavy brigade and bringing in a lighter but more mobile Stryker battalion.
From Western Europe, the plan would shift U.S. forces toward Eastern European countries such as Bulgaria, Romania and Poland, as well as Africa. It envisions a sharp reduction in U.S. forces and major bases in Germany, with the scheduled return of more than 42,000 troops -- including the Army's 1st Infantry Division and 1st Armored Division in 2007 and 2008 -- and the closure of more than 200 individual bases and related facilities in Europe. The military would keep an airborne brigade in Italy and send a Stryker brigade to Germany.
The commission, however, warns that this rebasing, in Europe in particular, risks weakening U.S. influence with long-standing allies, while relationships, including legal agreements, with the new host nations remain uncertain. It recommends that the Pentagon revise its plan and leave one U.S. armored brigade of 4,000 troops in Europe, both to demonstrate U.S. commitment to NATO and to handle any renewed outbreak of hostilities in the Balkans.
With the U.S. military already stretched thin by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the commission report warns that the plan to add new rotations of U.S. forces overseas "takes us to the edge of our capabilities" -- in terms of manpower, transportation assets and equipment.
Meanwhile, according to the report, the extra rotations would mean that, even in peacetime, an active-duty service member would face seven extended deployments over a 20-year career, with reservists seeing deployments every fourth or fifth year. Adding to the strain, many U.S. basing communities lack the housing, educational and medical facilities to receive the returning troops, the report says. As a result, it warns, "we may find ourselves unable to acquire the requisite numbers of recruits and reenlistments to maintain a viable volunteer force."