President Bush announced plans Monday to recall as many as 70,000 troops from Cold War-era bases in Europe and Asia as part of a global rearrangement of forces that is aimed at making the military more agile in an age of unpredictable enemies.
The plan could significantly change the face of the U.S. military at home and abroad, in what administration officials called the largest restructuring overseas since the end of the Korean War. The typical three-year tours abroad would be sharply curtailed, and administration officials hope to ease the pressures placed on military families by the need for frequent moves.
The repositioning is to unfold gradually over seven to 10 years and cut by one-third the 230,000 U.S. service members now stationed overseas. The largest reductions would occur in Germany, which would lose two Army divisions, and South Korea. The two countries account for more than half of the U.S. troops stationed permanently on foreign soil.
"For decades, America's armed forces abroad have essentially remained where the wars of the last century ended," Bush said at the annual convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, held in the swing state of Ohio. "The world has changed a great deal, and our posture must change with it."
Bush's announcement of the plan -- which drew mixed assessments from military analysts -- gave him a chance to talk about bringing troops home at a time when his opponent, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), has pledged to substantially reduce U.S. troop levels in Iraq. The administration plan, which will not affect the number of troops in Iraq, has been under development for many months. Its main outlines were reported publicly last week.
Kerry, who was vacationing in Idaho, did not immediately respond to Bush, but several of his allies attacked the plan vigorously. The Democratic National Committee organized a conference call with retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, NATO's former supreme allied commander, who said the plan "will significantly undermine U.S. national security."
"As we face a global war on terror with al Qaeda active in more than 60 countries, now is not the time to pull back our forces," Clark said.
Richard C. Holbrooke, a former assistant secretary of state and ambassador to the United Nations under President Bill Clinton, accused Bush of trying to deflect attention from the strain on the military by prolonged deployments in Iraq. He criticized Bush for slipping a "historic announcement" into essentially a campaign speech.
"It's not good diplomacy," said Holbrooke, who argued that the plan will undermine relations with allies. "It sends the message that this administration continues to operate in a unilateral manner without adequately consulting its closest allies. It's a mistake, driven by the fact that we're stretched too thin in Iraq and the presidential election."
Senior administration officials briefing reporters at the Pentagon, however, said the moves would make the military more flexible in a world where threats are less predictable, while allowing troops and their families to be stationed in the United States.
The shift is part of a broader Pentagon plan that includes closing bases in what Bush's aides have called "old Europe." Instead, the administration would build training camps and smaller bases in the former Soviet satellites of Eastern Europe that could be used for rapid deployments to the Middle East. The new bases would house equipment but would be sparsely staffed and far smaller than the massive, citylike bases in Germany.
"More of our troops will be stationed and deployed from here at home," Bush said. "We'll move some of our troops and capabilities to new locations, so they can surge quickly to deal with unexpected threats. We'll take advantage of 21st-century military technologies to rapidly deploy increased combat power. The new plan will help us fight and win these wars of the 21st century."
The plan prompted debate among military and government analysts over the potential costs and benefits of what was a relatively vague though dramatic announcement.
"I think the redeployment of U.S. overseas forces is long overdue, a decade or two," said Loren Thompson, a defense expert with the Lexington Institute. "The reason why the U.S. has 70,000 personnel in Central Europe is because that was the high tide line for communist expansion. There's no reason to be there in those numbers."
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Daniel Christman said U.S. forces would lose the intangible advantages of living and working in allied countries, and he said the moves could send the wrong messages to adversaries. The shift would pull some U.S. ground troops from the Korean Peninsula, a hot spot where the United States has been working to deter North Korea's nuclear capabilities.
"I couldn't imagine a worse time to be pulling troops out of Korea at the same time we're trying to get Pyongyang to give up its nukes," Christman said. "It seems like preemptive concession."
The White House provided few details of where troops would be moved beyond saying that, over the next decade, the military would close hundreds of U.S. facilities overseas and bring home 60,000 to 70,000 service members, plus about 100,000 family members and civilian defense employees.
Defense officials declined to talk about costs or specific redeployment figures, saying they are still working on details with several countries. The plan figures to be quite costly, as U.S. bases would have to be refurbished or expanded to handle the influx of troops and their families.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said in a report in May that greatly reducing the U.S. presence overseas could save more than $1 billion a year but could cost nearly $7 billion upfront.
"Restationing Army forces would produce, at best, only small improvements in the United States' ability to respond to far-flung conflicts," the CBO said.
John P. White, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and a former deputy secretary of defense, said he believes such money should only be spent with an "imperative need" to do so. "I don't understand how we gain strategic ability to respond by moving people to the U.S., further away from the likely trouble spots," he said. "I don't get it."
Senior defense officials said yesterday that two heavily armored divisions now stationed in Germany would return to the United States as part of the realignment, and a Stryker brigade -- with its more modern attack vehicles -- would move into its place.
The major moves are not likely to begin until at least fiscal 2006 or later, with a bulk of those returning to the United States coming over several years.
Bush said changes are necessary "for the sake of our military families" and added: "Our service members will have more time on the home front, and more predictability and fewer moves over a career. Our military spouses will have fewer job changes, greater stability, more time for their kids and to spend with their families at home."
The overture to military families in a national security speech reflected the political stakes and timing of the speech. This is the second week of an effort by Bush and his campaign to undo any success Kerry had in using the Democratic National Convention to portray himself as worthy of the title commander in chief. Veterans and military families, traditionally a Republican constituency, are thought to be in play this year because of Kerry's credentials in Vietnam and concern over unexpectedly long deployments and continuing casualties in Iraq.
The appearance was paid for by Bush's reelection campaign, and he laced his remarks with digs at Kerry. He entered to "Hail to the Chief" and received standing ovations before, during and after his speech.
Continuing the two campaigns' mirrored schedules, Kerry is to address the VFW on Wednesday.
White reported from Washington.