- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 5, 2005

The deployment of thousands of sailors, airmen and Marines for the post-tsunami relief mission in Asia is adding new pressure to U.S. armed forces already stretched thin by the global war against al Qaeda and other terrorists.

Commanders have had to review war plans for any threatening action by North Korea as they pulled ships, aircraft and troops from the Pacific and sent them away from the Korean Peninsula to Indian Ocean storm centers.

Also, a defense budget analyst is warning that the Navy will not have a large enough fleet for future emergency duty if it follows through with planned cuts in shipbuilding.

The Pentagon said yesterday that more than 13,000 personnel, 21 ships and 121 aircraft are taking part in rescues and supply drops in Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Malaysia. The sea armada is led by the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and the amphibious-assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard. The carrier battle group alone costs $2.5 million a day to operate.

The massive ships are providing 42 helicopters, which have emerged as the main means to deliver critically needed supplies to isolated flood-stricken areas and to evacuate the sick and injured.

Adm. Thomas Fargo, chief of U.S. Pacific Command based in Hawaii, announced that he is doubling to about 90 the number of helicopters in what might become the military’s largest humanitarian operation.

“A key lesson from all these events was the value of helicopter vertical lift,” Adm. Fargo told a Pentagon press conference, referring to previous natural disasters in the region.

The unexpected mission comes as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is weighing deep cuts in the five-year weapons budget in the wake of spiraling costs for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The administration might need an extra $100 billion this year alone for military operations and rebuilding costs.

Mr. Rumsfeld’s staff is considering cuts in shipbuilding that could further reduce the Navy fleet to fewer than 300 ships. Critics say the ongoing humanitarian effort should spur Mr. Rumsfeld to rethink shrinking a fleet that once approached the 600-ship level during the Cold War.

“The unexpected deployment of the Navy sort of underscores the uncertainties that are raised by the administration proposal to cut funding for every category of warship — carriers, submarines, destroyers and amphibious vessels,” said Loren B. Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, a conservative think tank partially funded by the defense industry.

“It seems as though the Pentagon is backing a rather optimistic posture that assumes no attrition and no unforeseen contingencies,” he said.

He added, “If you look at the last decade of American military operations — Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq — all have one thing in common. We didn’t expect to be going. So much of what we do is not in the plan. It reasonably demands there be slack in the system for unforeseen problems.”

The deployment also comes as the military is being pressed to keep 150,000 troops in Iraq and about 20,000 in Afghanistan — yet still give troops “downtime” back home and meet retention and recruiting goals.

The Army is the hardest pressed, as it gets ready to send back to Iraq the divisions that invaded the country in March 2003. Using emergency powers, the Army has increased the active ranks by more than 30,000 soldiers, to an active force of 500,000.

It also is relying heavily on National Guard units, forcing guardsmen to stay on active duty longer than is normal. Commanders think the stress on part-time soldiers caused the Guard to miss recruiting goals last year.

The tsunami relief mission is relying mostly on Marines for boots on the ground. There are 1,400 American military personnel ashore. The Bonhomme Richard expeditionary groups carries about 2,200 Marines.

Adm. Fargo said yesterday that he tapped naval assets already in the Pacific theater that were not part of operations in Afghanistan or Iraq. The Abraham Lincoln was on a port call in Hong Kong; the Bonhomme Richard sailed near Guam.

“Fundamentally, we had these assets in the Pacific,” he said, “and we’re employing them for an array of other operations. We have a certain capacity that we always maintain in the Pacific. So we haven’t had to [degrade] those capabilities in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

These assets also have a main purpose of deterring aggression by China against the Republic of China (Taiwan) and by North Korea against South Korea.

“Every time we evaluate a deployment order, every time we look at moving force structure even north to south or east to west we do a risk assessment as to how it impacts our ability to deter,” Adm. Fargo said.

He said he had consulted extensively with Gen. Leon LaPorte, commander of U.S. forces in South Korea, to ensure that there would be no vulnerabilities.

“We talked about Korea in some depth,” Adm. Fargo said, “And I was very comfortable with the movement of our forces. So it’s an ongoing process.”

Adm. Fargo said he could not provide an estimated cost for the U.S. military mission, but noted that it costs about $2.4 million a day to operate a carrier battle group at sea. The Bush administration has pledged $350 million in disaster relief.

As he spoke, more helicopter-borne ships moved toward the area. They included the Westpac Express High Speed Vessel, a 331-foot-long cargo ship leased by the Marine Corps to move personnel and equipment around the Pacific.

“High-speed vessels that can move 40, 45 knots, that can carry a great deal of cargo … are going to be a big part of the future,” Adm. Fargo said.

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