- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 12, 2006

Much of the U.S. ground combat might is tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Washington is reducing its infantry forces in South Korea.

But U.S. air and sea power in East Asia, a key to almost any imaginable military conflict with North Korea, has grown in numbers and reach. So, on balance, it appears the United States has sufficient forces for the more likely military missions to be required in a Korea crisis — perhaps some form of sea and air blockade, officials and analysts say.

If North Korea initiated a surprise attack on South Korea, the United States would face hard decisions on multiple war fronts. Soldiers and Marines getting ready to rotate into Iraq would have to be diverted to Korea, requiring the troops in Iraq to stay much longer than planned.

These issues arise as the U.N. Security Council considers imposing tougher sanctions on North Korea in response to its reported nuclear test.

Rep. Ike Skelton, Missouri Democrat and a close observer of military issues, said in an interview Tuesday that he worries that if a major military crisis erupted in North Korea, the Army and Marines would be over-stretched.

Mr. Skelton said the Army has only two fully ready combat brigades available — one in Germany, the other in Kuwait. The rest are either in Iraq or Afghanistan, are getting ready to deploy there, or have just returned.

The U.S. military has about 140,000 troops in Iraq and about 20,000 in Afghanistan, mainly soldiers and Marines.

One Army combat brigade is based in South Korea — the Republic of Korea, ROK for short — as part of a U.S. force numbering 28,000. That force has been pared down from 32,500 over the past few years and is scheduled to drop to 25,000 by 2008.

There are about 50,000 U.S. troops in Japan; of those, about 8,000 Marines are scheduled to move from Okinawa to Guam.

Michael Green, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, said in an interview Tuesday that short of a total collapse of North Korea, the U.S. military has what it needs to handle the problem.

“The South Korean ground forces are strong enough to handle and deter a North Korean attack on the ground,” said Mr. Green, who was senior director for Asian affairs on President Bush’s National Security Council. “What they need is help with air forces and naval forces, and that is not what we’re using in Iraq right now.”

He sees no shortage of U.S. air and naval power.

Mr. Skelton agrees that “we’re in pretty good shape” in terms of air and naval forces available for Korean duty. He added that he does not see an immediate need to send more U.S. ground troops to South Korea.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and others argue that even with smaller numbers of U.S. ground troops in South Korea, recent technological advances and improvements in the South Korean army have actually increased the overall level of military power facing North Korea.

The U.S. Air Force has a range of fighter planes, surveillance aircraft and support planes at two major bases in South Korea — Osan and Kunsan — and at three bases in Japan, including Kadena Air Base on Okinawa. It also has begun in recent years to rotate continuously a fleet of long-range bombers to Andersen Air Force Base on Guam, an island in the Pacific well within range of any target on the Korean Peninsula.

There are six B-52 bombers on Guam, where B-2 stealth bombers recently did a rotation.

The Air Force also has begun basing C-17 long-range transport planes in Hawaii. As part of a broader strategy for focusing more on Asia, the Navy is considering shifting one of its aircraft carriers from the Atlantic region to the Pacific, possibly to Guam or Hawaii. The Navy has added two Los Angeles-class attack submarines to its forces on Guam.

The Navy also is installing missile-tracking radar and interceptor missiles on 18 Pacific Fleet ships.

Next week, Mr. Rumsfeld is scheduled to meet at the Pentagon with his South Korean counterpart to discuss progress in reducing U.S. forces in South Korea, consolidating the remaining troops on fewer bases farther from the North Korean border, and shifting more command authority to the South Korean government.

The Pentagon wants to restore wartime control of South Korean forces to the Seoul government as early as 2009, but the South Koreans say they need more time, at least until 2012, to create a new command structure.

Since the end of the Korean War in July 1953, a U.S. commander has had wartime command of South Korean troops. In the proposed arrangement, U.S. troops in Korea would remain under U.S. command.

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