Asia, Europe Brace for U.S. Troop Realignment

Editor's note: This is the second of a two-part series on the Pentagon's plan to withdraw troops from stations abroad.

The Pentagon's decision to break up its heavy footholds in Europe and Asia has been lauded by many in the defense community as overdue, but some military analysts and members of countries to be vacated are asking the Defense Department to rethink its plan.

Last week, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (search) told Congress that reshaping the current alignment makes sense not only because the Cold War is long over, but because the move would allow the United States to better fend off its newest enemies.

"We do not expect our forces to fight where they are stationed," Rumsfeld testified on Thursday. "We know that our forces will need to move to the fight, wherever it is."

The Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks (search) made plain that the newest threats to Western democracy aren't armies or even enemy governments, but rather shadowy players willing to die in self-declared violent crusades, rendering force-by-force matchups irrelevant. Because the United States' global defense posture has been "virtually frozen in place" for 50 years, Rumsfeld said, a military that stresses agility and flexibility is now needed.

U.S. troop levels in Germany have steadily declined over the past two decades from a quarter million at the Cold War's close to the 73,000 U.S. troops currently stationed there. With the communist threat gone and frontlines shifting to the Middle East and North Africa, the Pentagon's new plan will split up the cluster of firepower there and spread smaller units east and south.

The two large Army divisions in Germany will be replaced by "more advanced, rapidly deployable, capable units such as Stryker light-armored vehicle (search) brigades and airborne units supported by advanced training facilities," Pentagon spokesman Maj. Paul Swiergosz told

The new units will be able to mobilize and reach hot zones faster than U.S. forces can today, he said.

Defense officials said that high-tech, rapidly deployable forces would also be installed in the Eastern European countries of Bulgaria, Poland, Romania and Uzbekistan.

"There will be no giant sucking sound in Europe," Swiergosz said.

Some German business owners in military towns have lamented the loss of about 170,000 Americans, a figure that includes family members and civilian employees. And a few European editorial pages warned that the move could weaken the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (search), whose longstanding mandate has been to protect member countries in the Western alliance.

But officials from both countries have said discussions to remove the troops began years ago, and while unemployment is expected to climb in base towns like Kitzingen, home to 2,600 1st Infantry Division soldiers, many Germans recognize that the country's economic woes can hardly be blamed on U.S. troop movements.

"I think most people, in terms of the economy, are concerned with what's going on in eastern Germany," said Fabian Marco Loehe, a reporter at the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper. A Stern magazine poll released earlier this month found that one-fifth of Germans regretted reunification and wanted the Berlin Wall back.

Loehe also told that Germans were not surprised by Bush's recent announcement to institute the plan, saying his countrymen expected the United States to reconfigure its troop placements after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"This administration has consulted extensively with our allies — old and new — on a multitude of levels, every step of the way," Rumsfeld said in his congressional testimony.

The plan will force relatively conflict-free Western European nations to take more responsibility for their own security, and not a moment too soon, say some U.S. officials. In 2003, Germany spent $35.1 billion on defense, less than 10 percent of the U.S. defense budget, and 1.5 percent of its own annual gross domestic product.

Rather than weakening NATO, some analysts add that the Pentagon's move could spur the alliance to streamline and reprioritize its mandates.

"The base closures should make NATO a more effective organization. It will make U.S. forces more effective on the world stage, and will therefore strengthen NATO as an organization," Dr. Nile Gardiner of the Heritage Foundation told "The realignment is a wake-up call for the European countries who are complacent about spending money on their own defense, in particular Germany."

Gardiner added that America's increasing reliance on smaller Eastern European allies could change the dynamic in NATO, to the point where giants like France and Germany would no longer be so dominant.

"This has strengthened the position of new European countries on the world stage. For example, Poland is emerging as one of Europe's major powers partly as a result of its major role in Iraq," he said. "It's the shape of things to come."

Realignment to Impact Far East, Too

In the East, American forces are most heavily concentrated in Korea and Japan. While nearly all of the 40,000 troops in Japan are likely to remain, 12,000 of the 37,000 troops stationed along the Demilitarized Zone (search) are slated to leave the Korean peninsula starting in 2005.

When asked if pulling troops from the region sent a dangerous message to North Korea, Rumsfeld answered with: "An emphatic 'no.'

"We know that sheer numbers of people are no longer appropriate measures of commitment or capabilities," the secretary said.

American troops have been a presence on the DMZ since 1953, when a truce ended major fighting in the Korean War (search). But as soldiers stationed there like to say, there's nothing "D" about the DMZ — with the two Koreas still technically at war, it remains one of the tensest places in the world.

U.S. defense officials have argued that pulling American troops out of the North's immediate line of fire would better position them for a counterattack. Rumsfeld has already told Seoul of plans to bring the Army's 2nd Infantry Division, stationed just south of the DMZ, farther south from the border — an idea that coincides with South Korea's plans to pull its capital down toward the tip of the peninsula to reduce the threat from the North.

Rather than rely so heavily on ground troops to protect the South, the United States is expected to bolster air units in neighboring Japan, Singapore and especially Guam, a nearby U.S. territory. Should Pyongyang strike first, U.S. warplanes stationed in Guam can be in fighting position within a matter of hours.

"What we are doing there is consolidating some of the many facilities that are no longer needed. We are moving our forces to places where they will be not so close to Seoul and, therefore, not an irritant to the population of South Korea," national security adviser Condoleezza Rice told FOX News in August.

American troops stationed on the peninsula have not always enjoyed a warm relationship with South Koreans. Incidents such as the accidental mowing down of two schoolgirls by an Army vehicle two years ago have touched off massive protests, mainly by young South Koreans who were not alive during the Korean War.

In addition, South Korea has over the past 50 years transformed itself into an economic powerhouse with a 700,000-strong military on perpetual war footing. Rumsfeld said more responsibility would be transferred to Korean forces and he had every confidence the peninsula's defense would be "stronger than before."

But few defense experts believe the South could take on North Korea's 1.1 million troops on its own, and some are skeptical of the timing of Bush's announcement to slash troop numbers in the Pacific theater given the possibility of a nuclear arms race between the Koreas, Japan and an ascendant China, with its increasing anxieties along the Taiwan Strait.

"Taking troops out of Korea makes sense but not now," said Lawrence J. Korb, assistant secretary of defense under President Ronald Reagan. Korb told that Washington should have waited "until the situation with [North Korean dictator] Kim Jong-Il (search) is set. There's no telling how he'll interpret it."

Many Korean papers, surprised at the announcement that U.S. troop numbers would actually be reduced on the peninsula, expressed concern that the United States was so tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan that it was abandoning the Cold War's last frontier. The 3,600-strong 2nd Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division, permanently stationed in Korea, was deployed to Iraq last summer and the Pentagon has given no signal on its return.

John Pike, founder of, said the pending moves make South Koreans nervous because "it looks like we're getting out of the way of the North Korean army. ... [Kim Jong-Il] is sleeping better at night because of the atomic bombs under his bed."

But not all Koreans are unhappy with the realignment plan.

"The redeployment of U.S. troops would influence not so much on North Korea's strategy," said Tae-Gyun Park, a history professor at Seoul National University. "The most crucial fear for the North Korean people is the U.S. military presence in South Korea, regardless of its size and location."

Dr. Daniel D. Yun, a Korean-American from Huntingdon Valley, Pa., said he was more concerned with the health of Korea's diplomatic relations with the United States than troop numbers.

"As long as the U.S. and South Korean alliance is strong, security will stay the same," the 71-year-old physician said.

It is unclear how the Pentagon's plan would affect relations between Korea, Japan and China. China remains a close ally to its communist neighbor, and talk of a remilitarized Japan puts both China and South Korea on edge. In addition, recent revelations about Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions have prompted speculation of an India-Pakistan-style arms race.