N. Korea forcing military choices
U.S. naval and air forces in the Pacific are ready to react
WASHINGTON » Much of the United States' ground combat might is tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the United States is reducing its infantry forces in South Korea.
But American air and sea power in east Asia, a key to almost any imaginable military conflict with North Korea, has grown in numbers and reach. The military is also considering expanding its presence in Hawaii and Guam as part of a broader effort to address security concerns in the region.
The Air Force 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.
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.
But if North Korea should lash out by launching 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.
Democratic Rep. Ike Skelton, a close observer of military issues in the House of Representatives, said in an interview yesterday that 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 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.
About 50,000 U.S. troops are 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 private research group, said in an interview yesterday 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 Green, who was senior director for Asia 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."
Next week Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is 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.
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» China agreed that its impoverished communist neighbor and ally must face "punitive actions" -- something of a breakthrough itself -- but it was unclear just how much punishment Beijing would allow.