CQ WEEKLY – IN FOCUS
June 11, 2011 – 9:52 a.m.
Realignment in the Pacific Comes at a Steep Price
By Jonathan Broder, CQ Staff
Over the past few years, the Pentagon has been quietly implementing the most significant changes in the structure of the U.S. military presence in the Pacific since the end of World War II. From South Korea to Guam, U.S. forces are being repositioned to meet the region’s new strategic challenges as well as to relieve long-simmering disputes with allies such as Japan.
The defense concerns include lingering Cold War flash points such as the Korean peninsula and the island of Taiwan, still considered by Beijing to be a renegade province. But what’s really rewriting the threat picture in Asia for the Pentagon is China’s modernization of its naval, air and missile forces, which some defense experts believe are already capable of denying the U.S. Navy access to the western Pacific, a vast expanse of ocean that China now considers its strategic waters.
These latest shifts in the U.S. Pacific posture involve what military planners call “normalizing” the tours of American soldiers serving in South Korea by extending the length of their stays in the country and moving their families to an expanded base to live with them. Pentagon officials say the new arrangement will give these forces the flexibility not only to help defend South Korea from North Korean attack but also to be used for more varied missions in the Pacific. Other changes include downsizing the big U.S. Marine base at Futenma, at the southern tip of Okinawa, transferring its aircraft to a base on the less populated northern end of the island, and moving thousands of its Marines 1,500 miles southwest to the U.S. island territory of Guam, as agreed with Tokyo in 2006.
This activity presents Congress with a problem: The Pentagon has been moving ahead with these plans for several years without giving lawmakers an idea of how much they will cost in the end or how long they will take to carry out. Lawmakers have used several recent defense policy bills to scold the Defense Department for its failure to provide them with that information and, as recently as last year, to withhold authorizing funds for the realignment plans.
In Washington’s new cost-conscious climate, three of the Senate’s most influential figures on defense issues — Armed Services Chairman
“In our view, present realignment plans are unrealistic and unworkable,” Levin wrote in a letter last month to Defense Secretary
The lawmakers are raising their voices as senior U.S. and Japanese officials prepare to hold talks on the base issue later this month. Further complicating matters, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan is under tremendous domestic political pressure to whittle down the U.S. military presence in his country, especially on Okinawa, because of local concerns about crime and noise — an issue that contributed to the resignation of his predecessor, Yukio Hatoyama, last year.
“No one said this is going to be easy,” said one congressional aide who asked for anonymity. “But it’s time for everyone concerned — the administration and the Japanese — to get real about this problem.”
Senators ‘Not Convinced’
Webb, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs as well as the Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, has focused on the region since his days as a young Marine officer in Vietnam and a defense planner in the 1970s. Last month, after numerous visits to Japan, Okinawa, Guam and South Korea, he issued a set of observations about military basing in East Asia and a list of recommendations that Levin and McCain endorsed.
Webb noted that the Pentagon’s plan to convert U.S. forces in South Korea from their “deployed” status — which does not permit them to be accompanied by family members — to “accompanied” status would drive up housing, medical, school and other infrastructure costs at Camp Humphreys, the U.S. military base south of Seoul that would be most affected by the base-realignment plan.
Realignment in the Pacific Comes at a Steep Price
“We are not convinced of the arguments that have been used to support this concept. Nor have we seen clear, measurable data that properly calculates the cost,” Webb said. “There is an inherent contradiction in planning to increase the number of U.S. military family members in South Korea when there is the real potential that a destabilizing security situation in North Korea could unfold rapidly and unpredictably.” A committee aide translated: “If North Korea attacked the South, we’d have to worry about not only mounting a counterattack but evacuating thousands of American civilians as well. That’s not smart.”
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded in a report last month that the Pentagon’s cost estimate of $17.6 billion for this and several other base-realignment plans in South Korea through 2020 is “incomplete.” The report says that the “tour normalization” plan alone would cost $5 billion by 2020 and $22 billion by 2050.
Brian J. Lepore, director of the GAO’s defense management unit, also points out that the Pentagon never offered Congress an analysis of alternative approaches and their costs and benefits. He said this omission “raises major concerns” about a $13 billion construction program now under way at Camp Humphreys.
“We recommend that the proposed restructuring of U.S. forces in South Korea be placed on hold” pending “further, careful review,” Webb said.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s plan to downsize the U.S. military presence on Okinawa also has raised the senators’ hackles. The issue of the Marine base near the southern city of Futenma has roiled relations between Washington and Tokyo for years. Nearby Japanese residents say they are fed up with the rowdy behavior of the Marines — three of whom were convicted of kidnapping and raping a 12-year-old girl in 1995 — and with the loud engine noise that comes from the base’s airstrip.
In 2006, the United States and Japan reached an agreement under which the Pentagon would reduce the U.S. military presence in Futenma by transferring Marine air operations to the less populated northern end of the island and relocating about 8,000 Marines to Guam, leaving about 15,000 on Okinawa. The plan now calls for the construction of a new, partially offshore airstrip at Camp Schwab in the north, which would require moving millions of tons of earth to create the airstrip on a new 30-foot-high landfill next to the base.
“This would be a massive multibillion-dollar undertaking,” Webb said. “Some estimate that the process could take as long as 10 years.” The United States has agreed with Japan to complete the plan by 2014, a deadline one committee aide called “entirely unrealistic.” Indeed, so much gravel is needed for the project that much of it would have to be imported from China, another committee aide said.
Once again, the Defense Department has not provided Congress with estimates of the cost of this initiative, which would be shared by Japan. But the GAO, using a Japanese government cost study, put the figure at $29.1 billion — just for the airfield construction. That does not include the costs of rebasing the 8,000 Marines on Guam, along with their dependents. The Pentagon has estimated those expenses at $17.4 billion.
The senators are urging the Pentagon to scrap the plan to build the new Camp Schwab airstrip and to relocate Futenma’s Marine helicopters and other air assets to Kadena Air Base, an existing U.S. facility to the north. The Air Force units now based at Futenma could be transferred to Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, which has been underutilized since it served as one of the principal bases for bombers during the Vietnam War, the senators say.
“This option would keep our military forces in the region, save billions in costs that would have gone into the offshore facility at Camp Schwab, would reduce the American footprint on Okinawa and potentially could result in the return of more land to the Okinawan people,” Webb said.
Trail of Frustration
Over the past few years, the Pentagon’s failure to answer Congress’ repeated requests for cost estimates and alternative plans for the Okinawa downsizing has produced a trail of legislative action. The Senate version of the fiscal 2010 defense authorization bill withheld $320 million in requested funding for the plan, but the authorization was restored in conference at the administration’s insistence. With little additional information provided the following year, the fiscal 2011 defense authorization law again withheld the funds, which amounted to two-thirds of President Obama’s full request for the realignment.
“Congressional committees have requested in numerous Acts the need for the Department of Defense to provide Congress a plan detailing the level of effort and the total cost estimate for” the plan to move the Marines on Okinawa to Guam, said an explanatory statement accompanying the 2011 measure. “As of the date of this Act, the Department of Defense has not submitted this plan.”
Realignment in the Pacific Comes at a Steep Price
Committee aides say it is now likely that the Senate’s version of the fiscal 2012 defense authorization bill, to be marked up this week, will once again withhold most of the funds for the president’s request to move forward with the East Asian plan. Congressional appropriators are not bound by such decisions, but it would certainly draw their attention.
With Gates and Secretary of State
But lately, Adm.
Gates and Clinton will have to step gingerly when it comes to discussing the senators’ proposals during the talks. Though Japan’s Kan is expected to step down in late summer, he still remains under pressure from Okinawan activists to remove all U.S. forces from the island, and his successor will almost certainly face similar demands. Both the senators and the administration agree on the necessity to keep at least 15,000 U.S. Marines on Okinawa for the foreseeable future.
Mullen said any solution must maintain “the kind of influence and stability that our presence in that part of the world has done for 60-plus years, and at the same time recognize limitations and that there are needs on both sides.”
But he did not downplay the difficulties ahead in reaching an agreement that is acceptable to both the Japanese and Congress. “This thing has been discussed for 15 years,” he said. “There have been 20 different kinds of solutions that I’ve seen — all of them difficult,” he said. But, he added, “we have to be realistic here.”
FOR FURTHER READING: Fiscal 2011 defense authorization law (PL 111-383), 2010 CQ Weekly, pp. 2945, 2918; rising China, p. 2704; fiscal 2010 defense authorization law (PL 111-84), 2009 Almanac, p. 6-3.