CINCINNATI – President Bush on Monday unveiled a plan to reposition the nation’s military into a “more agile and more flexible force,” moving 70,000 troops from World War II and Cold War-era hotspots to be stationed back home and in regions of potential threat.

Speaking to a supportive audience at the convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the president said the military personnel would be shifted to new locations from Western Europe and Asia. Administration aides said the redeployments would take considerable time, and the plan would have no immediate effect on troop strength in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The world has changed a great deal, and our posture must change with it, for the sake of our military families, for the sake of our taxpayers, and so we can be more effective at projecting our strength and spreading freedom and peace,” Bush said.

Officials were reluctant to provide many details, pending further talks with allies. Officials also had no estimate on potential cost savings.

The move Bush envisions, which would turn the armed forces into a rapid, mobile strike force, has long been pushed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as part of his efforts to modernize the military. An administration official, who asked not to be named, said the redeployments would include shifting military personnel to the United States as well as to posts in Eastern Europe.

“The new plan will help us fight and win these wars of the 21st century,” Bush said. “It will strengthen our alliances around the world, while we build new partnerships to better preserve the peace.”

The president’s proposal ran into immediate criticism from retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, who is supporting Bush’s Democratic rival, Sen. John Kerry. Clark said Bush’s proposal made little strategic sense for conducting a global war on terrorism, and he said the plan would “significantly undermine” U.S. national security.

“As we face a global war on terror with al-Qaida active in more than 60 countries, now is not the time to pull back our forces, and I question why President Bush would want to do this now,” Clark said. “This ill-conceived move and its timing seem politically motivated.”

Germany, where many American forces were stationed during the Cold War as a bulwark against the Soviet Union, would continue to see a “large number of military forces and their families,” one administration aide said.

But U.S. troop strength in South Korea, where American forces have been stationed for more than a half-century, would be reduced from its current level of 39,000. Troop strength in Japan, now about 35,000, also would be cut.

Administration officials stressed Monday that the redeployment plan was devised after three years of discussion that included key allies. Top U.S. military officers throughout the world had a say about where, and how many troops would remain abroad, administration officials said.

But as officials on Monday discussed the steady, seismic shift away from Cold War threats, it became clear that the president’s strategy is still largely a work in progress.

“It’s going to be dependent upon the circumstances, and they are going to be evolving,” said one senior military officer. “And they will certainly evolve over the next decade as we roll this plan out. As things change based on the world situation, those numbers will go up and down.”

Pentagon officials, speaking on the condition they not be named, said that two large U.S. Army divisions in Germany – the 1st Armored and the 1st Infantry – would make up the bulk of returning forces. A division includes 18,000 to 25,000 troops. More forces will be drawn home from posts in Asia. At the same time, a brigade – about 3,000 to 5,000 troops – would be moved into Germany.

The redeployments would begin in 2006, the Pentagon officials said, and continue for several years.

Other numbers and schedules, the officials said, would be provided as negotiations with host countries conclude. Right now, according to a senior defense official, those talks are at “different levels of maturity.”

Defense Department officials said that the plans to bring troops home would be coordinated with decisions over which U.S. bases stay open.

“They are two sides of a coin, if you will,” said one official. “It is important to have a very good sense of what we are going to do overseas before we can take decisions on what we would do here at home.”

Some analysts say the redeployments should have occurred in the early 1990s, after the Soviet Union’s collapse. They say the strain of continuing combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and not a dramatic change in military strategy, prompted the change.

“This is way overdue,” said retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor, who retired in June after writing several books that call for repositioning ground forces. “It would have been better had this happened as consequence of strategic thinking and analysis. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. This is happening because we are under enormous pressure, especially the ground forces.”

The U.S. has about 130,000 troops in Iraq and an additional 17,500 in Afghanistan. Some units are on their second tours of duty in those countries.

Outside of Iraq and Afghanistan, about 200,000 members of the U.S. military are serving abroad, with almost half of them in Europe. Germany alone is home to 71,000 U.S. service personnel.

Pentagon officials say that recruiting and retaining soldiers is on track, though top officers have said they expect a future drop in retention rates among Army Reserve and National Guard units, which have been taxed heavily by the Iraq conflict.

(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE)

Bush said the moves made financial sense for taxpayers and for military personnel and their spouses who tire of the need to relocate several times in their careers.

“Our military spouses will have fewer job changes, greater stability, more time for their kids and to spend with their families at home,” he said. “The taxpayers will save money, as we configure our military to meet the threats of the 21st century. There will be savings as we consolidate and close bases and facilities overseas no longer needed to face the threats of our time and defend the peace.”

Kerry’s campaign has been sharply critical of the Bush administration’s handling of the military, particularly accusing it of failing to plan adequately following the fall of Iraq. Kerry has proposed an additional 40,000 troops for the regular Army.

“It is a fact that (Bush) has overextended the military to its thinnest levels in years and forced thousands of soldiers to involuntarily extend their deployments,” said Kerry spokesman Phil Singer.

(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE)

Kerry also has proposed attempting to withdraw some U.S. troops from Iraq during the first six months of his administration, if he is elected. Bush has repeatedly criticized that proposal.

“It sends the wrong signal to the enemy,” Bush said on Monday. “They could easily wait six months and one day. It sends the wrong message to our troops, that completing the mission may not be necessary. It sends the wrong message to the Iraqi people who wonder whether or not America means what it says. Our friends and allies must know that when America speaks, we mean what we say. We will stay until the job is completed.”

Bush unveiled the proposal on moving troops in Cincinnati, making yet another visit to Ohio, a state in which he and Kerry are in an intense battle for votes. Bush won Ohio in 2000 by 165,000 votes out of more than 4.5 million ballots cast. Recent polls show the president holding a razor-slim lead in the state.

The president’s speech before a group of veterans comes only weeks after Kerry used the Democratic National Convention to promote to voters his service as a decorated Vietnam veteran as a symbol of leadership for a nation at war. Kerry will speak to the group on Wednesday.



(Pearson reported from Cincinnati, Hedges from Washington.)



(c) 2004, Chicago Tribune.

Visit the Chicago Tribune on the Internet at http://www.chicagotribune.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

—–

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040816 BUSH Germany and 20040816 BUSH TROOPS

AP-NY-08-16-04 2023EDT



Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.