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Air power to fill gap as Army infantry leave Asia for Iraq
WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon plans to shift long-range bombers and other warplanes to Guam and elsewhere in Asia and the Pacific to offset a loss of combat power as thousands of American soldiers and Marines in that region depart for duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, officials say.
The moves, which have not been publicly announced, are designed to lower the risk that commanders in the Pacific -- especially those responsible for the defense of South Korea against a strike by the North -- might be left with too little firepower to deter an attack, the officials said.
Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, alluded to the plan without disclosing details when he was asked during a visit to Japan last week about the Pentagon's plan to send to Iraq Marines who otherwise would be on the Japanese island of Okinawa.
"That they're gone means that we're going to have to make other arrangements to ensure stability in the region," Myers replied. He said that did not mean substituting other ground forces for the Marines.
Other officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said extra air power would be introduced in the region to offset the loss of ground forces. They said bombers and perhaps other planes probably would operate from Guam, a U.S. territory in ready striking distance of North Korea.
Extra planes might also be dispatched to Kadena Air Base on Okinawa and perhaps elsewhere in Asia, they added, and some fighter or other units in the United States may be put on higher alert.
Navy Capt. John H. Singley, spokesman for Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii, which has responsibility for U.S. military operations in the region, said he could not discuss any plans.
"We periodically assess our regional posture and make adjustments to maintain a prudent deterrent capability in the Western Pacific while forces are employed in other areas," Singley said.
A Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Cmdr. Flex Plexico, said the Iraq operation will not weaken U.S. defenses elsewhere.
"Should the need arise for U.S. forces to defend Korea or conduct major military operations elsewhere in the world, sufficient forces could be made available to do so on short notice," he said.
In a related move, the Army is sending 4,000 soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division to its National Training Center in California this month for training exercises against a North Korean-style opposition force. It is a hedge against the possibility of a sudden crisis on the Korean peninsula.
The 3rd Infantry Division fought in the Iraq war. It is now the only combat division in the Army either not in Iraq, Korea or Afghanistan, or scheduled to deploy there this year.
The United States has about 37,000 troops stationed permanently in South Korea as a deterrent against an invasion by the communist North. No significant number among those are going to Iraq or Afghanistan. In all, the United States has about 100,000 troops based in Asia.
Gen. William Begert, commander of U.S. Pacific Air Forces, told reporters in Washington last week that using other forces to fill Asia-Pacific gaps left by the Army and Marines is a way of "buying down risk."
"We are concerned about the deployments to the Gulf by the Army," Begert said, adding later, "How do you buy down risk when one service is overly subscribed or in a surge situation? I'm not prepared to announce today that we're going to take any specific measures."
He said no final decisions had been made.
Begert noted that when U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, the Pacific Command brought in extra air power to mitigate the risk of conflict in Korea.
"Guam went from having no airplanes on the ground to literally 75 airplanes on the ground almost overnight -- within 48 hours," he said.
In order to relieve the approximately 125,000 U.S. troops in Iraq who have been there nearly a year, the Pentagon has been forced to draw not only on other Army units worldwide, but also the Marine Corps, which helped fight the initial phase of the Iraq war and then left last summer.
Included in the rotation for Iraq are three battalions of Marines, or roughly 2,000 troops, who normally are stationed on Okinawa as part of the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force.
Also going is the 2nd Brigade of the Army's 25th Infantry Division, based in Hawaii. An additional 5,000-plus soldiers of the 25th Infantry are to deploy to Afghanistan this spring and stay for one year.
A portion of the replacement force for Iraq will come from U.S. bases in Europe. The Army also is sending the 1st Cavalry Division, which is based at Fort Hood, Texas, and is designated as part of a counteroffensive force to be sent to Korea in the event of war on the peninsula.
The bulk of the force that has been in Iraq since the war began, or arrived shortly after the start, came from bases in the United States and Europe.
They include the 101st Airborne Division from Fort Campbell, Ky., the 4th Infantry Division from Fort Hood, the 173rd Airborne Brigade from Italy, the 1st Armored Division from Germany, parts of the 82nd Airborne Division from Fort Bragg, N.C., the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment from Fort Carson, Colo., and the 2nd Light Cavalry Regiment from Fort Polk, La.