More than any policy initiatives or six power negotiations over North Korean nuclear ambitions, the upcoming debates in the U.S. Congress over the Bowles-Simpson program could be the beginning of the most influential power shifts both diplomatically and military in Asia since the end of the Cold War.
President Barack Obama’s bipartisan committee, which was created by Obama in 2009, outlined their initial proposals on reducing the national debt November 10 to the fury of almost every element of American politics. Alan K. Simpson, the former Republican Senate leader, and Erskine B. Bowles, White House chief of staff under former President Bill Clinton, chair the committee.
Nine members from the Democratic Party and seven from the Republican Party hammered out a series of proposals that must be sent to the president and Congress by no later than December 1. Their goal is to eliminate $4 trillion from the federal deficit. The proposed cuts, which have not been formalized, run the gamut from social programs to military spending, leaving few if any political sacred cows unscathed.
Some of the proposals guaranteed to set off bitter partisan fights were calls for a 15% increase in gasoline taxes, raising of the age for Social Security to 69 and cutting the indexing of Social Security benefits to inflation. Other controversial measures include reducing pay outs for Social Security to future generations, making cuts in Medicare, the elimination of numerous tax breaks, cutting the salaries of Federal employees by 10% up to 15%, as well as and deep cuts in military expenditures. So far 58 different proposals have been put forth.
Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, issued a statement calling the Social Security and Medicare proposals “simply unacceptable.” However, the entire political spectrum had its own objections. Even several members of the committee were at pains to distance themselves from the proposals as they currently stand.
Whatever turns out to be “unacceptable” there is a tidal wave building up on both sides in Congress to rein in expenditures and cut the budget. One of the principal targets of all budget cutters will be defense spending.
This has U.S. allies in the Far East, particularly in Japan and Korea, deeply concerned. If carried out, there is a chance that many of the defense cut backs will become a reality; the U.S. will withdraw ground troops almost entirely from Korea, and heavily cut back on air defense of Japan.
The central part of the plan to reduce military expenditures is to cut back on the number of U.S. troops stationed overseas. Currently approximately 150,000 U.S. armed forces members are stationed abroad. The plan foresees cutting this number to about 100,000. It is not only the number of troops stationed overseas that is the problem, but also paying for dependents, the department of defense, (DOD), contract workers, support personnel and foreign workers employed at the bases. In Japan these easily outnumber the U.S. troop numbers in the country. There are about 47,000 U.S. servicemen and women in Japan, 52,000 dependents, 5,500 D.O.D employees and 23,000 Japanese workers at U.S. bases.
In Korea in particular, the U.S. has been steadily cutting its forces. Currently the U.S. has between 25,000 to 28,000 armed forces in South Korea. Throughout the entire term of the Bush Presidency, troop strength was steadily reduced. In 2008, at the initiative of the U.S., the U.S. and the government of South Korea agreed to cut American armed forces personnel to 28,500 troops. The Army personnel account for about 19,000, US Navy members about 270, U.S. Air force 8,800 and Marines about 240. In addition, there are approximately 4,000 DOD civilian contractors, ranging from schoolteachers to accountants, and 11,000 family members.
For the first time since the Korean War, at least in terms of ground combat, the defense of Korea would rest solely in Korean hands, if further planned cuts come to fruition. The U.S. would remain for air support, but nothing else. The Bowles-Simpson plan foresees withdrawing 17,000 U.S. servicemen from Korea, almost all U.S. Army personnel. The facilities for civilians and dependents would be cut back drastically as well.
Plans for Japan do not envision as radical a series of cuts, but they would affect the ability of the U.S. to respond to a regional crisis. Most noticeable would be the planned cuts in U.S. warplanes assigned to Japan.
Current planning would call for the replacement of helicopters operating out of Futemna, the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station base on Japan’s island of Okinawa, with MV 22 Ospreys. Between 40 to 45 Ospreys would replace the helicopters currently stationed there. With a top speed of 458 kilometers an hour and a cruising range of over 600 kilometers, it is twice as fast as any helicopter currently in service, and has four times the range. It is perhaps the most complex and advanced prop driven aircraft in the world today, able to take off and land vertically like a helicopter and by revolving its’ engines in mid flight, fly like a conventional airplane.
It has also been plagued by a series of fatal crashes, and both its supporters and detractors are equally vehement about its virtues and defects. The U.S. and Japan have been reticent about how many MV22 Osprey would be stationed at Futemna, but the anti-base press has picked up on it. Many Japanese already believe that Futemna is the most dangerous airport in the world, and assigning an airplane with a history of malfunctions and crashes would be an invitation to disaster.
The Osprey, during its’ difficult and controversial development, ran into massive cost over runs and is a highly expensive airplane. The Bowles-Simpson plan calls for cutting the 460 planes on order to 288 planes. It may be speculated that the Department of Defense would like to reduce that further. This raises the possibility of no deployment or a highly reduced deployment of Ospreys to Futemna, or whatever its’ successor airport is.
The F35 Stealth fighter, the next generation of U.S. super fighters to be introduced to Japan, would see this version for the Marine Corps eliminated entirely, and the number scheduled to be stationed in Japan cut by half or even more.
It remains to be seen how the final version of the Bowles-Simpson plan evolves by December 1. Secretary of Defense Gates has his own plans for deep cuts and changes in how military spending is applied, so that American military spending can become more effective and more concentrated in areas of actual need.
The implications are already clear for both South Korea and Japan. While the U.S. continues to maintain a nuclear shield over South Korea and Japan, it is clearly signaling its’ intention to disengage from the manpower heavy commitments of the past.
Americans seem to be increasingly aware of the possibility of exhausting themselves by through foreign military involvement. As the U.S. draws down its’ troop strength from both South Korea and Japan, the leaders of those two countries will be forced to ask whether a vacuum or an opportunity is being created, and act accordingly.
By Majirox Correspondent Pierre Beaumarchais
This article was sourced from Associated Press, the Asahi Shinbun and the Marine Corps news website