(News Focus) USFK intact, Asia pivot potentially in jeopardy
By Lee Chi-dong
WASHINGTON, March 4 (Yonhap) -- Unveiling Washington's new defense strategy in an era of austerity, Pentagon officials seem to have a simple and clear aim: making the military smaller but more powerful.
But they apparently find themselves in a more complicated and challenging reality in supporting the rebalancing toward Asia.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and his Pentagon staff said the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) focuses on three strategic pillars -- defending the homeland against all threats, building security globally, and staying prepared to win decisively.
They reaffirmed the Obama administration's commitment to the so-called Asia pivot.
"The QDR outlines key missions of our strategy -- including the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, sustaining our security commitments in the Middle East and Europe, and building partnership capacity throughout the world," Hagel said in a statement Tuesday on the release of the updated QDR and the Fiscal Year 2015 budget request.
Speaking to reporters later, other top officials also dismissed worries that the department may be forced to revisit or reconsider its Asia strategy.
"I think the budget definitely supports the rebalance. We are not reconsidering it," Under Secretary of Defense and Chief Financial Officer Robert Hale said at a Pentagon press briefing.
Christine Wormuth, who serves as deputy under secretary of defense for strategy, echoed that view.
"I would say, you know, as we went through the program budget review process, we looked at investment choices through the lens of our strategy, and the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific was a big part of that," she said.
They agreed, however, if the sequester-level budgets continue, the Pentagon's global strategy, including the operation of personnel and equipment in Asia, would be affected.
The U.S. Army plans to reduce the number of its active-duty troops from a war-time high of 570,000 to 440,000-450,000 by 2019.
Furthermore, the U.S. still faces urgent challenges in the Middle East and Europe, as demonstrated in the ongoing stand-off with Russia over Ukraine.
Another senior defense official reportedly voiced a skeptical view of the rebalancing policy, citing budget constraints.
"Right now, the pivot is being looked at again, because candidly it can't happen," Katrina McFarland, assistant secretary of defense for acquisition, said earlier Tuesday at a conference in Arlington, Va., according to the Marine Corps Times.
In spite of the uncertainty, Washington's commitment to the defense of South Korea appears to remain intact, at least for now.
"The operation of U.S. Forces Korea (USKF) is unscathed (in the budget request)," a Pentagon official said on background.
Last week, Christine Fox, acting deputy secretary of defense, made it clear that the size of the 28,500-strong USFK won't be affected by the plan to scale down the Army. The USFK is largely composed of ground forces.
"The importance of our relationship with Korea and the importance of our commitment to South Korea and the troops on the peninsula is not affected by our plans," she told a Washington security forum.
She strongly indicated that there will be more flexibility on the USFK's field operation, signaling the deployment of more rotational troops in and out of Korea.
The Pentagon also said the Army is fundamentally changing the organization and management of its forces.
"Its focus is on building rapidly deployable contingency capabilities," it said in the QDR.