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Fewer Pacific forces ready to respond

Admiral cites risks in crisis; Iraq war drains US personnel

Email|Print| Text size + By Bryan Bender
Globe Staff / February 27, 2008

HONOLULU - From his headquarters at the United States Pacific Command here, Admiral Timothy Keating is responsible for the largest geographic region in the US military.

But Keating, the four-star admiral who oversees a territory encompassing more than half the earth's surface and five of the world's largest standing armies, has steadily fewer forces at the ready in the event of a crisis.

The war in Iraq is depriving Keating and other commanders of their ability to respond to a military crisis, draining away thousands of personnel and critical equipment, as well as hamstringing their ability to conduct exercises and forge alliances with foreign nations that one day could prove instrumental, according to interviews with senior military leaders and specialists.

"The readiness of our forces is affected by combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq," Keating said in an interview last week in his office, where photos of World War II's storied commanders such as Admiral Chester Nimitz hang on the walls. "We are at a higher risk state."

An estimated 30,000 Marines and soldiers usually under Keating's command are fighting in the Middle East, including large elements of the Army's 25th Infantry Division on duty in Iraq since 2006.

One of the division's brigades is currently in Iraq, while another recently returned and expects to head back by the end of the year. Eight Army formations based in the Pacific, including military police and other support troops, are also deployed there.

At the same time, thousands of Air Force personnel from bases in Hawaii, Guam, Alaska, and Japan have served in Iraq each year since the US-led 2003 invasion, while other specialized units from the Navy's Pacific Fleet - including Navy SEALs and construction battalions - are also supporting ground operations in the Middle East, Central Command's area.

The cumulative effect the deployments to the Middle East are having on military readiness across the globe has set off alarms at the Pentagon's highest levels.

"Because we've got 80 percent of our Special Forces in Central Command, there's a lot of Special Forces work that they've been doing for years in other parts of the world that just isn't getting done," including training and counterterrorism missions, Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an interview last week. "That builds risk over time, and we have to assess that."

Mullen, who became the top military officer in late 2007, said he is assessing "what we're ready for" and the likelihood of a new crisis - a humanitarian disaster such as the tsunami of 2005, a major terror attack, or an outbreak of international hostilities - that would require a significant US military response.

In the Pacific, Keating said he does not foresee a major conflict on the horizon, but he said trouble spots remain, including areas where anti-American terrorist groups are operating and tensions linger between large military forces.

"There is a significant threat stream for terrorism in the southern Philippines," Keating said, pointing out that an estimated 8,000 US military personnel are now "providing medical and engineering assistance throughout southern Philippines."

Other "sources of greater concern," he added, are the "India Pakistan-border, North-South Korea, [and] tensions [with China] across the Strait of Taiwan."

"Overarching all of them [is] the movement of violent extremists, their supporters, and their financial backers" throughout the region, he said.

For now, Keating said, he is confident that his command - stretching from California to Africa and from the North to the South poles - can maintain "military pre-eminence." Still, he said, "We have had to adjust [strategic plans] a little bit because of the 30-some thousand Marines and soldiers who are ordinarily in our [area] but are not."

At Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, the lead story in last week's Hawaii Army Weekly reported that four soldiers from the 25th Infantry Division's Second Brigade were killed by an improvised explosive device earlier this month in Taji, Iraq. The division has served as the main deterrent force in the Pacific region.

"We are and must remain responsible to the [Pacific] commander as his Army component to deploy where directed as needed within the Pacific area of responsibility," Brigadier General Mick Bednarek the division commander, said in an interview last week.

But he acknowledged that multiple deployments to Iraq "has taken a toll" on the "Tropic Lightning" division.

The division's Third Brigade returned from Iraq last fall without critical gear, including communications and surveillance systems. Bednarek expects it to be difficult "getting my equipment reset and returned to us prior to deploying" back to Iraq later this year.

Meanwhile, the division's ability to train with foreign forces in countries such as Thailand and the Philippines has already suffered - a critical piece of what Keating calls "strategic engagement."

Keating believes those types of activities are critical for maintaining long-term US security in the region.

But with no end in sight to the deployments to Iraq - where the United States has 160,000 troops - other US military responsibilities will suffer, according to Michele Flournoy, a former assistant secretary of defense for strategy

"Right now we do not have [available] what we should have as a global power with global interests," Flournoy told the House Armed Services Committee on Feb. 14. "We should acknowledge that [by remaining in Iraq] we are accepting a significant level of risk."

Bryan Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com

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