Personnel reductions at Misawa Air Base in Japan and RAF Menwith Hill Station in the United Kingdom may provide an early preview of the cost-cutting budget priorities unveiled by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel this week.
Misawa, located on the northern tip of Japan’s main island, will trim 500 troops from its intelligence-gathering units — about 14 percent of the total military workforce — over the next 1½ years, Air Force officials said Wednesday. The move is part of Hagel’s effort to create a “more fiscally conservative and efficient” Defense Department.
At Menwith Hill, about 500 U.S. military and civilian positions will be eliminated, according to a statement Wednesday from U.S. European Command.
On Monday, Hagel gave a first showing of a proposed defense budget for the coming year that would focus on cost-saving technology, whittle the Army to its smallest size in about 75 years, and reduce ballooning military pay and benefits costs.
The initiatives have triggered outcry from Congress, veteran groups and servicemembers who are concerned U.S. defense could be hobbled and earned benefits could be unfairly stripped. It’s also led some military watchers to wonder what the proposed cuts could mean to previously announced plan to shift the U.S. military focus to the Pacific region.
“The U.S. Department of Defense is currently realigning the workforce around the globe by employing enabling technologies and combining similar mission activities worldwide,” Capt. Korry Leverett, spokesman for the 35th Fighter Wing at Misawa, wrote in a statement Wednesday.
The cuts authorized by Hagel will stretch across three services at Misawa but focus primarily on intelligence operations, according to Leverett.
Elements will be deactivated or reassigned in the Air Force’s 373rd Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Group; the Air Force’s 373rd Support Squadron; the Air Force’s 301st Intelligence Squadron; the Navy Information Operations Command-Misawa; and the Army’s 708th Military Intelligence Detachment.
Leverett said the United States discussed the force-reduction plan with Japan — a key security pact partner in the increasingly important Pacific region — before implementing the decision. Both governments said they do not believe the change will affect the security situation here.
“The U.S. personnel reduction in no way affects the United States and Japan alliance, which remains a cornerstone of peace, stability, and prosperity in the region,” Leverett wrote to Stars and Stripes.
Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs sounded no alarms Wednesday, saying such changes are considered in typical military shifts and do not lessen the deterrent effect of U.S. military forces based in the country. The city of Misawa was notified by the ministry of the changes earlier this week.
The positions at Menwith Hill will be eliminiated as the 421st Air Base Group, which provides base mission support, and other U.S. military units are deactivated, the EUCOM statement said. The cuts would be implemented by October 2016. The 421st is a component of the 501st Combat Support Wing headquartered at RAF Alconbury, England. “Despite the reduction in personnel, U.S. European Command remains committed to international security in the region and will continue to work in close cooperation with the United Kingdom,” the statement said.
Squadron Leader Geoff Dickson, the Royal Air Force commander at Menwith Hill, also said the reduction was not indicative of any change to the mission.
“It’s part of the wider DOD initiative to maximize resources worldwide, and basically by looking at the future footprint it was decided that actually we could carry out the same mission with fewer people,” Dickson said in a telephone interview.
There has been pressure from Congress and others for some time to make further cuts in Europe, where two of four heavy brigades have been inactivated recently amid other cuts to personnel and infrastructure. But additional trims are likely on the continent with the war in Iraq over and Afghanistan winding down.
It remains unclear what other reductions or shifts may be in store for the Pacific, where the United States has been focusing intensely.
Hagel said the DOD will favor high-tech force multipliers over personnel, but the move is largely due to spending constraints.
The law now limits DOD spending next year to $496 billion, which is $45 billion less than White House forecasts. Meanwhile, Hagel pointed to the continuing specter of sequestration as driving the need for force reductions.
There was no immediate worry Wednesday in South Korea, where the U.S. has maintained one of its largest overseas military presences in support of the uneasy armistice that ended the Korea War. The country’s Ministry of National Defense had not publicly commented on the DOD’s proposed budget cuts. However, a ministry spokesman said he believed U.S. troop levels in South Korea would not be affected.
The spokesman said the U.S. has given past reassurances that sequestration would not lead to a reduction in forces or military equipment in South Korea. The official spoke to Stars and Stripes on the customary condition of anonymity.
Still, the proposal to slim the defense budget comes at an uncertain time in the region.
Asia-Pacific countries are now watching whether Washington will make good on promises to beef up its military presence and relationships, said Ralph Cossa, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Hawaii.
The U.S. needs to continue to show its flag throughout the Pacific despite the budget cuts, Cossa said.
“People are going to be watching closely to make sure that is the case,” he said. “The first time a major exercise gets canceled or scaled back, people will say, ‘Here’s the proof that they weren’t serious about the rebalance.’”
Ross Babbage, a former Australian assistant defense secretary, said he was reassured that production of a new long-range bomber, the Joint Strike Fighter and a new aerial tanker would be spared from the budget axe, but he added: “There is some serious questioning of U.S. resolve at the moment.”
It’s important to U.S. allies in the Pacific that whatever results from the defense budget cuts doesn’t lead to more debate about the rebalance.
“It is important for allies, neutrals and potential hostiles that they don’t get the impression that the U.S. is weakening or going away,” Babbage said.
Stars and Stripes reporters Seth Robson, Ashley Rowland, Yoo Kyong Chang, Chiyomi Sumida and Adam Mathis contributed to this story.