SEOUL — The soon-to-retire U.S. Forces Korea commander said Friday he doesn’t know if a U.S. Apache helicopter battalion will deploy from South Korea to the Middle East, because the number of troops heading there in the next rotation hasn’t been announced.
"Until the commanders on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan determine their needs … the issue of an Apache battalion in Korea is pure speculation," Gen. B.B. Bell said during a meeting with about two dozen mostly South Korean reporters at U.S. Army Garrison-Yongsan.
The roundtable was Bell’s last meeting with the South Korean press before he steps down as USFK commander on Tuesday. His successor, Lt. Gen. Walter Sharp, will assume command during a 10 a.m. ceremony at Knight Field on Yongsan.
Numerous South Korean media sources have reported that an Apache battalion will deploy to Afghanistan, but U.S. military officials have not confirmed it.
A 2nd Infantry Division source told Stars and Stripes in March that the 2nd Combat Aviation Brigade’s 1st Battalion, 2nd Aviation Regiment would deploy to a combat zone later this year. The Camp Eagle-based regiment includes Apache helicopters.
Some South Koreans have said that by deploying the battalion, the United States would violate its agreement to keep about 28,500 troops on the peninsula. The U.S. military was scheduled to decrease troop levels to 25,000 by the end of the year, but agreed in April to pause the drawdown.
Bell said the need for Apaches in the combat zone is "crucial." If the Apaches leave South Korea, he said, the United States would maintain or increase its warfighting capability in other ways.
When a U.S. combat brigade deployed from South Korea to Iraq in 2004, Bell said the United States agreed to permanently deploy bombers to Guam, and rotate fighter jet squadrons to the Pacific during North Korea’s summer and winter training cycles.
"I would much rather have the capabilities of those bombers and jet fighters, with the lethality that they bring to the battlefield, instantly available for deployment throughout the depth of North Korea than one U.S. brigade," he said. "I think we gained significantly in combat power when that brigade left."
Bell also said South Korea needs to pay a fair percentage of the cost of stationing U.S. troops on the peninsula. The United States has requested that South Korea pay half of non-personnel stationing costs, which covers such expenses as Korean employees who work on U.S. installations, logistics, and military construction, he said.
South Korea pays about 41 percent of those costs, according to USFK.
The United States spends more than 4 percent of its budget on its military — far more than South Korea spends on its national defense, Bell said.
"This fact has been viewed by some in the United States as a lack of commitment by Korea not only to its own defense, but also to its responsibilities around the world as one of the world’s leading democracies," he said.
Bell, 61, also criticized media reports saying the United States has returned polluted bases to South Korea as it downscales its presence on the peninsula. Those reports have caused friction in Congress, and could weaken the alliance between the two countries, he said.
"Those who don’t want United States forces to remain in Korea may again attempt to politicize this process, and try to portray the U.S. as a poor steward and polluter of your land," he said. "This attitude is very sad for me, and it hurts my heart to see the media being used and manipulated by these people to defame the United States."
Bell will leave South Korea on Wednesday and attend a retirement ceremony at Fort Knox, Ky., on June 9. He and his wife, Katie, will then go to Tampa, Fla., to celebrate their Korean-born adopted granddaughter’s first birthday before returning to their home in Chattanooga, Tenn.