Recent announcements of withdrawals of U.S. troops from along the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea could signal the start of the most extensive realignment of American forces since the fall of the Soviet Union.

For years, the presence of large force concentrations was the hallmark of overseas basing of U.S. Forces, but Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is reworking and reinventing that matrix.

“We are at varying stages in different parts of the globe in our thinking,” Rumsfeld told reporters traveling with him for a series of recent European meetings.

U.S. forces are organized by combatant commands, each with an area of responsibility.

But Rumsfeld and DOD planners are examining the “footprint” of U.S. forces worldwide.

He said while a combatant commander looks at the world via his area of responsibility, DOD must look at a wider perspective.

The “seams” between commands are particularly troublesome, Rumsfeld said. “We have been sequentially having [the combatant commanders] come in and give us their best recommendations,” he said. “And we’ve looked at them and sent them back and suggested they look at some other options.”

U.S. government officials are discussing this process with friends and allies around the world. Some discussions are with allies that already host U.S. forces — such as in Europe — while others are with countries with no appreciable U.S. presence.

“The time has come, and the administration is pursuing the right course of action; it has to shift from a physical presence to one that is a matter of access,” said Harlan Ullman, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In the Pacific region, he said, the access issue should focus on an American ability to “surge” forces through the region when needed instead of maintaining large bases as it has for decades.

“If you have that building block, it becomes less important whether we send 100 or 500 people to one particular country; we’ll have the capacity to send whatever we need whenever we need to,” Ullman said.

Retired Army Col. Dan Smith, senior military affairs advisor at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker lobby in the public interest, thinks U.S. troops in the Korean peninsula should be moved farther south than the 75 miles announced last week.

“Should the North Koreans surge over the DMZ, U.S. forces might still be too forward to have time to digest the enemy’s main and supporting attacks before being forced to commit,” said Smith, a former infantry and heavy weapons platoon leader in Germany.

Senior fellow Michael O’Hanlon of the Washington-based Brookings Institute believes keeping troop strengths in South Korea, but “changing how to use them in war,” is a proper course for now.

More importantly, he believes a “modest” force reduction in South Korea can be considered, but only if North Korea proposes to reduce its conventional forces.

“I hope the administration would consider that, but we’re not there yet,” he said.

Across the seas in Okinawa, O’Hanlon sees difficult issues at hand.

O’Hanlon believes U.S. forces hinder the prefecture’s ability to further develop its tourism industry.

He said the Marine presence on Okinawa — now about 20,000 strong — is hurting the U.S.-Japan military alliance and that “there are just too many people on too small an island.”

On the other hand, “The Japanese benefit from that presence, and would be disappointed if we cut back too much.”

He is fearful that should a political “backlash” be mounted against the alliance, full use of Kadena Air Base could be placed in jeopardy.

“One of my arguments had been in order to preserve Kadena, and to maintain staging areas for equipment on Okinawa, we have to reduce the Marine presence. Not touching infrastructure in Japan would reflect an important philosophy of preserving what we’ve done in the region, too,” he said.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now