SEOUL — The U.S. Army quietly has begun a transformation of its forces in South Korea — including a move toward eventually being capable of sending soldiers directly off the peninsula to other hot spots in the region and the world.

The plan to make troops in South Korea deployable is part of the 8th Army’s larger transformation into a forward-deployed warfighting headquarters that would not only be responsible for directing Army operations in South Korea, but would also be able to meet contingencies off the peninsula.

The transformation is tentatively scheduled to be completed by 2017, roughly the same time U.S. bases in and north of Seoul are scheduled to close and troops consolidate into two hubs in the southern portion of the country, 8th Army officials said. The 8th Army will continue to be headed by a three-star general, though its headquarters will move from Seoul to U.S. Army Garrison-Humphreys.

No decisions have been made about how many soldiers could deploy at a time, but any dip below the current U.S. troop strength of 28,500 would be only temporary, 8th Army spokesman Lt. Col. Jeff Buczkowski said. No deployments are currently planned before the 8th Army becomes a field army, he said.

The possibility of U.S. troops deploying from South Korea has long raised concerns in South Korea, where some fear that a decrease in U.S. troop strength will make the nation more vulnerable to an attack from North Korea.

Buczkowski said the transformation plan would ease the burden of deployments faced by Army units elsewhere. And, if conflict were to break out in South Korea, it would mean that commanders already familiar with the country and its likely adversary, North Korea, would be in charge of soldiers fighting on the peninsula, he said.

“We have better knowledge of the place and the people and the enemy and the territory,” he said.

Before the 8th Army becomes a fully functional field army, a yet-to-be determined headquarters unit from outside South Korea would be sent to the peninsula during wartime, he said.

The 8th Army is currently an Army Service Component Command, meaning it acts as a force provider to a theater commander. By the end of the transformation, it will become a “field army” or an “echelon above corps” — capable of commanding multiple U.S. and multinational corps, Buczkowski said.

While the 8th Army’s main role will continue to be acting as a deterrent against North Korea, he said the ability to deploy troops will give it “a regional focus rather than a peninsula focus.”

U.S. Forces Korea spokesman David Oten said U.S. soldiers assigned to South Korea have been on “very limited” deployments to the Middle East from South Korea, usually troops with specialized skills. He said the largest deployment came in 2004, when approximately 3,900 soldiers of the 2nd Infantry Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team deployed from bases along South Korea’s Demilitarized Zone to Iraq. Instead of returning to South Korea, the unit was transferred to Fort Carson, Colo.

Ohm Tae-am, a researcher at the Center for Security and Strategy at the Korean Institute for Defense Analyses, a research arm of the defense ministry, said it will be “imperative to convince the Korean public of their safety” should U.S, forces be deployed from the peninsula.

Also critical will be convincing North Korea that the U.S. is not weakening its defense of South Korea, he said, and suggested that the U.S. and South Korea develop a strategy on how to fill the gap left by deployed troops, such as sending Air Force F-22 Raptor combat jets to South Korea.

Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow and director of research in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, said the U.S. will “always clearly need Seoul’s acquiescence for any use of the forces that involves combat missions or related activities operating directly from South Korean soil.”

“We have in effect already made these forces expeditionary over the last decade; the big breakthrough was sending a brigade to the CENTCOM theater,” he said in an e-mail.

Buczkowski said any decision to deploy troops off the peninsula would be made in consultation with the South Korean government, and the deployed soldiers would return to South Korea at the end of their time outside the country. He said there are no plans to increase the number of U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.

The number and type of troops deployed will depend on their mission, said Maj. Gen. Robert Williamson, deputy commanding general of transformation for the 8th Army. He added that the plan has been discussed among military officials for two or three years. Williamson said deploying troops from South Korea does not indicate that the U.S. considers Kim Jong Il’s regime to be less of a threat.

“I think by our continued support here, it certainly acknowledges the continued threat that North Korea is,” he said. “It’s important for us to be here.”

South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense said it would be inappropriate for it to comment on the 8th Army’s overall transformation. A spokesman for the Blue House, South Korea’s presidential office, also had no comment.

The transformation process officially began on June 16, when the 8th Army was designated as a “field army construct,” meaning it is now being manned and equipped as a field army, Buczkowski said.

In addition to the time needed to staff and equip the 8th Army as a field army, the timing of the transformation is also designed to coincide with an increase in troops stationed in South Korea on “normalized” three-year tours with their families. U.S. troops have traditionally been stationed in South Korea on one-year unaccompanied tours.

The number of troops in South Korea on three-year tours is scheduled to increase as more troops move out of the northern half of the country to the expanding hub bases in the south.

“It’s all tied together,” Buczkowski said. “It’s not a simple change. It’s not something we can do overnight.”

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