The Pentagon is planning to add another submarine to two others already deployed to the Pacific island of Guam, and is considering stationing an aircraft carrier strike group there as well. The deployments would put the U.S. military in a position to respond more quickly to a crisis in Asia, including one on the Korean peninsula.
A third nuclear powered submarine is set to arrive at the U.S. naval base on Guam in December. The island is already home to two other attack submarines able to seek and destroy enemy vessels and the Navy is reported to be considering basing three more there as well, each with a crew of about 150 sailors. In addition, the Defense Department has long been looking into moving an aircraft carrier battle group to either Guam or Hawaii.
Guam is strategically located about four hours flying time from the Asian mainland, significantly reducing the travel time needed to respond to a regional crisis. The enhanced U.S. military presence would be part of an on-going realignment of U.S. forces overseas, with the Pentagon shifting personnel and assets to regions where threat levels suggest they may be needed.
While no final decisions have been made, the top U.S. military commander for the Pacific region has told Congress tensions on the Korean peninsula and the China-Taiwan issue demand an improved force presence and increased agility.
James Lilley served as American ambassador to South Korea during the 1980s. The threat posed by North Korea, he says, does not come from the country's military, but from the risk that Pyongyang will use or pass on nuclear weapons to other nations or terrorists.
"Their military can be handled," he said. "[It's] their weapons of mass destruction. They know if they ever use nuclear, biological, chemical weapons in South Korea or Asia, they will be obliterated. Even [President] Clinton said this."
But South Korea is still wary of doing anything that could be read as a sign of weakness by the north. On Wednesday, the United States and South Korea announced both countries had agreed to a much slower withdrawal of some 12,000 American troops from the Korean peninsula than initially planned, a redeployment that will be carried out in stages over the next four years.
"As you've seen in the paper this morning, the South Koreans are pleading with us not to cut back unilaterally too soon and we've adjusted this to their time schedule, phasing it out over the next four or five years," James Lilley said.
North Korea is already reacting to news of the possible enhanced U.S. military deployments. The country's official news agency calls them a very dangerous option by the United States, one that amounts to placing military pressure on Pyongyang, and suggests Washington should consider the consequences.