A Fleet-Footed Military

Fast and flexible. Sounds like an Olympic athlete, but it's the Bush administration's description of the kind of fighting force the US needs if it wants to confront 21st century security threats.

As part of an overall effort to transform the military, the president this week outlined a plan to further military agility. It would take 10 years and involve the biggest redeployment of US troops since the end of the Korean War.

Outfitted with heavy equipment and concentrated in Western Europe and East Asia, today's overseas troops serve more to defend against the mass armies of the cold-war era than the nimble and unpredictable actions of terrorists or rogue nations. And so the White House wants to uproot tens of thousands of troops abroad, reequip them with lighter and more sophisticated weaponry, and replant them closer to hot spots, some of them on temporary bases.

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What's happened on the ground since 9/11 underscores the need to act along these lines. The military missions in Afghanistan and Iraq would be far more difficult to support were it not for new or beefed up US bases in Central Asia or the Middle East.

Yet that should not exempt the Bush team from serious questioning of their plan.

It may make sense to relocate US naval headquarters in Europe from London to Naples, Italy, as is now expected, or to consolidate in Germany and set up smaller bases further east in some of the new NATO-member countries. But the redeployment plan also involves returning 60,000 to 70,000 troops from Europe and Asia to the US. How does bringing home about a third of America's overseas soldiers (not including those in Iraq and Afghanistan) make them faster to deploy abroad - or meet the pressing need for more troops generally?

And while lean and mean may be the wave of the future, should it be the only wave? In Asia, specifically in China and North Korea, mass armies and cold-war tensions remain. Will the reported drawdown of 20,000 US troops from East Asia make America look weak in this region, or give the appearance that Washington is abandoning its friends in Seoul or Taipei?

President Bush also promised cost savings from his plan. But even supporters acknowledge taxpayers won't benefit any time soon. US bases have to be built, so do the new ones abroad, and consolidation isn't cheap.

Change comes hard. The president is right to push against forces that resist change. But lets hope legitimate questions about a shift as fundamental as this one won't be discarded as simply arguments for the status quo.

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