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New US strategy: 'lily pad' bases

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"We are not focused on maintaining numbers of troops overseas," said Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith at a recent House hearing. "Instead, we are focused on increasing the capabilities of our forces and those of our friends."

As part of a cold-war posture, the US has traditionally maintained about 100,000 troops including two heavy tank divisions in Western Europe and another 100,000 in Asia, including 37,000 in Korea. As part of the coming troop drawdown, forces in Korea will be consolidated and many repatriated, including a 3,600-strong Army brigade already destined for a tour in Iraq before heading home. Meanwhile, the US will substantially boost the number of ships and warplanes in Asia, defense officials say.

Troop numbers in Germany are also likely to drop, while more Spartan bases are under consideration in Poland and new NATO member states such as Bulgaria and Romania. These would range from semipermanent installations such as those in Bosnia to bare-bones sites with little more than a runway, some rudimentary shelters, and possibly electricity, says Gen. James Jones, commander of US European Command.

Apart from creating a network of smaller bases closer to projected hotspots, the shift into regions like southern Europe and Central Asia could also ease environmental restrictions on US forces and facilitate training with new allies. Risks also include working with repressive and less-stable regions in countries such as Uzbekistan, although the size and transitory nature of the bases mitigate these risks.

Manas a model for future

Pentagon officials say the timing of the changes will depend on factors such as troop demands in Iraq, the 2005 round of US domestic base closures, and ongoing talks with potential new host nations.

A glimpse of what lies ahead is possible, however, here at Manas Air Base, nestled in a valley surrounded by the snowcapped, 12,000-ft. peaks of the Ala-too Mountains.

Some 1,100 airmen are stationed at the base, which lies east of the city of Bishkek. Since 2001, the strategic air hub has executed some 18,000 missions - ranging from early combat flights by fighter planes during the Afghanistan war to the current logistical runs transporting troops, cargo, and refueling.

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