By DANA LIEBELSON
As the Pentagon struggles to prevent its budget cuts from breaching $450 billion over ten years, legislators are putting costly U.S. military initiatives under new scrutiny. One such project, which was targeted recently by Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO), is the construction of a multi-billion dollar U.S. military base in South Korea. Although it's unclear exactly how much the construction project will cost U.S. taxpayers, it still merits a closer look.
The construction project is part of a broader Department of Defense initiative to extend the tours of duty of U.S. soldiers in South Korea from one year to three years—an initiative called “tour normalization.” With these new longer assignments, families can accompany service members. The Army reported in April that 850 families had already packed their bags.
"While I certainly understand the value of minimizing the separation of our service members from their families whenever possible, I believe we should suspend the plan to change the tours of duty in South Korea and save the planned $13 billion in military construction cost," Rep. Coffman told AOL Defense.
The $13 billion cited by Coffman comes from a May 2011 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, and it’s the cost of constructing more than a thousand new structures, including family housing, health care facilities and schools at U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys. That same report however, also pegs the cost of extending the tours of duty and moving thousands of dependents to North Korea to be an additional $5 billion by the year 2020, and about $22 billion by the 2050—numbers not mentioned in Coffman’s budget cut proposal.
U.S. taxpayers might not be on the hook for all these costs though. In 2009, The Washington Times reported that South Korea plans to shoulder 90 percent of the $13 billion in construction costs, which would bring taxpayers’ share of those costs down to about $1.3 billion. A 2007 WikiLeaks cable mentioned this week by Yonhap, a South Korean news agency, said Korea might cover as much as 93 percent of the cost of the relocation project at U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys.
Neither the DoD nor the Embassy of Korea was willing to confirm these numbers for POGO. However Joe Megyesy, the communications director for Rep. Coffman, told POGO that “due to the fluid nature of cost growth, it’s unclear how much construction—if any—will be funded by the South Koreans.”
Megyesy also pointed to a section of the GAO report that said when the U.S. has used South Korean contributions in the past, it has lowered DoD’s funding requirements, but also eliminated the opportunity for the DoD to apply these funds to reduce operation and maintenance costs—which ultimately increases the overall required funding.
This brings us to the root of the problem: the Pentagon hasn’t done a thorough analysis of costs and alternatives to the “tour normalization” initiative. In the words of GAO, “DOD is embarking on an initiative that involves moving thousands of U.S. civilians to South Korea…without fully understanding the costs involved or considering potential alternatives that might more efficiently achieve its strategic objectives.”
So what are these objectives? The first thing that comes to most people’s minds is probably North Korea. While demonstrating U.S. military might to the North Koreans is part of the equation, the reality is more complicated. The U.S. ultimately hopes to be able to deploy troops from South Korea to 'hot spots' elsewhere in Asia as needed, according to Stars and Stripes, but some South Koreans fear that a decrease in U.S. troop strength will make the nation more vulnerable.
Commander Leslie Hull-Ryde, a press spokesperson for the DoD, told POGO that while she appreciates Rep. Coffman’s perspective, the DoD is committed to its current plans to maintain a forward presence in the region.
“The proposed budget plan allows us to protect the U.S. military's size, reach and fighting strength…we have—and will continue to—work with our regional allies and partners to maintain peace and ensure stability throughout Asia,” said Ryde.
She did not respond to repeated requests from POGO for details about the budget plan.
Dana Liebelson is POGO's Beth Daley Impact Fellow.
Photo of U.S. troops in the Korean Demilitarized Zone by POGO's Andre Francisco.