WASHINGTON (AFPS, March 30, 2012) -- Family-member-accompanied tours for U.S. service members in South Korea should not expand beyond the roughly 4,600 family members now authorized, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea told Congress Wednesday.

Gen. James D. Thurman testified alongside Peter R. Lavoy, acting assistant secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs, before the House Armed Services Committee on the security situation on the Korean Peninsula.

Given continued uncertainty on the peninsula and ongoing budget constraints, the general said, it's essential to maintain U.S. force readiness at its highest level, "given our requirement to 'fight tonight.'"

"Our suspicions were confirmed when North Korea announced on March 16 that it plans to conduct a missile launch between April 12th and 16th," Lavoy told lawmakers. "This grand launch is highly provocative, because it manifests North Korea's desire to test and expand its long-range missile capability."

During Thurman's confirmation hearing before he took command of U.S. military forces in Korea, Congress asked him to assess tour normalization and force relocation, Thurman noted.

"It is my assessment that expanding tour normalization beyond our current authorization of 4,645 family members is unaffordable under the current construct," he said.

Defense Department officials have considered "tour normalization" in South Korea for a number of years. Then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in July 2010 that he was considering a two-year tour for single service members and a three-year tour for troops accompanied by their families.

Gates cautioned at the time, however, that the infrastructure such tours would require, such as schools, hospitals and commissaries, would make the change an expensive one.

Force relocation plans are on track in Korea, Thurman said, adding that he will continue to assess them to ensure they place the right capabilities in the right places to meet operational requirements.

In line with the Strategic Alliance 2015 agreement, U.S. forces will consolidate and relocate from the metropolitan area of the South Korean capital of Seoul to centralized locations south of the city, he said. The move will improve efficiency, reduce costs, and enhance force protection by placing most service members and equipment outside the effective range of North Korean artillery, Lavoy told the committee.

A comprehensive plan under the Strategic Alliance 2015 framework will transition wartime operational control from the U.S.-South Korean combined forces command to the South Korean joint chiefs of staff by December 2015, Lavoy told the panel. The transition will allow South Korea to lead its national defense while maintaining an enduring U.S. defense commitment and capability, he said.

The U.S.-South Korean alliance continues to be a cornerstone of U.S. regional strategy, Lavoy said, adding that U.S. leaders will continue to strengthen that alliance, make U.S. forces there more efficient and effective, and enhance military presence, power projection and deterrence in the Pacific region.