The Pentagon is seeking permission from Britain to base a small number of Air Force B-2 stealth bombers on the island of Diego Garcia in the northern Indian Ocean, officials said Tuesday.
The B-2s, which cost $2 billion apiece and would figure prominently in any U.S. war against Iraq, have never been based outside the United States. B-2 attack missions flown against targets in Kosovo in 1999 and in Afghanistan las with Britain do not necessarily reflect a U.S. intent to deploy B-2s to Diego Garcia right away, but the Air Force wants the go-ahead to build special aircraft shelters there to accommodate B-2s in a crisis, according to a senior defense official who discussed the matter on condition of anonymity.
The Air Force also is interested in erecting similar shelters for potential B-2 deployments to RAF Fairford in England, the official said.
Basing the bombers at the Indian Ocean site would cut in half the distance they would need to fly to reach Iraq. Because of the special maintenance required to preserve the B-2's radar-evading stealth qualities, climate-controlled shelters would have to be erected on Diego Garcia before the planes arrived.
Gen. John Jumper, the Air Force chief of staff, declined Tuesday to confirm that the U.S. government is discussing the basing question with the British government, which controls Diego Garcia.
"I don't want to go into any details of what might or might not happen with regard to basing," he told reporters. "The B-2 is obviously fundamental to our concept of operations in any potential conflict."
Another senior defense official, however, confirmed that discussions with the British were under way.
In a related development suggesting further Pentagon efforts to prepare for a possible war, the Navy's Military Sealift Command said it is trying to contract for a commercial ship to move military vehicles and other equipment from northern Europe to the Persian Gulf later this month. It would be one of several such contracts arranged recently amid growing signs of a U.S. military buildup in the Gulf.
At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld met with his Egyptian counterpart, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, and Deputy Defense Minister Paul Wolfowitz met with Qatar's foreign minister, Sheik Hamad bin Jassem bin Jabor Al Thani.
The Qatari minister said earlier this week that the United States had not yet asked his government for permission to use al-Udeid air base, near the Qatari capital of Doha, as a launch pad for offensive operations against Iraq.
The U.S. request for Britain's permission to base B-2s on Diego Garcia was first reported by the Wall Street Journal. On Tuesday the New York Times reported that the United States wants to base four to six B-2s there.
Asked about the advantage of stationing B-2s closer to Iraq, Jumper said, "Anytime that you can put one forward and have the reliability and the maintenance to go along with it, it helps in sortie generation."
Air Force B-1 and B-52 bombers have been allowed to use the island base to launch strikes in Afghanistan; B-52 bombers used the island during the 1991 Gulf War.
In London, a spokesman for the Foreign Office said, "The issue of possible upgrades to facilities on Diego Garcia was discussed at annual talks between the U.K. and U.S. governments. The details of these talks are confidential."