Upon learning from newspaper reports in recent days that the Pentagon is planning to considerably reduce its dependence on bases in Saudi Arabia, many Americans doubtless bristled — after all, such a pullback is exactly what terrorist Usama bin Laden has demanded.
Probe the basing issue a little more deeply, though, and one discovers that the bin Laden link is a peripheral, almost coincidental aspect of a problem that reaches far beyond Saudi Arabia or even the Persian Gulf.
Worldwide, the U.S. has been pulling back from bases for years. By the mid-1990s, the U.S. Air Force had only 15 bases in 10 countries, down from 46 bases in 17 countries in 1985 (and 70 bases in 25 countries in 1965). This troublesome trend has severely hampered the ability of the Air Force, which remains unhealthily dependent on short-range fighters that need to be based near a given conflict, from conducting operations in numerous parts of the world.
Political pressures have driven the global base pullback — host governments generally want base use restricted unless their own, narrowly defined vital interests are threatened and they can’t get away with feigning neutrality while the U.S. does the dirty work. Consider the balking at U.S. bases that has taken place in the last two decades alone:
— 1986: Spain and France refused to let British-based U.S. F-111s fly over their territory en route to the U.S. raid against Libya that followed a terrorist attack in continental Europe.
— 1992: The Philippines saw the U.S. close facilities at Subic Bay and Clark Air Force Base, whence the Navy and Air Force defended against the Soviets and later counterbalanced a rising China. The closings followed years of mounting domestic Philippine opposition to the bases.
—1995: Italy refused to let the U.S. base F-117s at its NATO airbase in Aviano following NATO air strikes against Bosnia. Italy did so in an effort to boost its role in Balkan negotiations.
— 1996: Saudi Arabia and Turkey refused to let U.S. fighters conduct offensive operations from their soil after Iraqi forces attacked the Kurds in northern Iraq. Jordan, too, refused the U.S. requests to base fighters there.
— 1998: Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates prevented the U.S. from conducting strike operations from their bases during Operation Desert Fox against Iraq, and allowed only support operations such as refueling.
— 1999: Greece, a NATO member, refused to allow U.S. forces to be stationed there during the NATO campaign in Kosovo. France refused to let Kosovo-bound B-52s carrying cruise missiles fly through its airspace.
— 2001: Pakistan and Central Asian countries severely limited the operations the U.S. military could conduct from their soil during the war in Afghanistan.
— 2001: Saudi Arabia restricted U.S. use of its command and control center at Prince Sultan air base during the effort to flush out bin Laden, an enemy of Saudi Arabia’s ruling royal family.
While the U.S. and Saudi Arabia reached a compromise for the Afghanistan war, tension over basing in the Gulf state that goes back to the 1950s has motivated the U.S. to seek alternate basing in neighboring Qatar. It’s that pursuit of an alternate command and control center that made news last weekend.
Whether Qatar will fall into the same Janus-faced habit of accepting the bases but restricting their use remains to be seen. If it does, the solution of moving there will be exposed as a Band-Aid measure. Another question that remains open is whether military threats — missiles, weapons of mass destruction — will soon join political obstacles in keeping the U.S. away from bases near a given conflict.
What is clear, though, is that the "anti-access" trend isn’t likely to be reversed. As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s plan for the coming years, the Quadrennial Defense Review, argues, the U.S. has to work quickly and hard to diversify away from its existing bases near potential conflicts. Otherwise, it may find itself severely hampered should a conflict arise in the Mideast, South Asia, or North Pacific/China-Taiwan.
Military planning was certainly harmed in the Afghanistan war, when Air Force fighter aircraft, dependent on nearby bases yet frozen out of Central and South Asia, were so far away they weren’t even used.
There are several solutions to the anti-access problem. Among them:
— Add long-range, stealthy air power to the U.S. arsenal. The U.S. should buy more B-2 bombers, of which it has only 21, and add range to unmanned aircraft such as the upcoming Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle, which can fly only 1,000 nautical miles on a tank of fuel — as little as a fighter.
— Enhance and enlarge bases that are under friendly, sovereign control, such as the U.K.’s Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean or the U.S. territory of Guam in the Pacific.
— In the short term, use the stopgap measure of finding new bases in conflict-prone regions and making greater use of the Navy’s carrier-based air power.
There are other solutions as well, to be discussed at length in another column. The solutions will be meaningless, though, if the Pentagon doesn’t act on them in a big way, A.S.A.P.
Melana Zyla Vickers covers national security issues, foreign affairs and global economics issues among other topics. She is a former editorial writer for USA TODAY and has worked at the Asian Wall Street Journal and the Far Eastern Economic Review. She has a Master's degree from the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.