Lighter Footprint, Longer Reach

Oct. 1, 2003

As the US military transforms itself from a tank-heavy Cold War bulwark into a more mobile, flexible, and quick-striking force, the Pentagon is poised to remake the look and locations of its bases abroad. More units likely will be moved closer to the Middle East’s zone of instability, while some of the big garrison bases of Europe and northeast Asia shrink—or, in some cases, disappear.

The US faces a new kind of war that may demand new dispositions.

Speaking before the House Armed Services Committee in June, Paul D. Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense, said, “We have been focusing significant attention on realigning our global military footprint, … tailoring the mix of our military capabilities stationed or deployed in key regions to the particular conditions of each region and strengthening our capabilities for prompt global military action anywhere in the world.”

Over the past decade, US forces in Europe have been moving south and east. Analysts say the US should now view these moves as a permanent shift, not a temporary one.

One such temporary base—Bulgaria’s Graf Ignatievo military airfield—first hosted American aircraft participating in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. The former Warsaw Pact base would not be mistaken for a clean, clipped US Air Force installation. It is a home for rusting MiG-21s, and even its operable aircraft—a wing of MiG-29s—have seen better days. Enlisted barracks are dilapidated, with washing hung out of windows to dry. Electricity is erratic, and groundskeeping is not a priority.

In recent years, though, the Bulgarian government made a substantial investment in Graf Ignatievo, bringing runways and aprons up to NATO standards. The surrounding valley is sparsely populated, making it ideal for training ranges.

While making the base habitable for US personnel might require substantial sums, Graf Ignatievo has much to recommend it as a USAF outpost—not the least of which is its relative proximity to the Middle East.

Moving to “Lily Pads”

New US installations may look much different from the old. Many will be bare bones—holding areas to warehouse pre-positioned material—and used mainly for periodic exercises with host nations. Some US commanders use the analogy of “lily pads” to describe this concept of jumping-off points. Others call them frontier posts along the US security perimeter.

Whatever the name, this realignment is seen by many to be an important part of the Administration’s plans for military transformation—as important, perhaps, as new weapons and force reorganization. If the US is to find and disrupt networks of terrorists before they attack, it may have to become used to maintaining a presence in new parts of the world.

“ Our concept is framed to position US forces optimally to influence the threats we now face and create presence and capacity through a network of joint forward operating bases and locations,” Marine Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress this summer.

The current network of US forward deployment locations was created to counter a threat now long gone. Eighty percent of US personnel in Europe are still in Germany, despite base closings and troop reductions since the end of the Cold War. Seventy-five percent of US personnel in Asia remain in South Korea and Japan in bases established some 50 years ago.

This network was, in essence, a defensive trench line. Much of it was intended to protect against a possible Soviet thrust into Western Europe or another North Korean attack south. The paradigm of the time called for these bases to be large—cities unto themselves, really. Units had all the heavy equipment and supplies they would need to counter a full-scale combined arms assault that might come at any time.

Today, bases that were once seen as the front line of US security are now in the rear echelon, strategically speaking. A recent Pentagon study concluded that at least 20 percent of the 499 US military installations in Europe are no longer particularly useful.

Among the very few that do retain strategic value is Ramstein AB, Germany, which has developed into an irreplaceable logistics hub. Another is Incirlik AB, Turkey, straddling the line between Western Europe and Central Asia, and serving for years as the home base for Operation Northern Watch missions patrolling the northern no-fly zone over Iraq.

The US could replace many others in Western Europe with cheaper, smaller bases in locations with less urban sprawl and fewer restrictions on training activity.

An almost perfect example of such a new forward operating base is Camp Bondsteel, in Kosovo, according to Marine Gen. James L. Jones, Supreme Allied Commander, Europe. A 1,000-acre installation that sprang up on farmland virtually overnight, four years ago, Camp Bondsteel now is home to roughly 3,000 troops involved in peacekeeping in the Balkans. Its structures are wood frame on concrete pads, not tents. Its amenities include a Burger King and a cappuccino bar.

“I don’t think we’re talking about building another Ramstein or another strategically big installation where you have the small-town USA come with it, like families and schools and everything else,” Jones told defense reporters this spring. “What we’re trying to do is develop a family of bases that can be scalable—that can go from being cold to warm to hot if you need them—to be very efficiently and economically built.”

Prime Candidates

The former Communist states of Eastern Europe are prime locations for such forward deployment, noted Jones. US aircraft operated out of Bulgaria’s Graf Ignatievo and Burgas airfields during Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom and might conceivably return. The same situation holds with Romania, whose Mihail Kogalniceanu Airport north of Constanta was a major route for refueling and supply of US units during Iraqi Freedom.

Poland and Hungary are also possible locations. Some exercises once held in Germany have already shifted to Poland and the Czech Republic. Poland, which is purchasing the F-16 as its new front-line fighter, is well-positioned to help as part of an air bridge toward the east.

At the other end of the so-called zone of instability—which stretches from the Mediterranean up through Afghanistan—lies Kyrgyzstan. It is another potential US host. During Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, some 1,500 US and coalition personnel operated out of this former Soviet republic. That was more than in any nation in the area except Afghanistan itself.

Former members of the Warsaw Pact are generally eager for a US presence, seeing it as an opportunity to integrate themselves with the West.

While some view the shifting of bases from “old Europe” to “new Europe” as a means for the US to punish Germany and other traditional allies who opposed the Iraq war, that is not the case, say US officials. The idea of such a shift actually predates the ousting of the Saddam Hussein regime. The 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review outlined, in general terms, the need for a more flexible US basing system. Furthermore, Europe is not the only region affected. US bases are in flux around the world.

One example is the removal of some 10,000 uniformed and civilian personnel from Prince Sultan Air Base. That was most of the US permanent military presence in Saudi Arabia. USAF announced in late April that it will base its regional command and control capabilities in Qatar rather than Saudi Arabia. This shift was driven not only by military factors but also geopolitical concerns. Muslim radicals have long objected to the presence of the US military in the land of Islam’s holiest sites. Removal of US troops might ease domestic and regional unrest on this score.

The Iraq security situation remains unstable, increasing the likelihood of a US presence there for months, if not years, to come. However, Washington has denied reports that DOD was seeking permanent air bases in Iraq.

In East Asia, the US proposes to redeploy forces based in South Korea along the border with North Korea and to significantly reduce the heavy concentration of US forces in downtown Seoul. No longer will US units serve simply as a political “trip wire,” say US officials. Instead, they will have far greater flexibility and room to maneuver in the event of a Pyongyang attack.

In Africa, a small US force has been deployed in tiny Djibouti since the spring of 2002. Located at the strategic strait where the Red Sea meets the Gulf of Aden, Djibouti is a short flight from Yemen, the homeland of many al Qaeda leaders. It is close to Sudan and Somalia, two other nations with histories of Islamic fundamentalism.

Djibouti’s Camp Lemonier, home to the US Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa, is another prototype of the new American frontier post. A compound of cinder block buildings at one end of a civilian airport, it makes Kosovo’s Camp Bondsteel look palatial. A tent serves as the medical facility. Videos provide what passes for entertainment.

US officials say they want to prevent patches of Africa from developing into new Afghanistans—ungoverned areas that become terrorist redoubts. They are seeking basing agreements with Mali, Nigeria, and other nations in both north and sub-Saharan Africa. Forward operating bases in the region might house 3,000 to 5,000 troops in times of need. These could be augmented with forward operating locations—even more austere facilities—from which special operations forces or other mobile units could move throughout Africa as needed.

“ We’re going to have to engage more in that theater, and part of the basing realignment and proposals that we are coming up with will establish some footprints at a very low cost,” Jones told lawmakers in late April.

The NATO Factor

Not everyone in the US national security community believes it is a good idea to radically change the current basing structure. Primary among the critics’ objections is possible damage to NATO.

Removing most US troops from Germany might call into question American commitment to the alliance and would damage local economies in a nation whose population, if not always its political leadership, wants to maintain a close US relationship. “If NATO is reduced to a hollow shell, the strategic center of gravity for the use of military force by European nations will shift to the European Union, a forum … in which the US has no seat and only an indirect voice,” retired Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs, former commander of US Army Europe, told a House panel this spring.

Meigs and other critics argue that restationing forces in Europe to the south and east may put them physically closer to potential problem areas, but there are disadvantages. For one thing, the cost of bringing new training ranges up to the standards of those already available in Western Europe might be very high. The Soviet style of training was different from that of the US, according to Frederick W. Kagan, associate professor of military history at the US Military Academy. The need to continually imbue a flood of draftees with basic skills meant there was little focus on maneuver training above company level. Maneuver areas at former Soviet bases in Bulgaria and Romania are thus small and broken up, said Kagan at a House Armed Services Committee hearing in June. Large sums might be needed to construct larger, US-style facilities.

Another drawback, say critics, is that operational deployments from these new locations might be difficult. Rail transport in former Warsaw Pact nations is inferior to the Western network. International treaties restrict the passage of warships through the Turkish Straits, possibly delaying any shipment of US troops from Bulgarian and Romanian ports on the Black Sea. Aircraft deployments would be only slightly faster from southern Europe than from current locations.

“ The measure of proximity for military forces is not in miles but in minutes, and moving our forces into Eastern Europe will not substantially reduce, and in some cases may increase, the time it would take to get them to areas of importance to us,” said Kagan.

Then there is the possible strain on US troops. Troops view assignments to European bases, including Incirlik, much as assignments to Stateside locations; most can bring their families and find the other usual comforts of home. The lily-pad base concept espoused by Jones and others envisions rotating troops through austere facilities for four to six months at a time. Loading such a new rotational schedule on US forces—hundreds of thousands of which are still reeling from months of deployments for the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq—might have a dramatic and negative effect on morale.

“ If forces in Korea and Europe are put on a rotational basis, will the structure of the Army and Air Force be able to sustain the [personnel tempo] involved?” asked Meigs.

Yet, many Pentagon leaders are convinced that some sort of reorientation is necessary. Currently, US forces are deployed to some 40 nations, many of them along the edge of the instability arc in the Middle East and Asia. Changing a base structure that has remained the same for generations seems a logical way to improve the effectiveness of these far-flung units. Consequently, they feel America’s need to maintain a central role in NATO and Western Europe may have to be balanced against the likelihood of a semipermanent presence in Southwest Asia. The US may also need renewed access to whole regions that were of little importance to US national security for years. Much of Africa and the island archipelagos of Southeast Asia fall into this category.

“ The geostrategic environment around the globe continues to change quickly,” Wolfowitz told Congress. “Our capability and capacity to influence and support these changes must keep pace to remain effective. Our concept is framed to position US forces optimally to influence the threats we now face and create presence and capacity through a network of joint forward operating bases and locations.”

Peter Grier, a Washington, D.C., editor for the Christian Science Monitor, is a longtime defense correspondent and a contributing editor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “Jewel of the Air,” appeared in the September issue.