The U.S. military is quietly expanding its network of small outposts worldwide to help fight terrorism in Middle East and African hotspots, even as it prepares to send home tens of thousands of Cold War era troops from bases in Germany and South Korea.
Among the places the military already has placed or hopes to base such new “lily pads” or jumping off points: the eastern European nations of Bulgaria and Romania; a pier in Singapore; and a tiny island off the oil-rich coast of West Africa.
“Freedom of action,” is a term the Pentagon now uses to describe the flexibility it seeks.
When President George W. Bush announced in August that 70,000 troops and 100,000 of their family members in Europe and Asia would move to bases in the United States, much of the public reaction was focused on the historical scale of withdrawal.
Positioned for terror concerns
Less has been said about the other side of the equation: the calculation that the U.S. military will be better positioned for the war on terrorism if it has a wider range of options for basing and using troops.
Thus the decision to move away from big concentrations of troops at permanent, fully developed overseas bases in favor of rotating troops for short tours at training ranges and other remote outposts.
In short, the size, location and capabilities of the U.S. military overseas is about to undergo the most profound change since the the end of World War II and the Korean War, said Douglas Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy, in an interview Wednesday.
“During the Cold War we had a strong sense that we knew where the major risks and fights were going to be, so we could deploy people right there. They could be garrisoned where they were going to have to fight,” said Feith, the chief architect of the new basing plan.
“We’re operating now in a completely different concept,” he told The Associated Press. “We need to be able to do that whole range of military operations anywhere in the world pretty quickly.”
Feith stressed that the changes would be done in a “rolling process” over a 10-year period.
‘Gas and go’ stations
But the Pentagon already has lined up a number of “forward operating sites,” sometimes referred to as “lily pads” or jumping off points that have few, if any, permanent American troops. Some store U.S. war materiel, others are merely “gas-and-go” way stations.
- An air field in Dakar, Senegal, in West Africa, where the U.S. Air Force has landing and fuel contracting arrangements. Air Force planes staged from there during 2003 peacekeeping efforts in Liberia.
- Entebbe airport in Uganda.
- Singapore, the island nation at the crossroads between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Singapore built a deep-draft pier at Changi naval station that can accommodate a U.S. aircraft carrier, and U.S. Air Force planes use Singapore’s Paya Lebar air base.
- Manta air base in Ecuador. U.S. forces periodically operate there with Ecuadoran troops as part of a regional counter-drug operation. The United States also runs counter-drug surveillance flights from the Caribbean islands of Aruba and Curacao.
- Djibouti, the Horn of Africa nation where U.S. forces have been working since December 2002 with several countries in an effort to deny sanctuary to al-Qaida.
William Arkin, a defense analyst who closely tracks U.S. military programs, said he believes oil security is at the top of the reasons for the Pentagon’s interest in “lily pad” bases.
“It’s empire, pure and simple,” he said.
Among locations the Pentagon is considering adding:
- The tiny island nation of Sao Tome and Principe, off the coast of West Africa. It is among places Gen. Charles Wald, deputy commander of U.S. European Command, has mentioned as a potential U.S. forward operating site, but not a base. Sao Tome holds a strategic position in the Gulf of Guinea from which the U.S. military could monitor the movement of oil tankers and protect oil platforms.
- In Bulgaria, which joined the U.S.-led NATO alliance this year, the Sarafovo and Graf Ignatievo air fields could serve as bases where U.S. troops could deploy on rotational training tours.
- In Romania, the Americans have shown interest in the Mihail Kogalniceanu air base, the Babadag training range and the Black Sea military port of Mangalia.
- In Australia, while Pentagon officials have said they have no plans to establish permanent bases there, it is likely that U.S. forces will conduct joint training there with Australian forces.
The Pentagon stresses that the United States still will keep a big presence in places like Ramstein air base in Germany and Camp Humphreys in South Korea, which are important regional hubs for the Air Force and Army.
But Rumsfeld wants to get away from the kind of constraints that encumbered the Army in Germany, for example, when it sought to send forces by rail to Italy during the buildup to the Iraq invasion. Neighboring Austria denied passage, and Rumsfeld told Congress at the time that Austria was “causing a difficulty.”
The Navy, for its part, is developing a new approach that it calls “sea basing.” It wants to build a fleet of large maritime ships capable of launching and sustaining a combat force—either Army or Marine—thousands of miles from shore. In combination with aircraft carriers, a new generation of extended-range helicopters and high-speed transport ships, that would minimize the need for access to land bases abroad, especially in the Pacific.
Overall, the Pentagon says that over the next 10 years the number of U.S. bases and other installations overseas will drop by about a third, to about 550 sites.