September 22, 2004
WASHINGTON - The U.S. military is quietly expanding its network of small outposts worldwide to help fight terrorism in Middle Eastern and African hotspots, even as it prepares to send home tens of thousands of troops from Cold War bases in Germany and South Korea.
Among the places the military already has placed or hopes to establish such new "lily pads" or jumping off points: Bulgaria and Romania in Eastern Europe; a pier in Singapore, Azerbaijan in Central Asia, and a tiny island off the oil-rich coast of West Africa.
"Freedom of action," is a term the Pentagon uses to describe the flexibility it seeks, and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is to brief senators on the plan Thursday.
When President 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 historic scale of withdrawal.
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 - and other potential threats ahead - if it has a wider range of options for basing and using troops.
Thus the Pentagon is trying to move away from big concentrations of troops at permanent 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 are about to undergo the most profound changes since the end of World War II and the Korean War, Douglas Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy, said 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 new basing plan's chief architect.
"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 said the changes would be done in a "rolling process" over a 10-year period.
But the Pentagon already has lined up some "forward operating sites," sometimes referred to as "lily pads," that have few, if any, permanent American troops. Some store U.S. war materiel, others are merely "gas-and-go" way stations.
A few examples:
-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 to try to deny sanctuary to al-Qaida terrorists.
William Arkin, a defense analyst and author, said he believes the Pentagon's main interest in a wider network of "lily pad" bases is its desire to protect the international oil supply.
"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 for U.S. troops to 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, where Pentagon officials have said they have no plans for permanent bases, U.S. forces likely will conduct joint training with Australian forces.
The Pentagon says it will maintain a big presence in places like Ramstein air base in Germany and Camp Humphreys in South Korea, important Air Force and Army hubs.
But Rumsfeld wants to avoid constraints that encumbered the Army, for example, when it sought to send forces by rail from Germany to Italy during the buildup to the Iraq invasion, and neighboring Austria denied passage.
The Navy, meanwhile, is developing an approach called "sea basing." It calls for building a fleet of large ships capable of launching and sustaining a combat force - 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.
Overall, the Pentagon says the number of U.S. bases and other installations overseas will drop by about a third in the next decade, to about 550 sites