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U.S.: Pentagon Eyes New Flexible Network Of Military Bases Abroad

  • Jeffrey Donovan

In a strategic shift aimed at improving America's ability to combat terrorism and rogue states, the Pentagon has plans to carry out the biggest realignment of its forces abroad since 1945. U.S. troops are expected to leave traditional bases in Germany, Turkey, and elsewhere for a new network of smaller and more flexible "forward operating bases" in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Africa.

Washington, 11 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. military forces abroad will undergo their most radical reconfiguration since the beginning of the Cold War, under plans first reported this week by "The Washington Post" newspaper.

The report says the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea and the recent removal of U.S. forces from Saudi Arabia are the first steps in an ambitious project to replace most of America's permanent bases with dozens of smaller ones for quick strikes around the world.

The plan's architect, Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary Andy Hoehn, says that with the Soviet threat no longer in Europe, U.S. strategy must adapt to the new challenge of terrorism and hostile states with weapons of mass destruction.

Peter Singer is a defense analyst with the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. Singer explained to RFE/RL the Pentagon's rationale: "We have a military basing structure right now that reflects Cold War priorities. And that's not in the best interests of U.S. national security; it certainly doesn't reflect any kind of grand strategy. And so it makes sense to shift some of these forces around, to move them into areas where there's greater need, to take them out of areas where there's local resistance, where they're unpopular, where they're not able to carry out their training."

The plan reportedly envisions a series of military "hubs" on U.S. territory, such as the Pacific island of Guam, and in trusted allies such as Britain and Japan. Traditional bases in Germany, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere would be replaced by dozens of bare-bones "forward operating bases" maintained by small support units in Eastern and Southern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. These small bases would function like "lily pads," with forces hopping between them depending on the needs of the moment.

Among the key changes would be a significant reduction in the 70,000 U.S. forces stationed in Germany, where military officials say that training exercises have become difficult if not impossible due to environmental and other restrictions.

Although Washington would maintain the headquarters of its European command in the German city of Stuttgart, most U.S. troops there would be shifted to new bases in Poland as well as Romania and Bulgaria, where restrictions on training won't be tight as in Germany. Plus, their Black Sea ports are seen as key to quickly moving troops to the Middle East.

Janusz Bugajski specializes in Eastern European studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. He told RFE/RL that much remains unclear as to the exact nature of the new base that would take shape in Poland. "The question is also, it has to be practical. In other words, for what will the troops be used? What would their function be? Would they simply be there to train? Will they be there to interact with their Polish and other counterparts? Will they be there on a specific mission? Some of this we're not going to learn about because I think some of this will be Special Force operations as well," Bugajski said.

Since the base restructuring follows a major dispute over the Iraq war with Germany and Turkey, analysts say those countries and others may see the change as U.S. punishment for their dissent, even if U.S. officials say their considerations are purely strategic.

Singer of the Brookings Institution believes the restructuring is driven by mostly strategic concerns. But he said that's not all. "There's always politics," he said. "I mean, to say that it doesn't play even a small, minute rule would be erroneous. There's always going to be politics in this. And that's not just about the potential withdrawals from Germany as a way of showing our displeasure, but also some of the areas where they've decided to potentially relocate [some of] these forces which are new U.S. allies. That's another way of rewarding them."

Bugajski agrees. He said that politics does play some role in deciding to build bases in Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria. "These countries proved themselves very good allies during the Iraqi campaign as well as in other issues such as the Afghani reconstruction and generally in the antiterrorism campaign. So it's political in that sense. It's sort of payback," Bugajski said.

Public opinion in some of the countries set to lose U.S. troops, such as Germany and Turkey, has grown more anti-American. That means the departure of U.S. troops might make a lot of people happy. On the other hand, it will have a negative impact on the economies of the base areas.

And then there are the strategic considerations of the countries themselves, which don't always jive with public opinion.

Take Turkey, for example. Ankara failed to allow Washington to deploy troops into northern Iraq in time for the war. Now, troops at Turkey's Incirlik air base are reportedly set to be reduced from 3,000 to around 500 or less.

That might not seem like much. But in reality, it has Turkish officials deeply worried, said Bulent Aliriza, who heads the Turkish program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Aliriza said the purpose of U.S. forces in Incirlik -- to protect the "no-fly zone" over northern Iraq -- is obsolete now that U.S. forces occupy Iraq. But Aliriza said that's no consolation to officials in Ankara worried about Washington losing interest in Turkey.

"And I guess what they're really worried about is that with the end of Operation Northern Watch [and the patrols over the no-fly zone in northern Iraq], that the Incirlik base will no longer house any American troops and that this is going to reduce the Turkish-American relationship to a point that begins to eat into what was once a special relationship between Ankara and Washington," Aliriza said.

Indeed, Turkey's importance as a base for the Middle East has already diminished with the Iraq war creation of forward operating bases in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates.

Also, U.S. media report that contrary to what U.S. officials said after the Afghan war in late 2001, Washington is not planning on leaving its new bases in Central Asia any time soon. If anything, bases set up for that war in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan may be upgraded and expanded.

That's something of a concern to Singer. He said that while he agrees with the overall plan, the choice of some countries for bases may end up backfiring, since it could drive public opinion to see hypocrisy in America allying itself with authoritarian regimes.

"Ideally, you want to be going into democracies rather than authoritarian governments. Because when you base U.S. forces there, it's sort of a stamp of approval on that local government's legitimacy," Singer said.

According to "The Wall Street Journal," small U.S. bases are also envisioned for the Caucasus -- possibly Azerbaijan -- to protect against instability in the oil-rich Caspian Sea region. Still more bases may be set up in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia in North Africa and Senegal, Ghana, Mali, and Kenya in sub-Saharan Africa.

Pentagon officials say the final decisions will be made in the coming months and work could be started within a year. But they caution the undertaking is immense, hugely expensive, and unlikely to be completed quickly.