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The American military: all stressed out

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
7 April 2004

The insurgency in Iraq is continuing to take a heavy toll. The combination of attacks on United States and other coalition forces – such as the 6 April assault in the Sunni triangle town of Ramadi which killed twelve United States marines – and the militant campaign of followers of the radical Shi’a cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, presents the American occupiers with severe political as well as security problems.

There are three months until the proposed transfer of authority to an Iraq-based government at the end of June 2004, and seven months until the presidential election in the United States itself in November. This political cycle is occurring against the backdrop of a less visible but equally momentous military process: the global redeployment of American military forces in the light of the Pentagon leadership’s strategic choices.

United States forces in Iraq and Afghanistan are facing up to relatively long-term conflicts in both countries, involving the basing of 150,000 or more soldiers and marines in south-west Asia, with tens of thousands of air force and naval personnel also engaged. This is in addition to the perceived need to have US forces available for a range of other tasks, especially if al-Qaida and other paramilitaries extend their activities to countries such as Uzbekistan and the Philippines.

In order to handle these military requirements, it now seems likely that further major changes in overseas bases and troop placements will take place. The overall trend is clear and twofold: towards a reduction of the major deployments in countries such as Germany and Japan (at present, 71,000 and 59,000 respectively), alongside the development of numerous additional bases with relatively small permanent garrisons but spread across the world in a way that allows the United States to deploy forces rapidly when required.

The stresses which the army, in particular, is now experiencing raise questions about whether the United States has sufficiently large armed forces to cope with the multiple operations that this pattern of redeployment envisages.

The pattern of redeployment

The extent of United States force reductions in traditional basing areas is surprisingly large. Germany is the country likely to be most affected (see Bradley Graham, “U.S. May Halve Forces in Germany”, Washington Post, 25 March 2004). There are 56,000 soldiers among the US’s current strength of 71,000 military personnel there – mostly in two divisions, the 1st armoured and the 1st infantry. As many as 60% of these would be withdrawn, while those remaining in Germany would be expected to operate with a higher degree of mobility.

There will, by contrast, be few cuts in the US air force in Germany, mainly because the large Ramstein air base is seen as a long-term hub for operations extending through to the Middle East. In addition, stand-by bases may be developed in Romania and possibly Bulgaria, where air-refuelling facilities were used extensively in 2003.

Although many of the soldiers currently in Europe will be transferred to the United States itself, the overall emphasis of the changes will be on rapid deployment. The availability of bases in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, as well as the two bases at Bagram and Kandahar in Afghanistan, will be an important asset here.

The planned changes are truly global, and involve US forces currently stationed in east and south-east Asia. About 15,000 personnel are likely to be withdrawn from South Korea and Japan, with the remaining 85,000 US personnel in the region being principally stationed in these two countries. At the same time, new developments are likely to include closer military ties with Singapore and Thailand, and the development of training and staging areas in Australia. In addition, forces on the US’s Pacific Ocean territory of Guam may be reinforced, including the stationing of an aircraft carrier battle-group there or in Hawaii.

The spread of US forces in the Middle East and Indian Ocean areas is much more extensive even than the 100,000-plus troops in Iraq itself. Although the US air force (USAF) officially withdrew from its operations at the Prince Sultan air base in Saudi Arabia in August 2003, it maintains air bases in six other territories in the region apart from Iraq. Incirlik in south-east Turkey is again in use by the USAF after the problems between the United States and Turkey over the Iraq war. At the opposite end of the region, the British territory of Diego Garcia houses a large USAF base and naval facility. The air base there has acted as a centre for operations by both B-1B and B-52H strategic bombers, as well as limited deployments by the B-2 stealth bomber.

Deployments in the Gulf shift from month to month; they include al-Udeid in Qatar with a major command headquarters as well as F-16 strike aircraft; Ahmed al-Jaber in Kuwait has A-10 ground attack aircraft, F-16 strike aircraft and the F-117A stealth aircraft; nearby Ali al-Salem, also in Kuwait, has a number of types of the C-130 Hercules transport and special operations aircraft. Other C-130s are based at al-Dhafra in the United Arab Emirates, along with tanker aircraft; yet more C-130s are at Tallil in Iraq, and more B-1B strategic bomber aircraft are based at Thumrait in Oman.

All of these forces are primarily supporting the continuing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are supported by the US navy’s fifth fleet, headquartered in Bahrain, and tens of thousands of army personnel, mainly in Kuwait.

In parallel with US interests in the Gulf there is an increasing emphasis on several parts of Africa. North-east Africa is the remit of US central command (Centcom). This primarily covers the Middle East and south-west Asia and has a substantial facility, Camp Le Monier, at Djibouti on the Red Sea coast, with 1,600 troops. The rest of Africa comes under the aegis of US forces in Europe.

US interest in Africa has two major concerns. The first is the belief that al-Qaida affiliates operate partly from North African countries such as Morocco, but also have capabilities located in some countries of the Sahel region. This is one reason for the so-called Pan-Sahel Initiative, which has included the deployment of special forces units to Mauritania, Chad, Mali and Niger, apparently to conduct anti-terrorism training.

The second concern is the increasing importance of West and Central African countries as a source of oil for US domestic needs. According to a US national intelligence council report published in December 2000, Global Trends 2015, more than 15% of total US oil requirements – and about 25% of all imports – will come from Africa by 2015.

A global burden

These major changes in deployment are intended by the Pentagon civilian leadership to advance its core strategic objective: ensuring United States military superiority across the world. The US currently has military personnel in over 150 countries. According to www.GlobalSecurity.org, about 100,000 are on routine tours of duty and 250,000 are involved in combat, peacekeeping, counterinsurgency and other operations.

There were even larger numbers of troops overseas throughout most of the cold war, but there are two even more significant differences: the overall size of the US military is about one-third smaller compared with that era, while much larger numbers are currently involved in active military operations.

The combination of a smaller army and increased activity helps to explain the current strains over deployments in Iraq. In this ongoing conflict, over 600 US soldiers have now died and more than 3,000 have been airlifted back to the homeland for treatment for injuries (see Suzanne Goldenberg, “Broken US troops face bigger enemy at home”, Guardian, 3 April 2004). A further 15,000 have been evacuated because of physical or mental illness. The severe stress of the deployments on individual soldiers is revealed in the fact that some 4,600 of them have sought psychological counselling.

More broadly, there is a developing conflict between the ambition of the Pentagon’s civilian leadership and the sheer effort and costs of maintaining operations in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. In consequence, the US military leadership might routinely be expected to put pressure on secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, his deputy Paul Wolfowitz and others to curtail their unreal ambitions. If the military are not doing so, two factors may be responsible.

The first is the recent large increase in defence budgets, which make it a good time to be a senior member of the American military. The second is the impending presidential election and the political urgency behind the campaign to re-elect George W. Bush.

In such circumstances, now is not the time to rock the boat. After the election, and as the stresses affecting the US army continue, a developing conflict between politicians and the US military command may come to the surface.

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