Worries over U.S. Lily Pad Base Strategy

Uzbekistan's decision to expel U.S. forces within six months shows the vulnerability of the Pentagon's so-called lily pad base strategy. It involves putting a small number of U.S. forces and weapons into countries to deal with emerging threats.

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US military planners say that gaining quick access to a trouble spot is critical to fighting terrorism. To that end, the Pentagon has been basing small numbers of US forces and supplies in a variety of countries. Planners call these bases `lily pads,' but Uzbekistan's recent decision to expel the small US base on its territory underscores the weakness of that strategy. NPR's Vicky O'Hara reports.

VICKY O'HARA reporting:

After 9/11, the Pentagon realized that the war on terrorism would be fought in many places far from the long-established US military bases overseas; places such as Afghanistan where, in the fall of 2001, the US went to war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. General John Jumper had just taken over at that time as Air Force chief of staff.

General JOHN JUMPER (Air Force Chief of Staff): All of the stuff that went into Afghanistan, because there was no land access and because there were no ports, had to go in by air.

O'HARA: But Washington quickly negotiated overflight or basing rights with several central Asian countries, including Uzbekistan. That kind of access allowed the US military to exercise its full capability against the Taliban. Uzbekistan's recent decision to oust US forces is not expected to impede the Afghanistan mission, in part because the US now has bases in Afghanistan itself. But military analysts say Uzbekistan's decision shows the United States' vulnerability in counting on the so-called `lily pads' in a time of crisis. Michael Vickers is director of strategic studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment.

Mr. MICHAEL VICKERS (Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment): As you get into a conflict, relationships that you have with countries may not pan out. In some cases, they restrict our ability to launch offensive operations from those countries. Saudi Arabia has done that in the past. Or they deny you base access, as Turkey did in the most recent war with Iraq. And so it's not a sure thing in any event.

O'HARA: The Pentagon always plans for the worst-case scenario, and that means the possibility that allies will not come through in a crisis. Max Boot is a senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Mr. MAX BOOT (Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations): This is simply accelerating the desire within the Pentagon to look for ways of protecting American power without being so reliant upon the political whims of, perhaps, uncertain friends.

O'HARA: Max Boot says one possible alternative now under discussion is the possibility of establishing bases at sea.

Mr. BOOT: There are various concepts for offshore bases that might look like an oil rig or might be simply a bunch of large ships, basically expanding on our use of amphibious assault ships and aircraft carriers right now, so that we don't have to rely completely on third-country permission to act.

O'HARA: The war on terrorism has changed US military priorities. In previous years, the Pentagon had been moving away from reliance on land forces in favor of heavy airpower. But the only way to fight an insurgency effectively is on the ground, and one of the biggest problems in maintaining ground forces in a sustained conflict is logistics: getting the troops to the fight and keeping them supplied. Colonel Mack Owens, a professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College, says the Navy currently is able to supply troops on the ground from offshore for only about 30 to 90 days.

Colonel MACK OWENS (Professor of National Security Affairs, US Naval War College): Sea basing is a concept that involves new kinds of ships and the like that will permit us to do this on a more permanent basis, so we could basically sustain troops ashore indefinitely. And that would negate, or at least reduce, the need for land bases.

O'HARA: One big problem with sea bases, according to Max Boot, is their vulnerability to possible attack.

Mr. BOOT: If you have these huge offshore platforms, even a hundred miles offshore, they can still be incredibly vulnerable to something like an Exocet missile or the other kinds of cruise missiles which are being sold to countries all over the world.

O'HARA: Proponents of sea basing argue that land bases also are vulnerable to attack. But sea basing has another problem, which is cost, especially in an era of serious budget deficits. Again, Michael Vickers.

Mr. VICKERS: It's very expensive. It's tens of billions of dollars to buy the new ships that would give us a greater capability, and so it's being looked at: Is this the right investment?

O'HARA: The debate within military circles over how to project US power when needed also has revived discussions about the long-range bomber. With the end of the Cold War it had fallen out of favor to some extent. But long-range bombers, such as the B-52, played a vital role in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Military planners say that if you can't get close-range access to a conflict, then the long-range bomber remains an important part of the US arsenal. Vicky O'Hara, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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