Global Policy Forum

US Military on the Scent of Oil


By Colonel Daniel Smith *

Foreign Policy in Focus
November 19, 2004

History was made on April 2, 2004, as the three ex-Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania formally joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Almost immediately, much to Moscow's consternation, four Belgian fighter aircraft were positioned in Lithuania, from where they will patrol the airspace of the new members.

NATO officials insisted the deployment did not foreshadow new bases or a permanent troop presence on Russia's frontier. But Kremlin concerns were not eased when Ukraine, which lies between other NATO countries and Russia's Black Sea coast, agreed to allow NATO forces to transit its territory. Left unsaid was "to where?" Given the geography, the obvious answer is "to countries in the lower Caucasus and Central Asia" - Russia's frontier.

A few days before and half a world away, on March 31, the US Navy made more history as it officially ended a 60-year presence at Puerto Rico's Roosevelt Roads Naval Station. Envisaged in World War II as the linchpin in the Caribbean Basin defense system, in its last years the station supported naval exercises on nearby Vieques Island, which ended in May 2003.

These are but two of the latest changes in a worldwide reassessment by the Pentagon of where the United States wants air and naval bases and ground-force posts, access or basing rights, and transit agreements. Such reviews and realignments are not new; since 1988, the Pentagon has conducted four major rounds of base closings or restructurings of its domestic installations and will implement a fifth round in 2005. Foreign bases have undergone only one large restructuring round - after the 1991 Gulf War - but smaller adjustments have been made in response to both political-military circumstances (continually rotating a ground-force brigade into Kuwait in the 1990s to deter Saddam Hussein) and demands of host governments (consolidating marine bases on Okinawa and leaving navy facilities at Subic Bay in the Philippines).

The Pentagon hopes that its plan, the Global Posture Review, when fully implemented, will allow for rapid, tailored responses to contingencies that could arise from any one of a number of "vital national-security interests". However, two of these circumstances are paramount: countering any new outbreaks (and containing existing ones) in the "global war on terror" - with Afghanistan, Iraq and the hunt for Osama bin Laden as subsets - and reliable access to energy resources.

The 2003 Defense Department's "Base Structure Report" lists 702 foreign bases owned or leased by the Pentagon, with about 6,000 more installations in the US and its possessions. As vast as this network seems, the report inexplicably fails to include any locations in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kuwait, Qatar and Kosovo. And to these must now be added at least 14 garrisons in Iraq.

Then there is "under-reporting". In Asia, the 10 US Marine Corps facilities on Okinawa, including the sprawling 485-hectare USMC Futenma Air Station, have only one entry. The array of intelligence gathering and other military installations in Britain are nowhere to be found in the report, possibly because they all are technically Royal Air Force facilities. Moreover, while a surface-based "boost-phase" missile defense system to counter North Korean missiles can be deployed on ships in the international waters of the Sea of Japan, effective coverage by a surface-based system to counter Iranian missiles would require launch sites in at least Afghanistan and Iraq (and possibly Turkmenistan), according to a Congressional Budget Office study completed in July.

A bit of history

"Manifest destiny" is common shorthand for the series of wars, purchases and broken agreements that fueled continental expansion westward by European settlers in the New World and their 19th-century descendents. It also covers myriad motives that led to the annexation of Hawaii (July 7, 1898), declared by a congressional joint resolution, and to the Spanish-American War (March-August 1898), from which the US acquired Puerto Rico, Guam, a "permanent" lease of Cuba's Guantanamo Bay, and direct political control of Cuba until 1902 and of the Philippines until 1946.

As the 20th century began, US industrial prowess merged with the country's traditional reliance on freedom of the seas for unhindered trade to present an alternative power center to those in a Europe heading toward the collapse of the post-Napoleonic "Concert of Europe". But if war, with its embargoes and exclusion zones, was bad for US commercial interests, so too would be a Europe under a single power that could regulate access to continental trade to the detriment of the United States.

This latter consideration drove two interrelated US policies that, with modifications, remain relevant today. The first is tactical: the acquisition of strategically located bases or basing and port visiting rights for US warships (and now land-based aircraft and ground forces) - "coaling stations" in the vernacular of the day. Although US aircraft carrier battle groups include highly efficient re-supply vessels, being able to count on immediate access to a port for emergencies, shore leave or swapping crews is prudent diplomacy.

The second, a strategic policy, opposes any attempted hegemony of the Eurasian continent. By coincidence, at the time the US first acquired overseas possessions, Sir Halford Mackinder proposed (December 1904) what became known as the "Heartland Theory":

Who rules Eastern Europe commands the heartland.

Who rules the heartland commands the world island (Eurasia and Africa).

Who rules the world island commands the world.

While Mackinder's formulation most likely did no more than lend an air of gravitas to an already determined policy imperative (if even that), the question of continued access to European markets helped tip the US to oppose imperial Germany. The same logic can be detected in president Franklin Roosevelt's support for Britain (eg, lend-lease) in the period between the Nazi invasion of Poland (September 1, 1939) and Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941). In a sense, World War II then "morphed" into the Cold War, with the communist Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China replacing fascist Germany - at least until the Sino-Soviet split in 1959.

While the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989 and of the USSR itself in 1991 ended the 45-year ideologically based East-West competition for Europe, Europe itself had steadily been creating its own collective identity - the European Union. Ironically, through the World Trade Organization, the US is encountering resistance to some of its trade, price and tax policies that, while not doing so physically, psychologically and economically threatens to close access to the heartland for US business and trade.

Emerging energy dependence

As World War II ended, US opposition to a hegemonic Europe was expanded to a new region. In February 1945, president Franklin D Roosevelt met with the ruler of the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Foreseeing that oil would become increasingly vital to the US across virtually all sectors, Roosevelt struck a bargain: a guarantee of access to Saudi oil in return for a guarantee of US protection. In 1991, after being briefed by US intelligence on Saddam Hussein's seizure of Kuwait and the dispositions of Iraqi troops along the border areas, the Saudis called on the US to honor Roosevelt's 1945 promise.

The 1991 war was not the first time that "black gold" was the catalyst of war. Adolf Hitler's need for petroleum for Germany's military machine and industry lay behind his assault on the Soviet Union, and Roosevelt's actions to cut Japan's access to oil contributed to Tokyo's decision to attack the US. Now, under the "Bush Doctrine", oil has become the catalyst for preventive war.

Why this is so obvious is from the vast quantities of petroleum the US economy consumes - 26% of global consumption by 5% of the globe's population. Fourteen of the top 15 foreign sources of crude oil in the first two months of 2004 were countries with direct access to the US (Canada and Mexico) or access to the world's oceans for direct transport. (The 15th, landlocked Chad, whose oil sector first came on line in late 2003, exports its oil through Cameroon.) Maintaining this immediate access keeps prices low without seriously impeding the profligate "easy rider" mentality of a significant portion of the public.

The changing US military base blueprint

Before going further, it might be useful to explain the Pentagon's latest terminology pertaining to overseas bases and describe current basing-related actions.

In an August 16 joint Defense and State Department background briefing on the Global Posture Review, briefing officers noted that 202 of the 230 major US bases worldwide are in the US or its possessions. But they also pointed out the US military is present in 5,458 "distinct and discreet military installations around the world". These are broken down into three main categories:

  • Main operating bases (MOBs) with permanently stationed forces and families. Current US bases in Germany fit this category. But when the new Stryker-equipped medium brigade replaces the four heavy brigades now in Germany, it will probably be stationed at the vast Grafenwoehr/Vilseck/Hohenfels training complex - a "forward operating location" (see below). Conversely, Ramstein Air Force Base and Spangdahlem (which houses two US F-16 squadrons) will remain MOBs. Italy will be the home of other MOBs such as the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vicenza, US Navy Europe headquarters in Naples, and two F-16 squadrons at Aviano.

  • Forward operating locations (FOLs) with "warm" facilities having pre-positioned equipment and a small military support group but no families.

  • Cooperative security locations (CSLs) with austere facilities occupied only for training, exercises and other military "interactions". Locales in Thailand for joint "Cobra Gold" exercises with Thai and other regional partners are examples.
  • About a month after the joint departmental briefing (September 23), Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld described for the Senate Armed Services Committee the general strategy behind the Global Posture Review:

    In Asia, our ideas build upon our current ground, air, and naval access to overcome vast distances, while bringing additional naval and air capabilities forward into the region. We envision consolidating facilities and headquarters in Japan and Korea, establishing nodes for special operations forces, and creating multiple access avenues for contingency operations. In Europe, we seek lighter and more deployable ground capabilities and strengthened special operations forces - both positioned to deploy more rapidly to other regions as necessary - and advanced training facilities. In the broader Middle East, we propose to maintain what we call "warm" facilities for rotational forces and contingency purposes, building on cooperation and access provided by host nations during Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. In Africa and the Western Hemisphere, we envision a diverse array of smaller cooperative security locations for contingency access.

    Currently, a congressionally mandated Overseas Basing Commission is gathering evidence on which it will make recommendations for streamlining the Pentagon's "footprint" abroad. The commission's final report is now due next August 15. Its work will complement that of the Base Realignment and Closure panel that will begin meeting in 2005 to review domestic military installations and recommend closures, realignments and consolidations.

    Energy security and US military presence

    At first glance, an overlay of US military base locations or allied nations and the top 15 countries from which the US derives its oil shows significant divergence.

    Excluding NATO allies Canada, Norway and the United Kingdom, only three of the remaining 12 current main suppliers have basing agreements with the US - Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Ecuador - while one, Iraq, is currently occupied by US military units.

    As part of the war to oust the Taliban from power in Afghanistan, the US secured FOLs in Uzbekistan (Khanabad Airfield) and Kyrgyzstan (Manas Airfield near Bishkek) for about 1,000-1,200 personnel. These two bases are still active FOLs. In Afghanistan itself, the US seems sure to retain control of Bagram airfield outside Kabul as well as a FOL outside Kandahar. Moreover, an airbase at Shindand, which lies only 16 kilometers from the Iranian border, is home to some 100 US Special Forces personnel with helicopter support. The Iranians reportedly suspect that Shindand might be converted into an eavesdropping base or a forward operating base for a future US attack.

    That said, the picture changes when non-NATO countries that (1) are the main sources or potential sources of oil for the US market, (2) have the largest petroleum deposits, and (3) have transit facilities vital for moving the oil are compared with countries that have military agreements with the US, host a US military presence, or have been identified as a possible host.

    Other important bridgeheads in the Persian Gulf include Bahrain and Qatar, both of which host key US facilities; the United Arab Emirates; and Oman. In Eastern Europe, after the end of major hostilities in Iraq, 150 US marines remained at an FOL at the Black Sea port of Constanta, Romania. Conversely, US presence at the airbase at Incirlik, Turkey, has been sharply reduced from 3,000 to 500.

    The challenge of maintaining dominance

    Dominant military powers have always had to deal with countries not part of their "empire" - whether the empire is formal or informal. This rule still applies in the 21st century despite the US claim to overwhelming "global" power and reach. And a corollary also still applies: the "natural" tendency of those outside the empire is to work together to split off parts of the imperium or even undermine the entire edifice of empire.

    As the 21st century began, the two main outsiders were Russia and China. They had a love-hate relationship during the 20th century, one that, after 1959, included a series of military encounters along their very long and still militarized border. In the 1970s, Richard Nixon played "the China card" against the Soviets by establishing diplomatic relations with China and opening trade.

    But the 21st century brought another challenge to US dominance: the rise of sub-national groups intent on terrorizing whole populations. The initial reaction of the administration of President George W Bush after the attacks by al-Qaeda on September 11, 2001, seemed oriented to rally the world against terror. Yet within 18 months, the combination of the president's ultimatum to other nations to be "with us or against us" and the US invasion of Iraq allowed unilateralism to triumph. The US, mired in Iraq, was arguably much less secure as a result.

    Those who reveled in the US "victory" over the Soviet empire, and who came to power in 2001, were oddly blinded to the Cold War lessons of the power of cooperative relationships. They seemed to think that the US was so dominant that it could achieve unilateral security - completely ignoring the basic principle that every action intended to move closer to this goal generates one or more counteractions. The post-major-combat phase of the Iraqi adventure finally compelled the administration to reverse its tactics and invite United Nations help - only to lose it and the vital assistance of non-governmental agencies because of the continuing chaos in many parts of Iraq.

    There have been other negative consequences of US unilateralism in the struggle to contain and reduce the number of terrorist acts. Washington has attempted to gain support by adding to its list of suspect individuals and groups whoever is named by "allies" in the "war on terror". For example, on April 1, Ambassador J Coffer Black, the State Department's counter-terrorism coordinator, appeared before the subcommittee on international terrorism of the House International Relations Committee to testify about al-Qaeda and the "global war on terror".

    On al-Qaeda, he asserted that the organization still poses a significant threat despite the loss of its training base in Afghanistan and the arrest or death of 70% of its seasoned leaders and more than 3,400 "operatives or associates". On the "war on terror", he singled out six terror organizations or locations for particular mention: Ansar al-Islam and the Abu Musab al-Zarqawi network, both in Iraq; the Salafist group for Call and Combat and the Salafiya Jihadia, both in North Africa; Jemaah Islamiya in East and Southeast Asia; and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. He also referred to "thousands of jihadists around the world who have fought in conflicts in Kosovo, Kashmir, Chechnya and elsewhere".

    Some observers believe the mention of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan was a quid pro quo for basing access in that country. Yet the Central Asia-western China "terror" scene is confused, to say the least. For years, China had played down the frequent incidents of violence in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR). But after October 7, 2001, when the first US bombs hit Afghanistan, Beijing started playing them up, attributing them to East Turkestan Islamic "terrorists" who formed part of the international terrorism network and hence should be a legitimate target of the US-led coalition.

    At first, Washington resisted Beijing's ploy. After a December 6, 2001, meeting with Chinese vice foreign ministers Li Zhaoxing and Wang Yi, Francis Taylor, the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator, said: "The legitimate economic and social issues that confront the people in western China are not necessarily terrorist issues and should be resolved politically rather than using counter-terrorism methods." Eventually, however, opposition turned to ambivalence until finally the East Turkestan group was added to the list.

    Another group, Hizb-e Tehrir (HT) or Party of Liberation, claims it has substantial membership across Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Its agenda includes a caliphate that would unite east and west Turkestan (China's XUAR and the Central Asian Republics, respectively). Russian media link them to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which reportedly has adopted HT's vision.(1)

    Looking ahead

    Where does this leave the future? Clouded, to say the least, until the Overseas Basing Commission finishes its work. But others are examining some options based on criteria laid down by the Pentagon. In May, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a study examining overseas bases and options for realignment ranging from maintaining the status quo through minor consolidation to complete withdrawal of most permanently based forces.

    One of the main criteria the CBO considered was the "time needed to deploy a heavy army brigade combat team [BCT] by sea" to potential conflict zones - one of the administration's rationales for change. (Rumsfeld's "transformation" program envisions meeting a 10-30-30 timeline: 10 days to move forces to any place on the globe, 30 days to defeat an enemy, and 30 days to reconstitute for another war.) CBO looked specifically at Nigeria, Azerbaijan (potentially important future sources of oil), Uganda and Djibouti (potential staging bases for conducting operations in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula to counter instability and terrorism).

    CBO compared times to move a BCT from hypothetical FOBs in Bulgaria, Poland and Romania with current bases in the Indian Ocean at Diego Garcia (equipment on ships) and in Germany. Azerbaijan is the only destination which could be reached more quickly (six days) from FOBs - and then only from Bulgaria and Romania. In all cases, departures from Poland take as long (or one day longer) as from Germany, while departures from Bulgaria and Romania take one, three and six days longer than from Diego Garcia to reach Nigeria, Djibouti and Uganda, respectively.

    (Changing the BCT from tank-heavy to the new Stryker configuration would save even more time compared to current times, but this difference rests more on the fact that the Stryker-equipped BCT can be moved by air more efficiently.)

    CBO also looked at times required to move combat service and combat service support units that sustain the BCTs. Elapsed time from Germany was equal or quicker than from the US in all cases, but from Qatar, which hosts an entire division's equipment, Uganda and Djibouti could be reached nine and seven days quicker, respectively, than from Germany.

    The CBO study suggests two conclusions. First, relocating bases in Europe does not improve operational response time except to the Caspian region. Nonetheless, the Pentagon seems determined to continue to draw down the biggest troop MOBs outside the US while increasing the number of FOLs and CSLs to enhance its "freedom of action". The latter two types of bases undoubtedly will multiply in sub-Sahara Africa, Eastern Europe and Southwest Asia.

    Second, notwithstanding current consolidations under way in Germany (13 facilities closing) and in South Korea (18 facilities closing), what remains unchallenged in the CBO report is the contention by outside observers that future US base locations in Europe, the Middle East, Southwest and Central Asia will be tied to oil sources and oil transport considerations.

    Even with additional closings and consolidations to the 702 overseas "installations" (army 381, navy 44, Marine two, air force 275) identified by the CBO, the US will continue to maintain the most extensive foreign basing structure of any country. For the Pentagon, it seems, not only is "location everything", it's "everywhere".

    End note 1. South Asia Analysis Group Paper 499 July 24, 2002, US and Terrorism in Xinjiang.

    About the Author: Dan Smith is a military affairs analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus, a retired US army colonel, and a senior fellow on military affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.

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