A Stronger Gulf Presence: U.S. Needs Land Bases for Combat Jets

With or without sequestration, the Pentagon still has a big budget problem. Its efforts to comply with the 2011 stipulations of the Budget Control Act are unlikely to succeed fully. It has not cut enough weapons or forces to be confident that the budget ceilings imposed on it by that legislation can be respected.

Among other issues, it hopes that new weapon systems can be purchased at currently anticipated prices — a time-tested optimistic tendency at the five-sided building. It also envisions finding $60 billion in 10-year savings from largely unspecified, and therefore possibly unrealistic, efficiencies and reforms.

And all of those problems precede any possible additional cuts that could materialize in the weeks ahead.

In this environment, the Department of Defense needs to find new ways of doing things. Nipping and tucking here and there will not get the job done. The core logic of America’s national security strategy — global engagement, with particular vigilance in the Arabian Gulf and Western Pacific — remains rock solid. But we need creative methods of sustaining this.

One underappreciated idea concerns foreign basing of military assets in the Arabian Gulf region. For years, the overwhelming sentiment has favored reducing our forces there. And the fact that dividing the total mission cost by the number of troops in Afghanistan gives us a figure of $1 million per troop per year, leads many to assume that basing U.S. military personnel abroad, while strategically necessary at times, is generally a bad economy. This logic is flawed.

In fact, there are times when basing American forces abroad saves huge amounts of money — not only because deterrence is cheaper than war but because accomplishing a given military task can often be done much more efficiently with forward-stationed units. A case in point is our ability to maintain tactical combat airpower in the broader Arabian Gulf region.

The United States relies almost exclusively on aircraft carriers, each carrying about 72 aircraft, to position short-range jets for possible conflict with Iran, in particular. Over the past decade, land-based jets in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq have largely come home.

While we occasionally rotate fighter jets through the small states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and maintain command-and-control and support assets in states like Qatar and the UAE, our permanent ashore combat power is very limited.

As a general rule, whenever continuous airpower is needed in a given region, military logic dictates primarily using land-based Air Force (or Marine Corps) assets rather than carrier-based planes. One reason is that even a major, hardened land base costs perhaps one-tenth as much as a $12 billion aircraft carrier (not to mention accompanying support ships).

But the arithmetic is even more heavily weighted against aircraft carriers in such situations, even if they provide crucial capability in places where we cannot predict future needs. In fact, it takes about five aircraft carriers in the fleet to sustain one on station because of the normal life cycle of a U.S.-based ship, combined with Navy policies that cap sailor deployments at six months’ duration in most cases.

In typical Navy practice, a vessel based in Norfolk, Va., or San Diego, for example, might spend one six-month period forming up a new crew, the next six months gradually increasing training and then carrying out deployments near American shores, six months at sea (up to two months of which is consumed in transoceanic transit), and then a final six-month period in ship maintenance. That makes four or five months on station out of 24.

Work out the math, and, given the cost of the newest Navy vessels, Uncle Sam will soon need well over $50 billion in naval capital assets, not even counting the planes themselves, to keep 72 combat jets ready to act in the Arabian Gulf.

The reason that we maintain one or two carriers at a time near the gulf, rather than rely on land-based jets, has important historical and political roots. Over the years, the region’s governments have wanted to limit their visible association with the United States, and we have wanted to keep a distance from regimes seen as anti-Israeli, autocratic or otherwise unpalatable. But in light of Iran’s ongoing provocations, and its nuclear programs, this past tendency requires rethinking.

It would be a mistake to put all of our eggs in one basket in the gulf. Given the political sensitivities and uncertainties noted above, it would make the most sense to seek two or even three land bases in the region, each of which could normally host about 50 American combat jets, such as the F-15, F-16 or even the stealthy F-22 fighter (and someday, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter). Investment costs for underground fuel lines, hardened aircraft shelters and the like would ideally be paid largely by the GCC governments.

It is true that land-based air assets would require permission from local governments before they could be used in any pre-emptive strike that America might conduct on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Some would say this argues against land basing. But we could always surge a carrier to the region for a strike that occurred at a time of our choosing. The land-based jets would not need to be the vanguard of this operation.

More broadly, it would be preferable if at least one GCC state were invested in such a military operation from the start. In other words, it would be healthy for Washington to be in a position where it would have even more incentives than it does today to consult closely with Arab governments before pulling the trigger on a pre-emptive attack on Iran’s nuclear sites.

With this strategy, our carrier fleet might eventually be reduced from 11 ships to nine, with an estimated average budget savings of $15 billion a year. For those who are not anxious to seek additional savings, look at it this way: Some of these defense budget cuts are going to happen, since they are already written into law. We need ways to implement them at minimal risk to national security. Land-basing airpower in the gulf would turn necessity into virtue, saving us money while increasing military capability and creating a stronger American-Arab front against Iran’s rise.

At a minimum, it is an idea to discuss intensively with key allied governments in the region.