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With the U.S. defense budget shrinking and Iran’s nuclear capabilities growing, it is time for some creative thinking. In recent years, the United States has increasingly preferred to base its combat aircraft in the Middle East on aircraft carriers in and near the Persian Gulf. But now it should change course, moving more of them on land, to bases in two or more of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. That would allow the United States to modestly downsize its overall aircraft carrier fleet, a cost-saving measure, and strengthen its deterrent in the region by providing visible evidence of the United States’ strong bonds with key countries of the Arabian Peninsula.
DOLLARS AND SENSE
It costs the Pentagon, on average, more than $1 million per year to station a single service member in Afghanistan. Therefore, many assume, basing American military personnel on land abroad is generally a bad economy -- although strategically necessary at times. But that logic doesn’t hold in many situations, and the Persian Gulf is a key case in point.
The United States relies almost exclusively on aircraft carriers, each with about 72 jets, to provide the airpower that it would need during a possible conflict with Iran, its most likely adversary in the region. Over the past decade, several squadrons of land-based combat jets in Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia have largely returned home. Although the United States occasionally rotates fighter jets through the small states of the GCC and maintains command-and-control and support facilities in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, its permanent onshore combat power in the region is very limited.
But a modern aircraft carrier, which costs about $12 billion, is about ten times as expensive as even a large and well-fortified facility on land. And it can take five or six ships in a fleet of 11 to maintain one continuous overseas patrol in the Gulf. In short, depending on carriers, rather than land bases, to provide constant combat airpower in a given region is a generally a dubious economic proposition if you know that the threat is going to be around for a while.
Two or three land bases in different countries in the region could each host around 50 U.S. combat jets such as the F-15, the F-16, or even the stealth F-22 fighter (and, someday, the F-35 joint strike fighter). Building the bases needn’t be expensive for the United States; ideally, as has often been the case, the GCC governments would front the investment costs for underground fuel lines, hardened aircraft shelters, and so on. Some existing bases may be usable for this approach, too.
It is true that Washington would have to request permission from any host government before employing U.S. aircraft based there for a preemptive strike. And getting the green light could be problematic; for example, Saudi Arabia did not allow the United States to conduct bombing sorties from its bases during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Still, it is worth bearing in mind that the Saudis, in particular, were of two minds about the overthrow of Saddam. They realized that his presence destabilized the region, but also feared that a hostile Shia-majority government would succeed him. The Saudis’ feelings about Iran are far less ambiguous.
In addition, the land-based jets would not need to be the vanguard of this kind of operation. Washington could always surge a carrier or two to the region for a strike that was planned in advance (although lack of GCC support for such a strike might usefully make the United States think twice about its wisdom in the first place).
It is also true that opening or expanding existing land bases in the GCC would take time. The first would probably not open before 2014 or 2015. And that could be well after any immediate decision to strike Iran had already been made. In other words, the decision to change the U.S. posture in the region would not dramatically influence current strategy toward Iran. In the long run, though, the updated posture would make it easier to maintain vigilance of the country and the region at a more sustainable cost and with greater effectiveness.
Once this option was implemented, the United States might be able to reduce its aircraft carrier fleet from 11 to nine ships, with an estimated average savings in the defense budget of between $7 billion and $10 billion a year.
Basing more U.S. forces on Gulf soil need not be politically complicated: Washington already has security agreements and status of forces agreements with all six GCC states, which were negotiated after the liberation of Kuwait. So, to implement a new force posture, the United States would not need to start a complex series of talks anew, although it clearly would need permission within the framework of existing agreements.
Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are the best candidates for additional airpower deployments, since the facilities there are already excellent, and expandable if the need arises. Kuwait would be a possible third candidate. All three are home to bases that have been secured against terrorist attacks. For a number of reasons, it would be unwise to ask the Saudis to allow the United States to return to Saudi bases, given the troubled history of our presence there, including the Khobar Towers tragedy a decade and a half ago. The internal political factors that the Kingdom needs to consider before it could allow U.S. forces to operate from its territory are too complex to make the ask worth the United States’ while. Thankfully, there are, as noted, other options.
A potential side benefit of the United States’ new status in the Gulf would be its reduced dependence on the existing navy base in Bahrain. The sectarian conflict on the island is unlikely to quiet down in the next few years. In fact, it will probably get worse, which will increase the danger that Americans -- civilian and military -- will be put in harm’s way. If needed, part or all of the Fifth Fleet and its headquarters could be relocated to Doha in Qatar, Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, or even Diego Garcia, the atoll in the Indian Ocean.
Some will argue that more planes on the ground in the Qatar and the United Arab Emirates would tie the United States even more closely to those countries’ royal families, at a time when the Arab Spring challenges their ability to hold onto power. The United States could also be implicated in any regime crackdowns against citizens. That is part of why the United States should diversify its combat airpower presence to at least two, if not three, places. But it is worth remembering that, in fact, the United States has already thrown its support behind those governments, and the Saudi royals, for years. In other words, the United States is already seen as being very close to them. Getting even closer will not change perceptions that much. It is, therefore, a tolerable additional risk.
Meanwhile, more sustainable U.S. airpower in the Gulf will also send an unequivocal message to Iran, as well as to friends and any future adversaries in the region, that the United States is in the Gulf to stay and will not abandon its allies and interests in the Arabian Peninsula -- whether Iran acquires nuclear weapons or not. What’s more, the new U.S. posture in the region would come with a price that the United States could afford for as long as it needed.