Balanced Forces for a Complex Region
July 19, 2013
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 Gulf Cooperation Council countries.
U.S. Navy seamen stand by to de-arm weapons systems during air wing recovery operations aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, Persian Gulf, May 5, 2008. (U.S. Navy / Flickr)
Protecting U.S. interests in the Middle East has never been easy, but recent developments have made it only harder. Iran’s buildup of missile forces and its pursuit of a nuclear capability have destabilized the region. The Arab Spring led to the ouster of key allies in Egypt and Yemen and weakened the Bahraini monarchy. And cuts to the defense budget will leave the United States with fewer resources to meet its security commitments.
Under these conditions, how can Washington achieve its objectives? In a recent article for Foreign Affairs (“Land Warriors,” July 2, 2013), Michael O’Hanlon and Bruce Riedel offer a solution: stationing land-based fighter aircraft in several Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations. In theory, this posture would enable Washington to deter Iran, reassure Gulf partners, divest expensive aircraft carriers, and reduce its dependence on the beleaguered monarchy in Bahrain, where the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet is headquartered.
It is true that the military needs to rethink its posture, given the shifting strategic and economic landscape. But there are three major problems with O’Hanlon and Riedel’s proposal.
First, stationing additional fighter aircraft in close proximity to Iran would increase the vulnerability of high-value U.S. forces to missile attacks. Although Iran does not have the capability to strike distant locations with precision, it could surely strike nearby airbases in GCC nations. O’Hanlon and Riedel are correct that hardened bases would mitigate this threat. But countries such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which already have hardened aircraft shelters, do not allow the United States to use them. Moreover, since the end of the Cold War, the Pentagon has proved unwilling to invest in extremely expensive base resiliency measures, despite the growing missile threat in several parts of the world.
O’Hanlon and Riedel argue that wealthy GCC nations could build new bases or improve existing facilities to support U.S. forces. After all, they have done so in the past. In fact, they might not be willing or able to foot the bill. Few countries in the region want more U.S. military forces permanently stationed on their soil. And with domestic unrest on the rise in the Middle East, Gulf countries are laying down hundreds of billions of dollars per year for social welfare. That means that they have less cash to underwrite a U.S. military presence.
Second, although the authors’ call to reduce U.S. dependence on Bahrain seems prudent, deploying additional aircraft to bases in the region could create new dilemmas. Namely, by trading offshore military presence for land-based air power, the United States might not be able to use its fighter aircraft when it needs them most.