U.S. Military Feels Strain of Buildup
By Bradley Graham
After naval engagements dating back to the Cuban missile crisis, the aging aircraft carrier USS Independence was expected to spend this spring on a valedictory lap around the Asian Pacific before its scheduled decommissioning in September.
Instead, this oldest of Navy warships is due to arrive in the Persian Gulf today to take up battle stations against Iraq.
The decision to yank the carrier back into action one final time is a sign of how the U.S. military is being stretched during the renewed buildup of sea and air forces in the gulf, now into its fourth month. The surge of military personnel there has left U.S. commanders in Europe and the Pacific without any carrier presence. It also has led to manpower and equipment gaps at some Air Force bases, according to officials.
While senior military officers say the strains are not yet critical, they warn that extending the extra deployments through the year past any brief, near-term bombing campaign would significantly disrupt U.S. military operations and erode overall readiness. Already, they say, the commitment of resources to the gulf has caused greater turmoil in Air Force operations elsewhere and greater vulnerabilities in potential European and Asian trouble spots.
"If we have a two-carrier presence in the gulf, it means we have a zero presence somewhere else," said Adm. Jay L. Johnson, the chief of naval operations. "That's considered within the bounds of acceptable risks. But there is an operational price to pay in other theaters."
Compounding the problem for Pentagon authorities, the latest gulf conflict comes in the wake of substantial troop cuts and rising commitments to noncombat missions in places such as Bosnia that have taxed U.S. forces. Various Pentagon reports, congressional studies and independent assessments have recorded evidence recently of inadequate military staffing levels, spare parts shortages and eroding combat skills.
Since November, when tensions started rising over Iraq's refusal to allow unrestricted access to United Nations weapons inspectors, the Navy has increased the number of sailors in the region from about 2,300 to 20,000. It has gone from having an occasional carrier in the gulf to maintaining a round-the-clock presence of two carriers. This week, with the arrival of the USS Independence to replace the USS Nimitz, the total temporarily will rise to three, a definite advantage if the decision to strike Iraq comes within the next week or two before the Nimitz plans to depart for home port in Norfolk.
The number of Air Force personnel in the region also has jumped significantly since the autumn, from about 6,000 to 7,400. To augment the 100 or so aircraft usually based in Saudi Arabia for patrols over southern Iraq, the Air Force has sent about 24 F-15 and F-16 fighter jets to Bahrain. It has positioned six F-117 fighter jets in Kuwait, two B-1 bombers in Bahrain and eight B-52 bombers on the island of Diego Garcia. And it has dispatched dozens of extra support aircraft to the region.
With no end to the confrontation in sight, U.S. military leaders face the prospect of having to sustain the higher gulf force levels indefinitely. Even if the United States batters Iraq with air strikes this month, administration officials acknowledge little chance of eliminating Iraq's ability to produce chemical and biological weapons, suggesting the standoff will persist until the U.N. inspectors are granted the unlimited access they seek.
Navy leaders have mapped out a new schedule of carrier rotations for the gulf that would maintain two at a time there through 1999. The Air Force has yet to figure out how it would sustain its expanded gulf force, the general in charge of Air Force operations said yesterday.
There has been a continuous sizable U.S. military presence in the gulf since the 1991 Persian Gulf War evicted Iraqi forces from Kuwait. The prospect that Iraq again might move against its neighbors compelled successive Republican and Democratic administrations to position hundreds of warplanes, dozens of warships and tens of thousands of U.S. troops in and near the six Arab allies that line the western side of the gulf.
Although the current deployment is considerably smaller than the more than 500,000 troops sent to fight the 1991 war, the Pentagon is attempting this time to hold to peacetime rules rather than impose wartime conditions.
The Navy, for instance, has maintained its regular maintenance and training schedules, and also is trying to keep to a limit of six-month-long deployments for naval personnel. But sustaining two carriers in the gulf, Navy officials say, eventually will require curtailing some upkeep and shortening the crew training that usually precedes a deployment.
Although the Navy has a total of 12 carriers, the time reserved for routine repairs and preparation of fresh crews means only two carriers are generally available for prolonged sea duty at any given time. With U.S. commanders in three critical regions the Middle East, Europe and Asia vying for a full-time carrier presence, the Pentagon has worked out a sharing arrangement that ensures one carrier in each region for at least part of every year.
That arrangement was one of the first casualties of the current buildup. There was no carrier in the gulf last October when the Pentagon, worried about violations of the flight ban over southern Iraq by Iraqi and Iranian aircraft, canceled a Singapore port call for the Nimitz and ordered the carrier to the Middle East ahead of schedule. A month later, when Iraq expelled American members of the U.N. inspection team, the USS George Washington was instructed to leave the Mediterranean Sea for the gulf.
Even before the latest crisis with Iraq, Air Force pilots had complained about the dull, repetitive duty of flying circles over southern Iraq to enforce a ban on Iraqi military flights. Facing a serious problem keeping military pilots from fleeing to better-paying commercial airline jobs, the Air Force moved to reduce the length of gulf tours for aviation units to 45 days and spread the burden over more groups. But this still means that most pilots can expect at least one assignment in the gulf each year.
Further, Air Force officials note that their service was not structured historically as an expeditionary force but rather a Cold War garrison force accustomed to operating out of large permanent bases. The requirement now to take parts of various aviation units and rotate them frequently in and out of the gulf has upset home base operations and disrupted personal lives.
"My impression right now, while we have a lot of data that we're sifting through, is that the real cost we're paying is a turbulence factor in rear areas, combined with no light at the end of the tunnel," Lt. Gen. Patrick Gamble, the head of Air Force operations, said in an interview.
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