The big U.S. military buildup near the oil-rich Persian Gulf is forcing a significant redeployment of U.S. naval strength around the globe that is weakening forces elsewhere and causing the Pentagon to scramble to find remedies. Examples:
For the first time in more than 30 years, U.S. Marines are likely to have a prolonged absence from their traditional battle stations with the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean as the result of the shift this week of the 1,800 man amphibious force to the Indian Ocean.
A Pentagon survey team is just back from Australia where it was looking for airfields that might be able to handle giant B52 bombers and thus cut the flight time to the Indian Ocean for the planes, which now operate out of Guam in the Pacific.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff are considering a plan to send additional squadrons of land-based Air Force and Marine Corps jets to southern Europe to make up for the stripping of U.S. aircraft carrier power in the Mediterranean, and are suggesting to U.S. allies in Europe that they think of doing the same.
The shifting this week of the five-ship Navy-marine amphibious force to the Indian Ocean is viewed by senior U.S. military officers as one of several important signs of the strain that U.S. forces have been under since the dual crisis in Iran and Afghanistan late last year triggered a new buildup in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea.
For most of the past two decades, the Navy has also kept two aircraft carriers on duty in the Mediterranean and two with the Seventh Fleet in the Western Pacific. But since the sudden U.S. and Soviet seapower buildup in the Indian Ocean began last fall, the Navy has been reduced to only one carrier in each of those fleets in order to keep two in the Indian Ocean.
Thus far, the strain of adding this new region of the world to the military's list of traditional outposts has fallen mostly on the Navy. The Carter administration has also taken a variety of steps to try to improve ability to operate in the gulf region, including negotiations with three Indian Ocean nations -- Kenya, Oman and Somalia -- to provide increased access for U.S. ships and planes in an emergency.
Now the Pentagon is investigating still other arrangements which would also give the Air Force and Marines increased firepower and ability to operate.
Currently B52s based in Guam, several thousand miles from the Indian Ocean, fly patrol and reconnaissance missions over the region. Using bases in Australia for periodic stopovers could cut flying time, increase surveillance and also put the plane's big bomb load within easier reach of a potential battle.
U.S. B52s have conducted low-level navigation training over Australia but have never before landed there.
The Australians have been among the most cooperative allies in trying to meet the potential threat in the oil-rich Persian Gulf region, indicating they would increase naval exercises and aerial reconnaissance in the Indian Ocean.
The United States is expected to talk with Australian authorities about what could be "mutually feasible" in landing B52s there after the results of the survey are thoroughly studied here.
The Navy has also sent a survey team to Australia to look into the possibilities of actually basing, or home-porting a U.S. aircraft carrier there. But formal talks about this have not yet begun.
Because the reduction in the aircraft carrier strength of the Sixth Fleet may last a long time if the Afghanistan crisis is not settled, the Joint Chiefs of Staff are studying a plan in which two other Marine Corps squadrons would alternately be deployed to southern Europe from the United States to take the place of the carrier-based jets. The most likely base for them would be in Italy.
In addition, other jets already in Central Europe could be moved south.
Officials say Defense Secretary Harold Brown personally mentioned this possibility to West European leaders during the North Atlantic Treaty Organization meeting in Brussels' in May. He also suggested that they consider either beefing up their air forces in Central Europe to take up the U.S. slack or moving some of their own planes farther south.
The Marine amphibious force -- including the helicopter carrier Guadacanal -- which moved through the Suez Canal on Wednesday is the second such contingent deployed in the Indian Ocean as the Carter administration attempts to project an image of American strength into those troubled waters.
The first contingent came from Hawaii and stayed 10 weeks. The Pentagon does not say how long this next group will remain but sources suggest it will likely be several weeks, perhaps as much as two month.
Ironically, the Marines stay could be cut short because the United States has thus far been unable to find a place where they could hold a landing exercise or maneuvers.
The State Department denied a new report yesterday that the United States had been turned down by the government of Kenya on a request for Marines to stage an exercise there. Other officials, however, say privately that the United States, while never making a formal request, had indeed discussed the issue with Kenya and the Kenyans felt that this wasn't a good time.
The Carter administration has worked out agreements with Kenya and Oman which permit U.S. access under various conditions, including emergencies. But U.S. officials said they didn't want to force the issue over a Marine exercise at this time, when both countries are just beginning to feel their way under the new arrangements.