Because of a typographical error, the word "not" was dropped from a quotation by Undersecretary of Defense Robert W. Komer, changing the meaning of the quotation in a story yesterday on the U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf. The quote should have read: "So the deterrent capability of even modest forces today is not to be discounted." Similarly, another sentence should have read; Basic support costs for the rapid deployment force are estimated at anywhere between $1 billion and $3 billion for the five-year period. Also, the reference to the U.S. task force sent to Korea in July 1950, should have read Task Force Smith, rather than Collins.
Seven months after President Carter committed the United States to defend the oil-rich Persian Gulf, a military buildup to protect that volatile region from a real or imagined Soviet threat is moving ahead faster than is commonly realized.
U.S. aircraft carriers and Marine detachments have been diverted to the Arabian Sea from their traditional patrolling areas in Europe and Asia. Seven ships loaded with tanks and ammunition have been positioned in the Indian Ocean as floating warehouses waiting for more troops that could be dispatched in an emergency.
Other smaller deployments also have been made, and they are only the beginning. Defense Secretary Harold Brown says the United States will have to spend $20 billion to $25 billion over the next five years to build a much more credible rapid deployment force (RDF) for trouble spots such as the Indian Ocean-Persian Gulf region.
Thus the president's new doctrine will also require more than $7 billion for a new fleet of possibly 130 CX jet transports to speed much larger numbers of U.S. troops to the region than now can get there fast and more than $5 billion for a dozen new cargo ships to place still more of their heavy equipment much closer to the potential battlefield.
Since the hostage-taking in Iran last November and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December, the public mood seems clearly to have turned toward greater concern about U.S. defenses.
Yet, considering the cost, the volatility of the area and the taking-on of a whole new region of the world to defend without any increase in size of the U.S. armed forces, the new policy is bombing along with surprisingly little debate among politicians and lawmakers.
This is odd because virtually everything about the effort is controversial, including the Carter Doctrine itself and the strategy with which it would be implemented. Even the civilian at the Pentagon charged with making it all happen, was the under-secretary of defense for policy, Robert W. Komer, is controversial.
Critics outside of the government argue that the president's pledge amounts to a dangerous bluff in the face of potentially overwhelming Soviet forces much closer to the region and connected to it by land rather than water. f
They believe the United States may be sailing into harm's way 7,000 miles from home with not enough troops or equipment to back up the Carter Doctrine nor enough thought given to what they could do when they get there.
"The rapid deployment force isn't rapid and there is not much to deploy," said John M. Collins, a retired Army colonel and now the respected chief defense analyst with the Library of Congress Research Service.
Komer, obviously, rejects such views and his role in the build-up is crucial.
Bob Komer isn't nicknamed "Blowtorch Bob" for nothing. He picked up the nickname in the mid-1960s when, as a trouble-shooter for President Johnson, he visited U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge in Saigon and Lodge remarked that having Komer around was like having a blowtorch at one's backside.
Today, he is the Pentagon's third-ranking civilian. Yet a number of defense figures, both military and civilian, view him as perhaps the most influential civilian within the Pentagon since former defense secretary Robert McNamara.
His influence stems from his energy and enthusiasm for big challenges. He is, many critics acknowledge, one of the only officials in government who can really stir things up, move the bureaucracy and make things happen.
But he was also the man who tackled the ill-fated pacification program in Vietnam with the same kind of vigor and whose optimistic predictions turned to ashes. Komer says pacification didn't fail. What failed was South Vietnam's inability to shield pacification against Hanoi's forces.
Besides, he says, he'd rather be known as the one who, in 1963, persuaded President Kennedy to make a deal with Britain for use of the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, a tiny outpost that now is the only sure cornerstone of the new U.S. buildup.
The United States, Komer acknowledges, has a long way to go -- at least a few years -- before it could mount a sustained defense of the Gulf region.
The military is stretched thin by taking on this new commitment on top of traditional ones in Europe, Japan and Korea.
But, he maintains: the Gulf, assuming help from countries in the region, can ultimately be defended; the Soviets would have more trouble getting there than a lot of people assume, and the United States must not be paralyzed.
"To do nothing," he says, "is to invite Soviet political pressure" on the region and undermine the resolve of both our allies and the nations in the area."
In his view, "we are facing up" to this chore "faster than I have ever seen us react before in peacetime. What's impressive to me is how far we've come in seven months rather than how far we have to go. It's a helluva lot more than we even contemplated seven months ago."
While that amounts to a pat on his own back, it is clear that a great deal has happened since the Iran crisis, when the United States started from scratch in the region.
The Navy has managed to keep a roughly 25-ship fleet, including two aircraft carriers, in the Indian Ocean, though at the cost of reducing carrier strength in the Mediterranean and Pacific and at considerable strain on crews.
The five-ship, 1,800-man Marine amphibious force that has been sent to the region will stay there most of the time," with units rotated from the Med and Pacific.
The seven cargo ships that anchored in recent weeks at Diego Garcia carry enough equipment for an enlarged 10,000-man Marine brigade for two weeks plus some Air Force squadrons.
Air Force fighter planes plus the new big radar-packed early warning planes have operated out of fields in Egypt and Saudi Arabia to gain experience in the area.
The small Middle East task force based inside the Gulf has expanded from three to five ships.
Arrangements have been made with Kenya and Oman for access to their ports and airfields in a Gulf emergency and Pentagon officials still express optimism that a similar agreement will be reached with Somalia, though others doubt that. Egypt has also made it clear that its airfields would be available in an emergency.
Pentagon officials claim they are satisfied that overflight and landing rights for reinforcements en route from the United States to the region via Mediterranean and Pacific countries "would not be a problem."
The NATO alies have been told there may be fewer U.S. reinforcements for Europe and at least some of those countries have given "a good response" in terms of making some quick improvements to their own forces and considering greater efforts.
Headquarters of the rapid deployment force has been set-up at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., with links to U.S. European and Pacific commands. Initial exercises of the command post have been held in which simulated deployments to the Gulf were carried out.
Komer views the act of spending money as a milestone. "You can have policy and strategy out the kazoo. But without money, it's only rhetoric," he says.
The big money for the fiscal 1982-87 plan being laid out in Brown's office is to solve the major problem for the RDF -- how to get more than a token number of troops and their equipment to the region and keep them supplied.
The new command has no troops of its own. Rather, it can draw on more than 200,000 or more predesignated, active-duty Army, Marine, Navy and Air Force personnel normally assigned to different commands. Some critics contend this sudden reassignment would be a nightmare in a crisis.
Aside from some lightly equipped ready brigades of paratroopers and Marines, however, it would take perhaps three weeks to a month to move even a single full Army armored division and its tanks to the region using all the air and sea lift the United States now has.
So, aside from the $12 billion-plus for the new fleet of CX jets and prepositioning ships, the five-year plan also calls for about $500 million for eight SL7 fast logistics ships that can speed across the Atlantic in four days or so and another $500 million for new KC10 combination cargo/tanker planes.
Aside from an ultimate $1 billion to improve Diego Garcia, another $700 million to $1 billion will be ticketed to improve other facilities, with another billion to increase war reserve stockpiles of supplies and ammunition.
Basic support costs for the RDF are estimated at anywhere between $1 billion for the five-year period, not including another 1 billion to $2 billion to maintain the costly naval presence in the region plus an extra $500 million for special exercises, if the Marine scan find a place to land and train.
The long distances make this naval presence costly. The Pentagon's oil bill almost doubled from $3.4 billion to $7.1 billion from 1979 to 1980.
The broad strategy around which the RDF is designed, says Komer, "is first to deter, then to defend."
What this means, in effect, is that the administration is putting its chips on an initial strategy of getting there first with the least in a tripwire-style plan that, it is hoped, would change Moscow's mind if the Soviets were faced with bumping directly into U.S. forces.
"This area is not impossible to defend, at least initially, if we can get there in time with the right kind of forces and get cooperation from local regimes," Komer argues.
"If the Soviets were to intervene in the Persian Gulf area and came up against U.S. forces, it would be a whole different ballgame from Moscow's perspective," he says. In effect, it would risk a much wider conflict. "So the deterrent capability of even modest forces today is to be discounted." "
Collins, a former Army strategist, thinks such views are naive.
"These guys haven't read their history books," Collins says. "If the Russians ever decided to go for that oil, they won't stop" because of a handful of U.S. troops.
Collins recalls the dispatch of 400 U.S. soldiers in Task Force Collins at the start of the Korean war in July 1950, when they were to make a show of force in the path of northern troops and were overrun the next day.
Collins and Komer agree on one point, however: that it would be no picnic for the Soviets to get large forces into the Gulf even though they are closer and have a larger army.
Land routes toward the Iranian oil fields, for example, are tortous from any direction, with the shortest route of 1,000 miles from the Soviet Caucasus requiring troops and armor to cross the Zagros mountains.
Roads and railroads are either nonexistent or marginal. Movement of heavy armor in anything but line formations would be extremely difficult, especially without air cover. Soviet airfields, even in Afghanistan are 700 to 1,000 miles away.
The Soviets have several paratroop divisions but only limited airlift ability to transport them, in force, simultaneously. Again, unless there were plenty of Soviet jet fighters to protect them, they could prove easy game for U.S. fighters.
The U.S. Air Force could probably bring about two dozen fighter squadrons rather quickly, into the area, a major force for the Soviets to contend with. But critics point out that the keystone fighter, the F15, has had serious maintenance problems even in the United States and may be unreliable in a combat zone.
With enough warning time, the United States ultimately could funnel about three divisions into the region.
Komer acknowledges that "it is true that if the Soviets, in a set piece invasion that we don't regard as likely, were to devote 30 to 35 divisions [Soviet divisions are smaller than U.S. divisions] and enormous tactial air power, they would probably, over time, overwhelm us."
But Komer argues that such a large attack would involve serious diversions of Soviet troops from the European and Asian fronts and also would confront Moscow with the risks of a much wider war being opened up by the West or China.
"The West, in my judgment, simply is not going to put Middle East oil at risk without a helluva fight," Komer says.
Komer believes the United States has enough troops on hand to add the
Gulf contingency force to U.S. planning. The problem is getting the troops there, not the number of troops, at this point. Obviously, he says, if a second conflict broke out elsewhere in Europe or Asia, the United States would have to start calling up the reserves.
Collins, however, remains unconvinced. The military, he believes, "are saluting smartly and moving out" in response to orders but without enough thought about what they may encounter.
Collins argues that the U.S. Army has only a relatively small strategic reserve of divisions based in this country. If they are sent abroad, he argues, there will be no training base left for returning troops.
Most importantly, if the Soviets merely make a feint toward the Gulf, then the United States is liable to be caught with its strategic reserves en route halfway around the world to the wrong war while an attack comes elsewhere, he warns.
Komer counters: "It's not a feint if the defense of the area that the Soviets are making a feint toward is vital to the interests of the West."