Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of “Healing the Wounded Giant: Maintaining Military Preeminence While Cutting the Defense Budget” and “The Science of War.”
In the aftermath of the Egyptian military’s brutal crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood supporters, many have suggested that the United States must nevertheless sustain most or all of its $1.5 billion in annual aid to Egypt because of our military dependence on the Suez Canal and Egyptian airspace. While these geographical features of the Arab world’s central state are desirable and convenient for U.S. national security interests in the broader Middle East, and while there are other reasons not to categorically cut off contact with the Egyptian armed forces, the argument of military logistics needs to be placed in perspective.
The U.S. military benefits from being able to send ships through the Suez Canal and fly straight from Mediterranean airspace over Egypt to the Red Sea and then the Persian Gulf. But it does not need these conveniences in any absolute sense. There are alternatives, and we should bear this in mind as policy options toward Egypt are sized up.
Consider first the Navy. The United States divides its major warships between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Historically, the division has been relatively even. Since roughly 2012, and President Obama’s rebalancing policy toward the Asia-Pacific region, the Pentagon has announced plans to base 60 percent of Navy vessels in Pacific ports. Most of these are in the mainland United States, though some ships are based in Hawaii, Guam, Japan and, soon, Singapore.
To be sure, one can reach the Persian Gulf faster from Norfolk or Jacksonville, Fla., than from California or Washington state — if the Suez is available. The distance via the Atlantic route is about 6,000 miles; the distance via the Pacific route is about twice that. At a comfortable cruising speed, the sailing time is roughly 10 to 12 days vs. 20 to 24.
But there is nothing prohibitive about reaching the Persian Gulf region via a westward path — and there would be nothing prohibitive about basing up to, say, 70 percent of the Navy in the Pacific region. Our military planners should bear this in mind, and we should remind Egypt’s military strongmen of our options, should their recent reprehensible behavior continue.
These changes would come at a cost. The Navy does not like to keep carriers at sea longer than six months straight for the well-being of the crews, and a Pacific route to the Gulf would deprive a carrier battle group of about 10 percent more of its deployment time than would an Atlantic path — largely wasted in added transit. But this transit need not be a complete waste, as the ship can perform exercises with foreign militaries along the way and provide a presence in places such as the Strait of Malacca, a waterway crucial to global trade. Moreover, the Navy can further mitigate the loss of station time, at least for ships smaller than carriers, by making greater use of “crew swaps” — leaving ships at sea for one to two years while rotating sailors by airplane every six months.
The calculus is similar for the Air Force, though on balance the trade-offs may be slightly easier because Air Force assets can more easily and quickly be repositioned from the eastern United States to the West Coast and vice versa. Much of the issue for the Air Force is refueling. For aircraft not capable of making a 6,000-mile voyage nonstop, and not able to refuel conveniently in flight (which can depend on tanker availability), the eastern route may include refueling and rest stops in Ireland, Germany or Italy, then perhaps a flight over Egypt into the Gulf region. A western route is likely to include Alaska or Hawaii, Japan or Guam, then Singapore or Thailand or Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.
All of these routes are eminently practicable; indeed, all are routinely used by the U.S. military today. There is a cost to the longer route, which for airplanes is measured more in fuel and dollars than time. But while the cost can be many tens of thousands of dollars per flight, that $1.5 billion in annual aid to Egypt could go a long way toward offsetting it.
The bottom line is that, as a superpower blessed by easy access to open oceans both east and west, the United States has options. The last thing we want to signal to Cairo at this crucial moment is anything to the contrary.