MacDill AFB, Fla. — How do you speed a large US ground force over 12,000 miles of ocean and air space to the Persian Gulf, and then support it there without permanent land bases nearby?
The problem is confronting the new US military planning group meeting here in an effort to solve it.
Since being formed at this base near Tampa, Fla., March 1, the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force (RDJTF) -- 253 men and women from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps -- has been puzzling over a solution night and day.
"The Iran hostage crisis is breathing down our necks," says one aide to the RDJTF's Marine commander, Lt. Gen. Paul X. (PX) Kelley. Fighting between Iran and Iraq, which could endanger US oil supplies, and new threats to the lives of US hostages in Tehran have kept up the pressure.
It's still too early, says four-star Army Gen. Volney F. Warner, to tell whether US access to bases in Kenya and somalian, and other facilities closer to the Persian Gulf already being used in Oman, can be of lasting value.
Except at Diego Garcia, in mid-Indian Ocean, the arrangements for US bases have not been finalized. In an interview with ABC News in Washington, Egyptian President Sadat April 9 offered the US bases in Egypt to defend what he called "shaky" Arab regimes in the Gulf. So far, the US has operated only flying radar planes and has no combat planes based in either Egypt or the Gulf region.
General Warner is commander of the older US Readiness Command, of which the new RJDTF is a part. He has long experience in airborne combat and guerrilla-type operations in southeast Asia. He has done top-level Army planning in Europe and the US, and commanded the XVIII Airborne Corps, which includes the 82nd Airborne division and other US rapid intervention forces.
In an interview with the Monitor, General Warner mapped out these strategic problems for the US:
* It is too late for any massive airborne raid into IRan to rescue the American hostages.
"If you decide the lives of hostages comes first," he says, "that puts you in a situation where you shouldn't repudiate force at the outset. You should wait until later in the game. . . . But I'm confident that we have military organizations that are expert at this [special or covert guerrilla operations], and that we have options."
General Warner did not say so, but the RDJTF could use Army, Marine, Air Force, or Navy special forces with such training.
The US must more clearly define its "vital interests" (President Carter's phrase in his January State of the Union speech) in the Middle East. "If it's the oil-producing area, then we need to circumscribe it, literally, in a military sense."
* US options grow more difficults as the chance of a Soviet response increases. However, many American strategists now argue that even light, token US land forces -- "getting US combat boots on the ground," as General Warner puts it -- would signal to an enemy that the US is physically guarding the area and can only be dislodged at the risk of war.
* Airlift alone to move major US forces to the Persian Gulf would require months. A combination of sea and airlift would require 45 days. "And once forces are there, how do you sustain them?" he asks. "You need about 12 gallons of water alone, per man and per day; and 12 gallons of oil, too."
*Retaining large US land forces in the region requires an immense supply line. "We don't have any readily identifiable new ports, such as we used in Vietnam," recalls General Warner. (Some of these Viet ports now are used by the Soviets for their Indian Ocean supply lines.)
* Personnel replacements would become urgent. "Your men end up looking over their shoulder for help. We get faced with a limited mobilization of reserve and National Guard forces and they're just not adequate to the task."
* Present front-line US armored equipment like the M- 60 main battle tank is too heavy to move easily to the Mideast by air. Since the 1973 Arab-Israel war, Soviet military-aid programs have provided large numbers of high- grade Soviet armor, like the T-62 and T-72 tank and light- armored fighting vehicles, to nearby Soviet friends (like syria) or customers (like Iraq).
The US might meet this threat by using high-technology weapons producing more effect with less weight and bulk, like rocket and laser systems. However, General Warner says: "To send a lighter tank up against a Soviet T-72, just because you can get your light tank there, and have a shootout in which your tank loses its turret, is not going to be very useful either."
A force sent to a remote area like the Gulf, General Warner says, "must be tailored to the mission and potential threat, not to the means used to get there." Prepositioning of equipment on land -- as now is being done on a large scale in NATO Europe -- or on ships in the Indian Ocean, which the Defense Department has promised to do by June, are only "Band-Aids" and poor substitutes for lack of mobility.
To increase mobility, the US must build the proposed new giant CX long-range transport plane, General Warner says. It also needs a fleet of rapid troop and cargo ships, which, like the CX, appear in the proposed five-year US defense plan.
The bottom line, as read from the observations of General Warner and others here, seems to be:
"Don't get involved in any land war in south Asia -- Iran, Pakistan, or the Gulf -- where superior Soviet forces could swiftly and massively respond.
"Do put at least token American land forces on dry land in the area. This would prove that the big seaborne US task force now cruising is not an empty gesture and [some planners believe] could deter possible adversaries, such as Iran, from opening hostilities."