The case against a rapid deployment force

By , Randall Forsberg is consultant to the Institute for World Order and director of the Institute for Defense and Disarmament Studies.

In late April the first tanks and personnel carriers left a Marine Corps base in Georgia, headed for cargo ships to be sent to the Indian Ocean as part of the new US "rapid deployment force."

What is new in the rapid deployment force, debated for a year and announced by President Carter in January, is not the 100,000 troops involved but the prepositioned cargo ships and the added foreign bases and air and sea transport capacity designed to get the troops into battle more quickly.

Us peacetime armed forces include over 300,000 ground troops in 19 Army and Marine divisions, all intended to fight overseas. Under Mr. Carter's proposal, six divisions (three Marine and the Army's 82nd Airbone, 101st Air Assault, and 24th Mechanized divisions), together with tactical air support, will be prepared to move to the Persian Gulf more rapidly than today.

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The goal is for a large buildup to be accomplished in 2-30 days rather than the current 14-60 days.

Why is the United States preparing to intervene near the Persian Gulf, on a scale of tens of thousands of men, and to do so in a matter of days rather than weeks?

The most legitimate reason is to respond to Soviet intervention. But the most likely reason is that the United States is preparing to intervene itself: to use force to try to control the flow, distribution, and price of oil in the event of a coup, changed economic policy by suppliers, or a global oil shortage.

This is a short-sighted, inadequate, militarized approach to a problem (future oil supplies) whose true solution lies in conservation, energy conversion, and international negotiation.

The Soviet Union might send troops to the Gulf region to intervene on behalf of leftist groups in Iran; to support Iraqi forces in a war with Iran; or to seize the oil fields in one country or another.

Given the logistic problems of sustaining an occupation on the Arabian peninsula, the worst plausible scenario of Soviet intervention to expand access to oil is seizure of the Iranian oil fields. Soviet intervention in a civil war or border war in northern Iran to assure a stable and friendly government (an act similar to the move in Afghanistan, though much riskier) would be easier militarily and perhaps more likely than seizure of Iranian oil. Both types of intervention could be countered, though weakly, by the rapid deployment force.

In contrast, that force would not help to stop or remedy Soviet action intended to cut off oil supplies to the West. A cutoff could be achieved easily , at any time, simply by closing the Straits of Hormuz, through mining or sinking ships in it, or by blowing up strategic parts of the oil operation. Neither of these could be prevented by the quick application of US ground troops or air strikes.

If the USSR does move into the Middle East, the decision to respond militarily and the forces used should not come solely from the United States but be shared by those even more dependent on Middle Eastern oil -- Western Europe and Japan. A moderately fastm deployment of a largem Western ground force, accompanied by air and sea attacks, would probably be needed to wrest control of territory abruptly seized and occupied by Soviet troops. The extremely rapid (2 -14 day) deployment of small numbers (2,000-20,000) of US troops would, in all likelihood, be neither necessary nor sufficient to repulse a well-prepared Soviet thrust.

Of little use in response to Soviet intervention, the rapid deployment force would have much greater marginal utility, compared with present US forces, for USm intervention in one or another of the oil-producing countries. Specifically, it would facilitate the quick US seizure of oil facilities and administrative centers and the initial defense of these points against local government forces and mob action.

Three situations might lead to US intervention: (1) political instability, threatening the flow or raising the price of oil; (2) a change in the policy of suppliers, to reduce output or increase prices; or (3) a global oil shortage.

Because the West is highly dependent on oil from the Gulf, and the USSR not dependent, US intervention there is much less likely to provoke a Soviet military response than Soviet intervention is to provoke a Western response.

Over the long run, however, US intervention would prove difficult or impossible to sustain, even if unopposed by the Soviets. The US action would mobilize local opposition; and popular opinion, if not totally against the United States, would be at least deeply polarized. Simply to preserve the status quo, the United States would have to install a permanent occupation force and a military or puppet government. The action would turn other Arab countries against the United States and would be highly unpopular at home and abroad. Moreover, the inherent vulnerability of the oil operation would mean that, eventually, sabotage by the local populace or sponsored by a foreign government (Soviet, Arab, or even Western) could shut down any US-administered oil flow.

In the long run, the supply and price of oil must be determined by the local populations, their political and economic interests, and the political order they establish. No major groups within the region have an interest in the cessation of oil exports.

The price and rate of production should be determined by ordinary bargaining, not by force.

For the United States to try to seize Arab oil is unethical, unworkable, and unnecessary. Rather than pour billions of dollars a year over the next decade into forces for this purpose, we should be investing in conservation and conversion to renewable energy sources. At the same time, we should actively pursue negotiations among importers (including the USSR) and between importers and suppliers, on the most equitable and least disruptive oil regime for the next decade.

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