Cairo — As men of the us Rapid Development force repacked their bags and left this week, marking the end of the first United States experimenting at airlifting its troops to the Middle East, several questions swirl in the dust behind the departing helicopters.
They are questions about the future of US-Egyptian military relations.
For Egypt's President Anwar Sadat, the use of Egyptian facilities by the Americans was a way of demonstrating Egypt's determination to defend and supprt US interests in the region.
Since the 1974 Sinai disengagement agreements, the Egyptian leader has firmly reoriented his country's foreign policy towards the US. He totally committed himself to the Americans with the US- sponsored Camp David peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.
Mr. Sadat, now an outcast from the Arab fold, knows it is important that Egypt retian this primary role in US eyes, as well as secure the large amounts of military and economic aid the US has lavished on Egypt since the peace treaty.
But with the election of Mr. Reagan, the current Egyptian strategy has become unstuck. Egyptian policymakers are concerned that Washington may be more interested in a Jordan-Iraq-Saudi Arabian alliance to protect US regional interests in the Gulf area, leaving Egypt with a diminished, secondary role.
Among the reasons for this concern are President-elect Reagan's overtures to King hussein of Jordan to participate in solving the Palestinian question, the Hashemite monarch's cooperation with Saudi Arabia and Iraq in the Gulf war, and his enhancement as the host of the current Arab summit conference in Amman, Jordan.
All these have tended to bring King Hussein into the international limelight somewhat to the detriment of President Sadat. HEnce the Egyptian emphasis on its military value to the US. When the rapid intervention forces arrived, Egyptian chief of staff Gen. Abu Ghazzala stated that US troops would benefit from operating in the Egyptian desert terrain.
This, he said, was "most nearly similar to the nature of the areas in the Arab peninsula and the Gulf, where American forces may resort to operating at the request of the countries in the area."
Although Operation Bright Star did provide American combat troops with desert fighting experience, the 12-day exercise also proves costly and difficult.
To move 1,400 men, 125 trucks, 36 helicopters, aanti-tank missiles, light arms, gasoline and water supplies, and living facilities, the military airlift command used 69 of its 234 giant C-141 transports, and 11 of the huge, tank- carrying C-5 Galaxies. Men and material were moved over four days at a cost of
US military officers accompanying the Rapid Development force estimated that it would take 21 days to deploy the 82nd Airborne division and one Marine division (about 35,000 men in all) to defend the Gulf credibly.
Members of the Egyptian military who recognize the limitations of a rapid deployment strategy argue that it would be more effective for the US to arm local (i.e. Egyptian) forces to defend the region rather than airlift US troops to this country.
The US has contributed to building up the Egyptian armed forces, which still rely primarily on their aging Soviet equipment. It also is currently negotiating several deals whereby the US and Egypt would co-produce weapons, ammunition, spare parts, and possibly US F-5E and F-5G aircraft in Egyptian military factories.
Another aspect of US-Egyptian military cooperation -- namely, facilities for the US where prepositioned equipment eventually may be stored -- could prove a sticky domestic issue for President Sadat. In the public mind at least, the distinction between temporary facilities and permanent bases is at best unclear.
When askd what the difference between a facility and a base was, a Cairo housewife said she did not know.
"People are saying," remarked the woman, who lives in Cairo's working-class Rode el Farag District, "why did we kick out the British and the Russians -- to let the Americans in?"