Philippines host military bases vital to US interests in Pacific, Indian Oceans

Subic Naval Base and Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines are among the Pentagon's favorite overseas properties. Both are blessed with cheap and experienced local labor, lots of space, and high-quality facilities. They sit near the entrance to some of the busiest ocean lanes in the world.

``Speaking frankly, these facilities are extraordinarily important to the United States,'' said Richard Armitage, assistant secretary of defense, on Wednesday.

Clark began life around the turn of the century, when it was known as Fort Stotsenberg and housed horse cavalry. It has been an Air Force base since the end of World War II, and today is home to the 374th Tactical Airlift Wing and three fighter squadrons of the 13th US Air Force.

The base has a 150,000-acre target range, perhaps the best shooting gallery for US fighter pilots outside the contiguous 48 states. It is the only permanent US air base between Guam and Turkey.

But in a crunch US planes can use fields in the Middle East nations of Oman and Djibouti, and in any case airplanes can be moved and housed more easily than ships. For these reasons, say military officers, Subic Bay Naval Base is perhaps more important than Clark.

Subic is a forward operating station for the US Seventh Fleet. One of the four big numbered US fleets, the Seventh is charged with patrolling a huge swath of ocean, from the Bering Sea in the north, thence south and west to the Indian Ocean.

At Subic, US ships find a beautiful natural harbor, the largest naval supply depot outside the US, and every sort of repair facility short of a dry dock large enough to handle aircraft carriers.

``Subic is absolutely essential to the cost-effective forward positioning of the Seventh Fleet,'' says one of the fleet's former commanders. He points out that the Philippines sit at the front gate of sea routes that run through the South China Sea, the Strait of Malacca, and into the Indian Ocean. Control of these routes is vital to protecting oil traffic coming from the Persian Gulf, the defense of Japan, and projection of US power in the western Pacific.

Only about two hours' flight time from the Philippines, note US officers, is the huge Soviet Naval Base at Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam.

The USSR also has use of naval facilities in Kompong Som in Cambodia, and Wonsan and Najin in North Korea. The Soviet Navy is becoming more and more oriented toward the Pacific, says the Pentagon, having added 50 ships and subs to its Pacific fleet in the last several years.

Any US replacement bases for Clark and Subic would be several days' steaming time, and three to four hours' flight time, further from the vital waters around the Philippines.

The Pentagon is not planning to relocate the bases, Assistant Defense Secretary Armitage told Congress on Wednesday. But he also said that Pentagon planners have been examining alternatives for Clark and Subic since the mid-1970s.

The current US lease on the bases expires in 1991. Moving them would cost $2 billion or more. Tinian Island in the Marianas, where the US recently leased 18,000 acres, is one possibility; expansion of current US facilities on Guam is another.

Some Navy officers look longingly at Perth, on the west coast of Australia, as a possible base for Indian Ocean operations. Others want to base small, fast vessels at such South Pacific isles as Palau, in Micronesia; Manus in the Admiralty Islands; and Pago Pago in American Samoa.

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