New US strategy: 'lily pad' bases
US forces are repositioning overseas forces, opting for smaller, transitory bases in places like Kyrgyzstan.
MANAS AIR FIELD, KYRGYZSTAN
With its tall weeds, collapsed and rusted light towers, and an aircraft graveyard that includes Soviet-era wooden biplanes, Manas International Airport lacks the aura of a pioneering US military facility.Skip to next paragraph
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Yet its generous, 14,000-foot runway is packed with US Air Force KC-135 refueling jets and C-130 transport planes flying multiple daily missions in support of American missions in Afghanistan and beyond.
A stone's throw from the airport, the US Air Force is busy replacing the bare "tent city" it built here in late 2001 with hard-walled structures made out of metal shipping containers - a sign the US military is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future.
"It looks permanent, but it could be unbolted and unwelded if we felt like it," says Col. Mike Sumida, vice commander of the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing here, underscoring the military's new expeditionary mentality.
Indeed, in many ways, the US air base here models the future posture of the 1.4-million-strong American active-duty forces as they prepare to undertake their biggest global repositioning since the Korean War.
Under dramatic changes envisioned by the Pentagon, tens of thousands of US troops will leave sprawling, citylike cold-war bases in Germany and Korea to return home in coming years. Meanwhile, smaller numbers will shift to austere yet strategically located new bases such as Manas, expanding the military's reach into world trouble spots.
At the heart of the strategy is the Pentagon's desire to take the offense in a post-Sept. 11 world where future threats are unpredictable, although broadly seen as emanating from lawless or less developed regions. The goal, therefore, is the fast, flexible, and efficient projection of force - with "lily pad" bases like Manas playing crucial role as staging points.
In fact, the Pentagon's sweeping Global Posture Review, now under consideration by the Bush administration, is less focused on specific troop deployments than on extending broad military capabilities, US defense officials say. Especially vital is the "forward basing" of air and sea power able to skirt national boundaries and political sensitivities as well as the prepositioning of large, off-shore stocks of tanks, armored vehicles, weapons, and other military equipment that incoming troops can readily draw upon.
"We are not focused on maintaining numbers of troops overseas," said Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith at a recent House hearing. "Instead, we are focused on increasing the capabilities of our forces and those of our friends."
As part of a cold-war posture, the US has traditionally maintained about 100,000 troops including two heavy tank divisions in Western Europe and another 100,000 in Asia, including 37,000 in Korea. As part of the coming troop drawdown, forces in Korea will be consolidated and many repatriated, including a 3,600-strong Army brigade already destined for a tour in Iraq before heading home. Meanwhile, the US will substantially boost the number of ships and warplanes in Asia, defense officials say.
Troop numbers in Germany are also likely to drop, while more Spartan bases are under consideration in Poland and new NATO member states such as Bulgaria and Romania. These would range from semipermanent installations such as those in Bosnia to bare-bones sites with little more than a runway, some rudimentary shelters, and possibly electricity, says Gen. James Jones, commander of US European Command.