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New US strategy: 'lily pad' bases

US forces are repositioning overseas forces, opting for smaller, transitory bases in places like Kyrgyzstan.

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Apart from creating a network of smaller bases closer to projected hotspots, the shift into regions like southern Europe and Central Asia could also ease environmental restrictions on US forces and facilitate training with new allies. Risks also include working with repressive and less-stable regions in countries such as Uzbekistan, although the size and transitory nature of the bases mitigate these risks.

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Manas a model for future

Pentagon officials say the timing of the changes will depend on factors such as troop demands in Iraq, the 2005 round of US domestic base closures, and ongoing talks with potential new host nations.

A glimpse of what lies ahead is possible, however, here at Manas Air Base, nestled in a valley surrounded by the snowcapped, 12,000-ft. peaks of the Ala-too Mountains.

Some 1,100 airmen are stationed at the base, which lies east of the city of Bishkek. Since 2001, the strategic air hub has executed some 18,000 missions - ranging from early combat flights by fighter planes during the Afghanistan war to the current logistical runs transporting troops, cargo, and refueling.

The American foothold here and elsewhere in Central Asia has troubled erstwhile US foes China and Russia, which after withdrawing from Kyrgyzstan in 1991 recently won permission to open a small new air base a few miles away in Kant. Last week, Russia and six former Soviet republics held joint military exercises in Kyrgyzstan.

Today, Air Force engineers are busy expanding the airport's parking space while carrying out a yearlong, estimated $60 million overhaul of the base facilities, scrapping tents for semi-permanent facilities. "We're pouring a lot of new concrete," says spokesman Capt. Jason Decker.

While the former Russian airfield - complete with old Soviet missile launchers painted red and converted into fire trucks - is a somewhat funky, yet valuable, asset for the Air Force, the US presence here is also a boon to Kyrgyzstan.

"The current president is very positive about us being here," says Colonel Sumida. The cash flow generated by the base is about $156,000 a day - or $52 million in fiscal year 2003 - representing about 5 percent of Kyrgyzstan's gross national product. That's second in impact only to the nation's gold mine.

US brings jobs, security

More than 100 local residents work in the base dining hall alone, serving items ranging from crab cakes to seasoned steaks. Other workers clean offices and occasionally perform traditional Kyrgyz dances as entertainment.

The US has improved roads and security at the international airport.

The American presence may also be discouraging violence by rebels and extremist groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan - including past attempts to target the base. Air Force security guards with German Shepherd dogs patrol around the perimeter but rarely uncover anything but petty crime and the occasional drunk.

Manas is a far cry from Mall of America-style US bases such as Ramstein in Germany. Troops on three- and four-month tours here must leave behind their families, but they make do with air conditioned tents and gyms, a small library, and Internet cafe. "It's not bad," says Sr. Airman Ricardo Osorio of Las Vegas as he chats online with his fiancée, Viola, in Italy about "the dog, and what she did this weekend."