New moves in the Indian Ocean region and a fresh, high-level study of American anti- terrorist strategy are opening a new chapter in US "forward defense" planning.
While 53 Americans remain in captivity in Iran and Soviet troops engage stubborn freedom fighters in Afghanistan, new US deployments mark a start on establishing a more permanent American military presence near Southwest Asia.
At the same time, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff have ordered a "broad examination" of the lessons of the failed April 24 attempt to rescue the Americans held in Tehran. A five- man panel, headed by Adm. James L. Holloway III (USN, ret.), chief of naval operations from 1974 to 1978, is to propose "improvements in US counterterrorist capabilities," the Pentagon announced.
After a three-month cruise, a force of 1,800 US marines left the Indian Ocean June 1 aboard their four amphibious ships, escorted by a cruiser and a frigate. But another Marine amphibious unit is likely to be deployed to the area soon, US defense officials say.
And the Pentagon has begun the buildup of cargo ships to be permanently positioned in the Indian Ocean, as earlier promised by Defense Secretary Harold Brown. In late May, supplies and equipment to support a Marine amphibious brigade were moved to Port Hueneme, Calif., and Wilmington, N.C., for loading aboard ships bound for the Indian Ocean.
Meanwhile, a force of some 25 US warships, built around the aircraft carriers Eisenhower and Constellation, keeps permanent watch in the Arabian Sea, near Iran and Pakistan.
A Soviet naval force, roughly equal in number but inferior in firepower, permanently patrols the same region, astride free- world oil tanker and supply routes to Europe and the Far East.
The Soviets also have long-range aircraft and submarines using bases in Vietnam. US sources say Cam Ranh Bay, a naval base with an airstrip, may soon begin to accommodate heavy Soviet air traffic overflow from Da Nang. Russian submarines and AGIs (electronic spy ships) operate with increasing boldness near the US Arabian Sea force and the US- British base at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean 2,300 miles from the Persian Gulf.
The United States has no permanent land bases around the Indian Ocean's edge. But negotiators appear close to agreement with Oman and Kenya for supply storage and port and aircraft rights. Talks with Somalia, US officials say, are not so far along.
Deputy Defense Secretary W. Graham Claytor Jr. said recently the Pentagon has chartered two Maine-class Ro-Ro (roll-on, roll-off) ships to handle the Marines' tanks, artillery, and other large equipment. The ships are intended to provide "an in-theater logistical presence with unit equipment, supplies, fuel, and water" to support a 12,000-man Marine unit and "several US Air Force fighter squadrons," Mr. Claytor added.
The ships may be positioned near Diego Garcia or some other available air base. In a sudden emergency, the Marines could be flown to the nearest land base and would draw equipment from the ships.
For the longer-term objective of moving a Rapid Deployment Force of more than 110,000 men, the Pentagon is asking Congress for fiscal 1981 funds to construct a total of 12 ships -- including four of the Maine-class Ro-Ro vessels of 24,500 deadweight tons (DWT) apiece and eight new logistics ships, called C-8 Sealifters, of 28,500 DWT each.
This force is to have the capability to support three Marine amphibious brigades for a consecutive period of about four weeks, according to Pentagon planners. The Defense Department is also trying to charter or buy several large , fast SL-7 container ships for swift movements of cargo to Europe, the Indian Ocean, or elsewhere.
US airlift capacity to supply even the European theater quickly is inadequate. With the new "three-ocean" deployment of US forces, NATO allies of the US were recently informed they could expect only one division of US reinforcements to arrive in Europe within the first 10 days of an emergency -- instead of three, as in previous NATO war plans.
The Pentagon and the Air Force are trying to persuade Congress to fund a new wide-bodied "CX" transport, yet to be designed. The CX, its supporters say, could land men and cargo at hundreds of smaller landing fields not accessible to the existing wide-bodied C-5A Galaxy transport. Congressional committees have been skeptical, however, and have cut CX funds out of the fiscal 1981 defense budget still awaiting final congressional action.
With Admiral Holloway on the special panel studying the April 24 rescue mission are: Air Force Lt. Gen. Leroy J. Manor (ret.), who led the Son Tay prison camp raid in North Vietnam in 1970 which was frustrated when US prisoners were whisked away by their captors before they could be rescued; Air Force Maj. Gen. J. L. Piotrowski, an electronic warfare expert; US Marine Maj. Gen. A. M. Gray Jr.; and Army Lt. Gen. Samuel V. Wilson (ret.), former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
None of the men on the panel was involved in planning the April operation, aborted in the Iranian desert after failure of three out of eight US Navy RH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters.