American ships test the water at Indian Ocean ports

As the USS Nashville, an amphibious transport ship, made ready to leave this Indian Ocean port city, a young seaman from New Mexico said of his five-day visit, "We had a great time. We'd like to come back."

A lot of United States defense planners share his sentiment. for this old African trading town has become one of the few friendly ports-of-call for American ships in the Indian Ocean.

And the Indian Ocean has, in turn, taken on new strategic importance in defending Western oil suppliers in the Gulf.

The Nashville was one of five American ships, carrying 4,000 Marines and Navy men, here recently in Mombasa. Three more big US naval vessels are expected to follow in the next couple of weeks.

Reports that the US had planned to engage in landing exercises here, but had been turned down by the Kenyan government, led to angry denials on all sides. The visits, according to military and diplomatic sources, are only to allow "rest and relaxation" (known as R & R) for the crews; but the storm surrounding them underscores the difficulty the US faces in keeping up its presence in the region.

This Kenyan port is one of only a handful of places near the mouth of the Gulf where US ships can tie up. And even that privilege carries with it limitations -- and costs.

Under a recent agreement between PResident Carter and Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi, the US is given unspecified "additional access" to Mombasa, and Kenya receives about $65 million in aid over the next year. Diplomatic sources here insist the agreement gives the US little more than the right to make calls for refueling, servicing, and shore leave for crewmen -- much as it already has been doing.

Yet there is speculation that Mombasa could become a storage depot to supply a planned Rapid Deployment Force of American troops to be speeded to Middle East trouble spots. It is unlikely the Kenyans would allow arms or ammunition to be stored here in Mombasa, since that might jeopardize Kenya's status as a nonaligned country.

But staging a military operation in the Middle East would require such things as vehicles, food, even drinking water. Now, these items must be kept on board ships cruising in the Indian Ocean, or stored -- along with military hardware -- at the US base at Diego Garcia, a small, marshy island some 2,500 miles southeast of the Gulf.

With memories of the futile effort to stage a rescue of the American hostages in Iran still fresh in their minds, US military planners want shorter supply lines. American officials still are negotiating with the government of somalia, in an effort to secure use of the excellent port and airstrip at Berbera. That facility was built by the Russians during their brief courtship of the Somalis. (The Russians were expelled in late 1977.)

Berbera is closer to the Gulf, and US military transport planes could fly to the area without a refueling stop. But entanglements with the Somalis bring with them a large set of problems.

One is cost: The Somalis reportedly are asking for about $2 billion in aid, while the US is said to be offering only about $100 million.

The Somalis also want military aid as part of the package, but the American government is understandably wary. The Somalis have long harbored expansionist aims, both on the Ogaden Desert in neighboring Ethiopia and on the northeast province of Kenya. Some theorists worry that alliances with the Somalis could draw the US into an East-West proxy conflict (since Ethiopia is a Soviet client state) or alienate the Kenyans.

But American diplomats say "we're still negotiating" with the Somalis, and claim they are hopeful some progress might be made. The Kenyans, meanwhile, are being told that the US would use any alliance with the Somalis to deter expansionism.

The only other nearby ports open to US military ships are in Oman, headed by the secretive Sultan Qaboos bin Said. The Sultan is concerned about his relations with other Islamic nations, and has thus far refused to allow foreign bases in his country. But his distrust of the Soviets led to a limited agreement earlier this year with the Carter administration, allowing the use of port and airfield facilities at Oman's direction. (Masira is such a facility.)

In addition, the US also must foot the bill for improvements at ports and airfields in both Oman and Kenya (and in Somalia, should an agreement be reached with that country). The price tag is estimated as high as $250 million.

Even with such high expenses, the US is likely to continue pressing for more facilities in the region. "A sophisticated defense establishment always demands redundancy," says one US source.

Meanwhile, the US continues stockpiling weaponry on Diego Garcia. A major US military communications station on the island, costing nearly $200 million, is nearing completion, and ships regularly arrive to deliver tanks, armored vehicles, food, and ammunition. Other ships at Diego Garcia are ready to move supplies toward the Gulf.

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