One of the major problems confronting the Reagan administration is the future of the US "rapid deployment force" (RDF). However, even more challenging and potentially more ominous is the existence and recent employment of a Soviet rapid deployment force.
The Soviet Union has already developed and tested the world's first rapid deployment force; and is in the process of acquiring facilities to service it throughout the world. Such facilities are already available in Africa and the Middle East.
The Soviet RDF using Cuban proxy forces was initially employed in November 1975 during the Angolan civil war. At that time, the Soviet Union ferried by aircraft and ships over 15,000 Cuban troops to Angola. Those troops proved to be the difference in the civil war allowing the Moscow-backed Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) to claim control of the mineral-rich nation over two pro-Western liberation movements. Since that time, Russians, Cubans, and East Germans have moved into the country effectively placing Angola in Moscow's camp despite some efforts by the MPLA leadership to look toward the West for economic development assistance.
In 1978 the USSR executed another rapid deployment, this the largest in history, using proxy Cuban troops and elite elements of the Soviet military machine to smash a Somali invasion of Ethiopia providing another demonstration to the world of Moscow's ability and willingness to protect a vulnerable ally far from the Soviet border. It was an especially poignant drama for America's Middle Eastern allies, since the US had displayed neither the ability nor will to deploy such a force in an area so vital to its national security.
In the first six months of 1978 in an airlift of approximately 5,000 flights (roughly 24 per day), the USSR ferried 10,000 Cubans from Angola to Ethiopia, 15 ,000 Cubans from Cuba to Ethiopia, and 10,000 Cubans from Cuba to Angola. In addition, thousands of technical experts from the USSR, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary were ferried to Ethiopia. Also, approximately 3,000 South Yemenis arrived from Aden to participate in the conflict. The entire force was directed by five Soviet generals including the deputy chief of staff, who came form the vital Chinese front. As Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud Ibn Faisal, put it: "That thousands of foreign troops are present in Ethiopia . . . is without a doubt a threat to the security and stability of the entire continent of Africa and the Middle East."
In August 1979 the USSR carried out an equally ominous two-week airlift exercise, ferrying Soviet combat troops to its client states, Ethiopia and South Yemen, southwestern neighbors of oil-rich Saudi Arabia. The USSR dispelled any doubts by demonstrating its capacity to deploy its own forces directly to the Saudi Arabia peninsula. In a giant airlift, elements of seven Soviet combat divisions were carried aboard huge Antonov 22 transports from southern Russia and Bulgaria to air bases in South Yemen on the tip of the Arabian peninsula and to Ethiopia immediately across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia's industrial and shipping complex at Jiddah. The evidence suggests that the USSR is now capable of airlifting two fully equipped elite armies to the Middle East or Africa in 30 to 72 hours. The importance of this exercise to the Soviets was underlined by the visit of then Soviet Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin to Ethiopia and South Yemen immediately following the maneuvers.
In early 1980 the Saudis observed a third series of events which they considered even more threatening than the invasion of Afghanistan. In January dozens of Soviet generals and hundreds of Cuban troops flew into South Yemen and Ethiopia. In February a thousand Cubans passed through the Suez Canal, according to Egyptian sources. There were already 400 Russian technicians in South Yemen, a skeleton staff of one paratroop brigade, and a communications and intelligence installation. In addition, some analysts estimate as many as 7,000 East Germans and 8,000 Cubans were already there -- in short, facilities to receive a rapid deployment force.
Experts disagree over the objectives of the Soviet rapid deployment force. Some argue that the Soviets seek access to Saudi oil to bolster the sagging Soviet economy; others claim the Soviets seek a force which will ensure access to scarce minerals in developing countries in order to preserve its own resources for the future; finally, there are those who argue that Soviet strategy is aimed at intimidating Saudi Arabia and other oil or mineral-rich nations to adopt policy positions less favorable to the US and its allies and more conducive to Soviet interests.
The mere availability of such an instrument as a rapid deployment force creates all sorts of opportunities to enhance Soviet influence and should provide Reagan defense planners much food for thought.