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.
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.
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.
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.
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."