Although President Jimmy Carter pledged in January 1980 to “use any means necessary, including military force” to ensure “the free movement of Middle Eastern oil” and created the Rapid Deployment Force (RDF) for intervention in the Third World, the American military presence in the Middle East was still relatively small when President Ronald Reagan took office in January 1981. [1] Over the past three years, the Reagan administration has substantially expanded the size and strength of American military forces surrounding the Middle East. Today, despite continued opposition from Congress and reservations of important US allies like Saudi Arabia, the United States now enjoys a significant and growing capability for armed intervention in the region.

The RDF has grown more than 50 percent over the past three years and been reorganized. Originally organized in March 1980 to “conduct pre-deployment planning and training for conventional non-NATO contingencies,” in October 1981 the RDF was given operational control over 200,000 combat and combat-support units from all four branches of the US armed forces. [2] In January 1983, the RDF was elevated to the status of an independent multi-service organization — the Central Command — with responsibility for what the Defense Department now calls the Central Area, a vast region centered on the Persian Gulf and stretching from Egypt to Pakistan. Now comprising nearly 300,000 men, the Central Command is composed of two airborne and one mechanized division from the Army; seven tactical fighter wings and two strategic bomber squadrons from the Air Force; a Marine amphibious assault division with its own air support; three Navy aircraft carrier-led battle groups; and specialized counterinsurgency units like the Rangers and the Green Berets. While most of these troops are still based in the United States, a significant number are already stationed in Central Area and the Reagan Administration is currently engaged in an aggressive search for even more bases in the region.

An aircraft carrier-led battle group — with 4,000 Navy personnel and 1,800 Marines — is now permanently deployed in the Indian Ocean, and more than 1,000 troops from the Central Command (principally airborne units) have been stationed in the Sinai Peninsula as part of the multi-national peacekeeping force there since the Israeli withdrawal in April 1982. In addition to these garrisons, the Reagan administration has organized an extensive network of military bases and other installations for the use of the Central Command in Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, Somalia, Kenya, Oman and Bahrain.

In the Persian Gulf region, the most important of these bases are in Oman, at Thumrait, Sib, Khasab, and on the island of Masira. In the absence of major facilities in the Gulf itself, these bases would be used for troop billets and for land-based aircraft. Washington would prefer to use bases closer to the Gulf, since this would permit quicker responses and the use of short-range aircraft and helicopters. But the Omani facilities would still allow for the use of heavy land-based bomber and ground attack aircraft as well as for the use of paratroopers and mechanized infantry units. The US “administrative support unit” in Bahrain and the five warships based there have become the “forward command” for the Central Command.

Further out from the Gulf, Washington would use bases at Ras Banas and Qina in Egypt, at Mogadishu and Berbera in Somalia, at Mombasa and Nairobi in Kenya, and at Sidi Slimane in Morocco to transport soldiers and war materiel from the US to the Gulf region. The US Navy uses Karachi harbor to monitor Gulf traffic and Pakistani supply ships provide rations for the US flotilla in the Gulf, according to a recent report from Pakistan. [3] US forces committed to NATO in Europe could also be brought into the area via bases in southern Turkey; a NATO exercise simulating such an intervention, code-named “Helix 84,” was held earlier this year. [4]

The United States has also stockpiled enough weapons, ammunition, spare parts, food and fuel to supply a division-sized force at the joint US-British base on Diego Garcia and on board 18 support ships in the Indian Ocean. According to Lt. Gen. Robert Kingston, head of the Central Command, this means that “I can commit US Marine Corps combat elements if they are in operation in the northern Indian Ocean within 48 hours. I can have an Army brigade in the area within four to five days, and I could have combat and combat support elements of a light division in the area within two weeks.” [5]

The Reagan administration’s efforts have not gone entirely unchallenged. In this time of budget cutting, the US Congress has not given the Administration all the funding it has requested to modernize and expand bases in the Central Area to which the United States had been granted access. In his proposed Fiscal Year 1985 Budget, Defense Secretary Weinberger requested $109 million for military construction in Egypt, Oman and Morocco. But this May, the House Armed Services Committee (citing budget constraints and the danger of a large American military presence in the region) cut a $62 million budget request for Egypt and cut $15 million from a $42 million budget request for Oman. In spite of the cuts, however, the United States has already spent nearly a billion dollars on military construction in the Central Area since 1979.

The other main obstacle to the administration’s military buildup in the region has been the reluctance of the most important US ally in the region — Saudi Arabia — to allow Washington full use of its military bases and other facilities, which are vital to American intervention operations in the Persian Gulf. The Saudis view Iran and internal dissidents as the main threat in the region, not the Soviet Union, and wish to avoid provoking further Soviet involvement in the region. The Iran-Iraq war has led to a closer military relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States, manifested most recently in the shipment of Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to Saudi Arabia and most clearly the deployment of AWACs radar patrol planes and aerial refueling aircraft along the Persian Gulf. The Saudis depend on the direct participation of US troops and technicians to provide intelligence on military activities in the Gulf from the American AWACs radar patrol planes and to maintain sophisticated military equipment like the F-15 fighters which clashed with Iranian jets. Saudi bases have been “overbuilt” to accommodate US intervention forces. But the Saudi government still wishes to avoid deeper direct American involvement. It has so far rejected pressure from Washington to permit American combat aircraft to use Saudi bases or to let American troops play a direct offensive military role in the Gulf. So far the Saudi government has sought to create a military alliance of Gulf states capable of defending the oil route without direct American participation, but if the Iran-Iraq war continues to expand or escalate, or if it provokes internal conflict within the Gulf states, the Gulf alliance will facilitate direct American intervention rather than prevent it.

Neither Congressional nor Saudi opposition, therefore, seems adequate to stop, much less reverse, the American military buildup in the Middle East, particularly if President Reagan wins a second term. The risks of an expanding American military presence have been vividly demonstrated in Lebanon, where the bombing of the US Embassy and the Marine compound eventually provoked a public demand for US withdrawal which the Reagan administration could not ignore. As the aerial clash in May between Saudi and Iranian jet fighters showed, military crises in the Middle East can escalate rapidly, and the next crisis may not leave time for public opposition to develop before it erupts into a larger war. This is why a public campaign to reverse the present military buildup in the Middle East is necessary now.


[1] Washington Post, January 24, 1980.
[2] United States Central Command, Department of Defense Fact Sheet, n.d. but marked current as of March 1983.
[3] This report, in The Middle East (July 1984), also cites a “reliable government source” that “Pakistan now has some 30,000 troops and advisers in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia” attached to the Gulf Cooperation Council which “could act as auxiliaries for the American rapid deployment force.”
[4] Christian Science Monitor, March 1, 1984.
[5] Hearings Before the Committee on Armed Services, Department of Defense Authorization for Appropriations for Fiscal Year 1983, Part 3 — Sea Power and Force Projection, March 5, 8, 12, 15-16, 18-19, and 22-23, 1982, p. 3729.

How to cite this article:

Daniel Volman "Commanding the Center," Middle East Report 125/126 (July-September 1984).

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