Access Is Key to Power Projection

By Lieutenant Commander Paul N. Nagy, U.S. Naval Reserve

For nearly a century, the U.S. military has relied upon access to forward basing and forward bases as a key element in its ability to project power.... However, U.S. forces' long-term access to forward bases, to include air bases, ports, and logistics facilities cannot be assumed.... The QDR, in our view, accorded insufficient attention to our ability to project power under these circumstances.

Recent events support this assessment. During the August-September 1995 NATO bombing campaign against the Bosnian Serbs, the Air Force sought permission to base F-117 stealth fighter-bombers at Aviano Air Base in Italy. The Italians denied permission, primarily because they were upset that Italy was not a member of the contact group responsible for NATO's political and military initiatives in Bosnia. A year later, when the United States wanted to respond to Iraqi aggression against the Kurds, Jordan would not consent to host an Air Force Air Expeditionary Force, even though it had hosted an AEF deployment earlier that year. In addition, Saudi Arabia and Turkey prohibited U.S. combat aircraft already deployed to their countries to participate in any strikes against Iraq. A similar situation occurred in early 1998, when the United States massed significant land- and sea-based air power in the region in anticipation of possible air strikes against Saddam Hussein, only to have some of our allies refuse to permit U.S. combat aircraft based on their territory to participate in any attacks on Iraq.

Naval forces are not immune to political denial of access. During the tanker war in the Persian Gulf in the 1980s, Saudi Arabia refused a U.S. Navy request to base minesweepers out of the port of Jubayl. Countries also can refuse permission for ships to enter their ports or for naval aircraft to overfly their airspace. Foreign governments can deny access to certain facilities or can limit base use, even if permission to enter a port has been granted.

The Demands of Persian Gulf Operations

No discussion of the Navy's experience with political denial of access is complete without a review of its history in the Persian Gulf, because it is in this strategic body of water that many of the Navy's future political challenges to access almost certainly will arise.

The Navy's need for a secure source of fuel first brought it to the Gulf after World War II. Soon, units operating in the Pacific and Mediterranean depended almost entirely on fuel shipped directly from refineries in the region, which necessitated the establishment of shore-based facilities to coordinate this logistical enterprise. In 1947, the Navy created a plan for its oilers to fill up at Bahrain, and this was followed by agreements in 1948 to store fuel oil in Ethiopia, Aden (now Yemen), and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). During the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, Bahrain sent signals that it might terminate the Navy's access to its port because of U.S. support for Israel, but it was not carried out. Nevertheless, the Navy considered moving its Middle East Force headquarters to Iranian ports.

The Navy realized that it needed a larger and politically more secure base to support major Indian Ocean operations. Long-range planning conducted during the late 1950s concluded that Diego Garcia, a British island in the Indian Ocean, could be developed into a major support facility.

The first basing agreement was negotiated in 1966, and in subsequent years Diego Garcia has been developed into perhaps the Navy's most important overseas installation. It proved indispensable in the late 1980s, during the later stages of the Iran-Iraq conflict and during the Gulf War.

The strategic significance of the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean increased considerably as a result of the Iranian revolution of the late 1970s. The United States fostered a close relationship with Oman that led to the signing of a facilities access agreement in 1980, and the Navy subsequently began using the airfield on the island of Masirah as a base for P-3 maritime reconnaissance operations. During the Iran-Iraq tanker war, the United States required additional base support in the Gulf for mine-countermeasure ships, small craft, and aircraft. However, none of the Gulf states—including Kuwait, which had initiated the reflagging of its tankers—would agree to host such a base. Kuwait later agreed to be the primary source for all contract fuel for Navy ships and aircraft in the region during the escort operations.

Regional allies provided a well-developed infrastructure for U.S. naval forces during the Gulf War, with no significant political challenges to access. Destroyer tenders were permitted to use Red Sea and Gulf ports to provide critical repair and support facilities for surface ships. In fact, the Acadia (AD-42), recorded a first by rearming the destroyers Leftwich (DD-984) and Paul F. Foster (DD964) with Tomahawk cruise missiles. To support logistics missions, airfields in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Oman were used as bases for a Navy "logistics air force" of 25 dedicated helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.

Since Desert Storm, naval access to facilities in Bahrain has increased significantly. The Military Sealift Command established a shore-based office there in 1992, to coordinate U.S. sealift assets in the Gulf. The creation of the U.S. Fifth Fleet prompted the staff of Naval Forces, U.S. Central Command, to vacate its flagship for better accommodations ashore in 1993. Permanent designation of Bahrain as headquarters for the Fifth Fleet came in 1995, and, despite the fact that basing arrangements are described as "temporary," the Navy has prepositioned some stores and stationed approximately 1,000 shore-based personnel in Bahrain.

The Persian Gulf will remain the focus of most forward deployed naval operations for the foreseeable future. The search for political access has been a constant theme of the Navy's experience in the Gulf, and many of the emerging access issues of the next century will originate in that region.

Emerging Naval Access Issues

The post-Cold War era has seen the closure of numerous U.S. overseas bases and an increase in political pressures to close or reduce activities at others. For the Navy, this meant the loss of its superlative base at Subic Bay in the Philippines and the start of a search for other facilities to compensate for that loss. The following are some of the access issues that will challenge the Navy's leaders in the next century:

Aircraft Carrier Access . Looming on the horizon is the most potentially troublesome of all political access problems. Will the Japanese government and people consent to host a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier at Yokosuka? The carrier now home ported in Japan, the Kitty Hawk (CV-63), will be retired around 2008. Presumably, the Navy's sole remaining conventionally powered carrier, the John F. Kennedy (CV-67), then will move to Japan. But after she retires, then what? When asked if Japan will eventually accept a nuclear carrier, one Japanese admiral reportedly stated that "a lot of objection will be expected."

A related issue is the level of shore-based support required for carrier operations. Although a carrier can support herself, her air wing, and even her battle group for a number of days, prolonged peacetime operations require regular carrier onboard delivery (COD) flights to and from a forward base. Shipments may include jet engines, repair parts, personnel, and mail. The airfield on Masirah, for example, was important to the logistics support of deployed carriers in the region. U.S. Air Force transports flew important cargo directly into Masirah, and from there CODs and helicopters delivered it to the carriers and ships. The challenge is to prevent an adversary from trying to erode a carrier's combat capability by severing her connection with air bases.

Land-based Naval Aviation Access . The traditional role of Navy land-based aircraft has been antisubmarine warfare, but P-3s modified for intelligence- and signals intelligence-gathering have been deployed around the world. These high-value assets have been gathering intelligence over the Balkans from the naval air stations at Sigonella, Sicily, and Souda Bay, Crete. A detachment of P-3s was based temporarily in Uganda in 1996 to supply intelligence about events in neighboring Zaire. This information influenced U.S. government decision making about potential U.S. involvement in the humanitarian tragedy unfolding in that country. For much of the 1990s, Central Command P-3s have patrolled the skies over the Persian Gulf from Masirah, Bahrain, and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. In addition, the land-based P-3s' importance to the carrier battle group will increase dramatically when the Navy retires the last of its carrier-based ES-3 Shadow intelligence-gathering aircraft in 2000. This increased emphasis on land-based naval aviation means that the same access restrictions that plague the Air Force could hinder the Navy. Ensuring basing access for its land-based aircraft will be one of the Navy's top access priorities in the coming years.

Cruise Missile Replenishment Access . The Navy's Tomahawk land-attack missile has become one of our government's preferred weapons. In August 1998, more than 70 were fired by U.S. ships and submarines against terrorist sites in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In September 1996, four surface combatants and one submarine fired 44 Tomahawks at targets in southern Iraq in response to aggression against the Kurds. The exact number of Tomahawks remaining on board the U.S. ships for possible follow-up strikes on Iraq was classified, but it is conceivable that the 44 expended Tomahawks represented a significant portion of the sea-launched cruise missiles available to U.S. commanders in the Persian Gulf.

What if the United States had needed to conduct additional strikes in 1996 or 1998? And what if the Navy needed to rearm its shooters to conduct those strikes? The Tomahawk is too heavy for the Mk 41 vertical launch system's installed handling crane; it can be loaded only by a crane on a pier or a barge, or from a tender at a secure anchorage. In September 1996, however, a destroyer tender was not deployed to Southwest Asia. U.S. Air Force strategic airlift would have been needed to fly in additional Tomahawks, which would have required host-nation permission to use suitable airfields in, for example, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, or Oman. It is possible that any of these nations would refuse permission for their ports or airfields to be used to facilitate missiles strikes against Iraq. And even if such permission were granted, there still would be some access challenges. The cruise missiles would have to be transported overland from the airfield to a port, for which host nation permission also would be required.

There are a finite number of vertical launch system cells in the fleet. Ensuring that those cells are loaded and ready for action is another access challenge for the Navy.

Training Access . Naval forces need periodic training to keep their warfighting skills sharp. The Navy is fortunate in that much of its live-fire training can be conducted in international waters. The Marines, on the other hand, require large shore-based ranges, making deployed units' training opportunities more vulnerable to political denial of access. To compensate for the loss of U.S. bases in the Philippines, the Marines are exploring acquiring access to a large training base in northern Australia. An Australian range also could serve as a hedge against the loss of Marine bases in Okinawa (perhaps the most significant political access concern for the Corps), and against the possible denial of access to other ranges in Southwest Asia. Marines on board amphibious ready groups deployed to the Persian Gulf occasionally use the Rubkat range in Oman and the vast Udairi range in Kuwait, just 20 miles south of the Iraqi border. Undermining U.S. access to these overseas training facilities, then, is one way an adversary could attempt to erode the combat capabilities of forward-deployed naval forces.

Ship Repair Access . During the Cold War, the Navy could depend on the ship repair facilities at a number of well developed overseas bases. Some of these, such as Subic Bay, have been closed. The Navy also has decommissioned a number of destroyer and submarine tenders, ships that were deployed regularly to support forward-deployed combat forces. Ensuring adequate access for ship repair and maintenance has led the Navy to search for alternative facilities.

The Navy currently uses the Israeli port of Haifa for some repairs and port calls, and it has agreements with some Israeli shipyards to expand the available facilities. In 1990, Singapore agreed to expand U.S. air and naval access to its facilities, and granted limited basing privileges. The Navy also transferred Commander, Logistics Group Western Pacific, from Subic Bay to Singapore, to coordinate maintenance support for ships deployed to the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean. When ships need repair work, this office arranges for a brief visit to a commercial shipyard in Singapore, Malaysia, or Indonesia, countries with which the Navy also has signed ship repair agreements. This access has helped the Navy adjust to the loss of Subic Bay, and the commercial shipyards in Singapore, in particular, are very responsive to the U.S. Navy's needs. Nevertheless, all of these facilities are smaller, provide less support, have more restrictions, and are politically vulnerable to access denial.

Transit Access . One of the reasons the Clinton administration decided to ratify the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea is the growing concern within the Pentagon that without an established global regime for ensuring U.S. transit rights through straits or archipelagic waters, the movement of U.S. naval forces could be inhibited by regional powers. In particular, the United States was concerned about ensuring naval access through the Strait of Malacca and key Indonesian straits used by Pacific based carrier battle groups transiting to the Persian Gulf.

Some strategic waterways, however, are beyond the provisions of the U.N. Convention. The Suez Canal, for example, has been—and will continue to be—a significant access concern for the U.S. Navy. The canal is under the control of the Egyptian government, which in recent years has placed major limitations on certain types of warships (particularly nuclear-powered ones). And although there was open access during the Gulf War, it is believed that the Egyptians charged very high prices to warships using the canal during that period. In the context of the global economy, the canal no longer is a vital trade route, but its closure would adversely affect the ability of the United States to deploy naval forces to Southwest Asia.


Forward-deployed naval forces always have depended on support from the shore, and access to the shore has depended on the political support of the host nation. Navy and Marine officers must not turn a blind eye to the possibility that access to important overseas facilities can be politically denied or constrained. The continued ability of naval forces to provide credible forward presence depends on constant vigilance for political challenges to access and creative solutions to overcoming them.

Commander Nagy , a defense consultant at DFI International in Washington, D.C., is assigned to NCC 106, the Naval Reserve unit that supports the CNO’s command center in the Pentagon. After a six-year enlisted tour, he received his commission in 1985 and qualified as a surface warfare officer. Recalled to active duty in 1990 in support of Desert Shield/Desert Storm, Commander Nagy was assigned to the Military Sealift Command’s officers in Rotterdam and London.


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