The Access Issue

Oct. 1, 1998
In the Persian Gulf crisis of early 1998, Saudi Arabia did not give permission for US Air Force fighters based on its soil to take part in the limited strikes that were being contemplated against Iraq. Military planners shifted emphasis and brought in bombers and an additional carrier. Negotiations ensued, the crisis faded, and the forces slowly stood down, but not before news media and other commentators had rekindled debate about whether the Air Force, in a future crisis, might face “lockout” from key bases.

This is the prime example of the so-called “access issue.” It has been raised repeatedly by naval partisans quick to make what they deem a key point: “The carrier battle group, operating in international waters, does not need the permission of host countries for landing or overflight rights,” reads an official Navy statement. “Nor does it need to build or maintain bases in countries where our presence may cause political or other strains.”

To date, though, lockout problems have never stopped a significant military operation to which the United States was seriously committed. Air Force and other US forces work most efficiently when they can use choice in-theater ports, bases, and facilities. Allies can deny access or impose operational limitations and have done so; the prospect of combat can produce disagreement and limit the extent of host-nation support. There is concern that the spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction may pose added access problems.

However, these are not showstoppers for land-based airpower. The United States military has a large stake in theater access, requiring cooperation with allies and capabilities to deter or defeat anti-access denial efforts. Complex calculations of theater access will be one of the major security issues for Washington in the next decade, but the public debate so far has lacked perspective. The recent Gulf crisis offers a notable case in point.

Lockout or Not

In late 1997, Iraq, having spent months harassing United Nations weapons inspection teams, banned them outright from Saddam Hussein’s “presidential palaces” and other sites. As the Clinton Administration planned a response in early 1998, the question was whether US-led air forces would get permission to launch strikes from Prince Sultan AB, Saudi Arabia. Riyadh had allowed continued enforcement of the no-fly zone over southern Iraq but signaled unwillingness to let its bases be used for attacks on Iraqi targets. Kuwait gave its approval, and other Gulf states offered help. USAF units in those countries were joined by B-52s sent to Diego Garcia and naval aircraft aboard a second carrier sent to the Gulf region.

Did Riyadh’s action constitute lockout? The best evidence is that it did not. In fact, it seems clear that Riyadh was fully prepared to permit US Air Force fighters to strike from its bases if the US planned a serious attack on Saddam. The New York Times, in a Feb. 4 dispatch from Washington quoting top officials, said, “The Saudis have privately signaled support for an American attack, as long as it inflicts significant damage on President Saddam Hussein’s ability to threaten his neighbors.”

Bradley Graham, defense correspondent for the Washington Post, noted in a story from Saudi Arabia, “The Saudis have told US and other Western officials that they would have no problem with using force against Iraq as long as any attack were not merely symbolic but really hurt Saddam Hussein, whom they regard as a menace.” The hang-up, Graham continued, was the suspicion in Riyadh that the US attack would not be a serious one. The limited US operation then in the planning stage, the Saudis concluded, was “not likely to finish off the Iraqi dictator” and would leave him in place and “vengeful” toward the desert kingdom.

Saudi concerns were not without merit. The US for years had maintained a military force in the Gulf region to “contain” Iraqi aggression. Over the years, the Administration mounted several symbolic, “pinprick” strikes having no military impact, along with many ineffectual verbal threats and warnings. Then came the 1998 crisis, and US policy goals kept changing. In January, it was to “deny” Iraq the capacity to build and use mass destruction weapons. A month later, the goal was to “substantially reduce or delay” Iraqi access to such weapons.

On Feb. 3, several days before making an official visit to Saudi Arabia, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen warned Congress not to have “unreasonable expectations about what can be achieved.” The goal of the military operation concerning Saddam, he said, “would be very much concentrated toward limiting, curtailing, really preventing him from reconstituting his [WMD] capability, in the near future, at least.” Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright opined that getting rid of Saddam “requires a far vaster commitment of military force and a far greater risk” than Washington was prepared to undertake.

Not Enthusiastic

Saudi officials had no enthusiasm for joining such an adventure. Moreover, as the prospect of real war drew closer, it was obvious that the US, without use of the major, 100-aircraft Air Force component in Saudi Arabia, didn’t have sufficient power on hand to strike a sustained, effective blow against Iraq.

Eventually, Washington settled for a promise from Saddam to let the inspectors back in, a pledge that Iraq abrogated in August.

Retired Gen. Michael J. Dugan, a former USAF Chief of Staff, contended that the two carriers then on hand were insufficient to generate the kind of sustained air campaign that would have been needed had matters gone beyond a limited operation or a show of force. The carriers “can fight for two or three days, then they have to stand down to replenish,” said Dugan. He added, “Access is not an on/off switch. It is a routine operating condition that adds to, or subtracts from, the timeliness, survivability, and weight of effort that can be produced by a given military force.”

Moreover, the carrier itself requires access to land bases, according to Dugan. “It needs to be replenished from bases, which have access issues,” he said. “Fuel, munitions-the things that constitute the output end of air operations-are stored on land, and to get ’em off land requires access. … Over a period of one, two, or three days, there are a lot of things that carrier operations can do. On the other hand, carriers and carrier operations have access limits. They have to get from wherever they are at to wherever the action is. That’s an issue of timely access, too.”

Maritime advocates are not always eager to concede this point. For example, the Navy’s official 1998 Program Guide, issued last August, lauded the alleged ability of “self-reliant and self-sustaining-expeditionary-naval forces to operate in forward regions without the need for an extensive network of land bases and other support facilities.” The report went on, “The Navy and Marine Corps carry their own infrastructure when they deploy, and they arrive ready for immediate operations. As the Iraq-UN sanctions crisis of 1997­1998 proved, an aircraft carrier air wing comes not only with aircraft, crews, and weapons, but provides its own airfield … secure, supplied, and ready when and where it is needed. An amphibious ready group has its own command-and-control systems, air support, and sea-based troop billeting that is protected from terrorist attacks and free from Status of Forces Agreements and sovereignty constraints. … At a time when ‘expeditionary’ has become a military adjective-of-choice, the Navy and Marine Corps-as they have for more than 200 years-continue to provide its most fundamental and accurate definition.”

The access issue had come to the fore 18 months earlier in the so-called “Irbil Crisis.” On Aug. 31, 1996, the Iraqi Republican Guard forces, in league with a faction of Kurds, occupied the town of Irbil in the predominantly Kurdish northern Iraq, an area that officially was under UN protection. Under UN decrees, no Iraqi forces were to move north of the 36th parallel, and Irbil’s location north of the line made Iraq’s move into the town a clear violation. The US formulated a response calling on strikes with US and Coalition airpower based in Turkey and Saudi Arabia. However, both nations as well as Jordan denied requests to launch strikes from their territory. These countries tended to view the incident as an internal Iraqi matter and were loath to intervene. Washington turned to the Air Force’s cruise-missile-carrying B-52 bombers and the Navy’s Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles launched from submarines and surface ships. Range and survivability constraints ruled out naval air strikes.


Afterward, former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger praised the military action but criticized overall US policy in the Gulf as “inept.” In his view, incoherence in US policy led to the allied nations placing limits on the use of in-country facilities and to less-than-optimum force employment. He argued that Turkey and Saudi Arabia refused to let US forces use their bases because “neither … have a clue as to what our intentions are in Iraq.” Moreover, though Iraqi transgressions took place in the northern part of the country, Washington struck in the south. Weinberger said such attacks only caused confusion and worry among allies.

As Dugan sees it, the problem still exists. “The Saudis do not know the extent of our objectives nor the firmness of our policy,” he said. “We have not posed an end result-an outcome of the military operation-that has captured the Saudi imagination. I don’t know exactly how we approach the Saudis, but I suspect we talk to them about a one- or two-day demonstration and not about a comprehensive policy and a supportive campaign to achieve specific changes in the political landscape.”

Dugan sees a big difference between today and 1990, as the United States began its buildup in Saudi Arabia for the Gulf War. “We had some very clear objectives,” he said. “We told the Saudis that we were going to preserve their territorial integrity and we were going to eject the Iraqis from Kuwait. … I don’t believe we’ve ever gotten the same kind of clarity in our policy since. … We haven’t been able to decide what we want. The Saudis have told us a couple of times over the past six or eight years, ‘If you’re going to go out and do something useful, we’re with you. If you’re going to do another pinprick, you’re on your own.’ “

Access to bases in overseas theaters has been a prominent feature of US policy since World War II. Lend­Lease agreements with Britain entailed the delivery of destroyers and war supplies in return for 99-year access rights to key facilities such as Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. In the aftermath of the war, the US enjoyed access to bases in places ranging from the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean to Britain, France, and Germany.

Access concerns are nothing new. Even during the Cold War, US access to overseas bases was subject to negotiations between Washington and friendly nations. For example, the US lost basing rights in Saudi Arabia in 1962. The biggest “access crisis” came in 1966, when President Charles De Gaulle led France out of NATO’s integrated command structure and ordered Allied forces to leave France. Numerous facilities-including NATO headquarters-had to be relocated to accommodate the political change. None of these events caused the US to change policy goals or abandon supporting military strategies.

The post­Cold War drawdown of US bases in Europe reflected diminished needs for permanent basing access on the Continent. In the early 1990s, however, Desert Storm and contingency operations in other regions–especially Africa–raised anew the question of access to bases and facilities.

Open Spaces

Despite concerns about lockout, US forces operate routinely in more countries than ever before. They regularly have appeared in countries where access was once unthinkable. Formerly communist Albania permitted USAF to base reconnaissance assets at its facilities during and after Operation Deliberate Force in 1995. Taszar AB, Hungary, once part of the Warsaw Pact basing system, became a hub of theater airlift for implementation of the Dayton peace accords in Bosnia. In the Gulf, Kuwait has welcomed a permanent complement of USAF aircraft.

DFI International, a Washington, D.C.-based defense consulting firm, recently conducted a major study of the issue of US access and its effect on US deployments and presence missions. The study, requested by the Air Force, concluded that access issues affected less than 1 percent of USAF deployments during the period 1990-97.

Given the diverse political views that prevail among Washington’s allies and friends, it should be expected that even longtime regional partners might under certain circumstances refuse to lay out a welcome mat as quickly or completely as Washington would prefer. When pressures to act get ahead of the diplomatic process, some allies can choose to limit access for US forces, place restrictions upon the ways in which they can be used, or both.

These disagreements with regional partners underscored the fact that access may not always be granted exactly when, where, and to what degree it is needed-and for optimum force packages. According to Paul Nagy and Harry Ozeroff, authors of the DFI report, access problems usually stem from “failure of diplomacy,” not from military factors.

When allies and partners do not concur on the form of a crisis response, they find it hard to agree on what forces can be brought to host-nation bases and for what purposes. US forces in Saudi Arabia do not operate under a Status of Forces Agreement-a fact that underlines extreme sensitivities about hosting Western troops and signals that differences on the use of force will be a constant irritant, especially when threats are ambiguous.

Merging American and local perspectives into a coherent position is crucial to all access agreements, from overflight and landing rights to long-term forward basing. Gen. John P. Jumper, commander of US Air Forces in Europe and a prime architect of the Air Expeditionary Force concept, noted that access “depends on how much a country feels truly threatened.” According to Jumper, “The more they are threatened, the quicker the access comes.” The challenge for the Air Force and other services is to find ways to tailor forward deployed forces to provide maximum capability yet still respect regional political sensitivities.

In the view of Dugan, there is an absence of logic in the claim that US forces could be completely locked out of a region in which it has allies and vital interests. “Lockout [is] not associated with every location within reach of Point X,” said the former Chief of Staff. “Clearly, that doesn’t make sense. Individual nations have individual interests. Some of them have interests converging with those of the United States, and some have different interests. All have differing internal domestic situations. Finding the convergence and creating the conditions for supporting options-military or otherwise-is at the heart of statecraft.”

Fishy Claims

“The issue of access is a red herring,” declared Col. James R. Callard, an Air Staff officer who has worked on this issue. “Is access a problem when our vital interests are threatened? The short answer is no. … When our vital interests are threatened, we will have access. The American people will demand it. … The American people will not allow us to protect an ally that refuses to allow us access.”

Callard added, “We should not permit our zeal for carrier air to convince our prospective allies that we are interested in fighting on their behalf without using their territory.”

Different operations have distinct access needs. Disaster relief usually means lifting heavy equipment and supplies to the affected region and requires access for a long continuous period. Humanitarian action is almost guaranteed to get swift political backing from the affected nation or from neighboring nations. In contrast, a single offensive aircraft strike against a target in a neighboring country may be too visible and risky for a regional ally. The operation might then have to be conducted from other regional bases, with sea-based or US-based air forces, or both.

A recent study by the Institute for Defense Analyses in Alexandria, Va., found that access to theater bases, though it is useful in all types of operations involving land-based aircraft, is vital for two. These are noncombatant evacuations and strikes against time-urgent targets-notionally, targets which must be hit within 24 hours of their discovery.

IDA looked at three theaters-the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean, and Western Pacific. For each, it postulated four types of crises-noncombatant evacuation, disaster relief, urgent strikes against perishable targets, and nonurgent strikes against point targets. IDA analyzed each of the resulting 12 scenarios in light of assumptions that the US (1) had access to in-theater bases, (2) had no access, or (3) used only maritime forces.

The upshot of the IDA analysis: Land-based aircraft flying from in-theater bases provide the most efficient responses in all four types of crises in all three theaters. IDA found that land-based aircraft, based in theater, are able to carry out all four types of operations within a single day. In contrast, reported IDA, maritime forces-Navy warships and Marine amphibious forces-usually would require two or three days of continuous effort to meet the same goals.

How would that picture change in event of a lockout? According to IDA analysts, total denial of in-theater facilities would prevent land-based aircraft from carrying out strikes against time-sensitive targets. However, not even a full base lockout could prevent land-based aircraft from mounting attacks against point targets. Long-range bombers based either in the US or in forward bases such as Guam or Diego Garcia could hit such targets within a day.

Where Are Those Carriers

IDA analysts found that, in a lockout situation, the responsiveness of maritime forces hinges on where these warships are deployed at any given time. If they happen to be operating near a crisis zone when a problem erupts, they could respond expeditiously. However, if carrier battle groups or amphibious ready groups are not on scene, it could take days and possibly weeks to get them into position to do much good.

Maritime forces could eventually get naval airpower into position where they would be able to attack time-urgent targets, should they pop up. They could not do so right away, though. Getting naval aviation forces on station close enough to conduct such attacks would take, on average, at least two days in the Western Pacific, three days in the Mediterranean, and four days in the Indian Ocean. In worst-case scenarios, times go much higher.

USAF Air Expeditionary Forces are highly attuned to access considerations. USAF launched AEF deployments in 1995 as a means for putting 30 additional fighters and six bombers into Southwest Asia during gaps in Navy carrier visits. Since then, AEFs have helped prevent potential access problems. Regional partners have reached a comfort level with AEF deployments, which have provided a setting where questions and problems can be resolved under noncrisis conditions. AEF planners worked hard to reduce the force sizes and shorten response times.

The AEF concept has greatly reduced the sheer numbers of forces that nations have to accommodate. USAF has practiced the concept of rapid response with a lean package, and moves to streamline the AEF packages may well reduce requirements even further. In a recent study, USAF’s Scientific Advisory Board found that the minimum requirement for an AEF mission actually is quite small: a runway, taxiway, ramp suitable for airlift and mission operations, and nearby fuel and water. Everything else can be brought in.

Early AEF deployments provided a test environment for a diplomatic “surge” aimed at gaining access to foreign bases. The first AEF deployment (to Bahrain in October 1995) was a special challenge. Jumper, who was then the three-star commander of 9th Air Force, later conceded, “We’ve had access problems.” He meant that the Bahrainis “wanted to see how this was going to work before they made any larger commitments.” When the US and a regional ally reach an understanding on the purpose, size, duration, and objectives of deployments, access follows. Jumper said, “I think now you’ll find that we’re welcome back to Bahrain any time.”

In a recent speech, Jumper elaborated: “Access is an issue until you begin to involve the vital interests of the nation that you want and need as a host. Then access is rarely an issue. … If you are engaged with these countries in an aggressive exercise program instead of a prolonged rotational presence, if your maintenance people are involved at the grassroots level teaching them how to maintain airplanes, if you make yourself valuable as a training asset to these countries in ways that are definable and measurable, then you add a dynamic of regional stability that otherwise would not be there, of familiarity, of comfort, that makes those decisions easier when you have to ask to deploy in a real situation.”

Anti-Access Concerns

Political lockout is but one aspect of the access issue. Another is the military “anti-access” threat that could be posed by regional powers. In the view of some, anti-access attacks could slow or turn back large-scale US deployments by disrupting the logistics and supply system. Among the prominent proponents of this thesis was the National Defense Panel which, in its final report in 1997, warned that forward deployed forces would have to operate in a different way in order to cope with the threat.

According to the NDP, land-based air forces would have to operate from more-distant points, outside the immediate range of threats in the theater of operations. Sea-based forces would have to disperse and avoid close-in threats. Some analysts argue that long-range ballistic missiles and Weapons of Mass Destruction increase the risk to key targets such as supply dumps, airfields, and ports. John Collins, an analyst with Congressional Research Service, observed, “In the Gulf War, we sent 96 percent of our tonnage through two ports. If Saddam had had three nuclear weapons, he could have destroyed our warfighting capability.”

This problem may be overblown. One skeptic is Dugan, the former USAF Chief of Staff, who believes that enemies will be deterred from taking such a fateful step. “It is clear in my mind that the American public would not accept an attack on American troops without an overwhelming, violent response on the part of US forces,” said Dugan. “Not very many Americans would have to be killed or incapacitated with Weapons of Mass Destruction before the American public would demand that we respond-not in kind, but by 10 times. National entities around the world know that. So I think there is great deterrent value still in … the American posture.”

The Panel to Review Long Range Airpower was specifically tasked to review “the potential of a biological or chemical lock-out of tactical assets” and determine whether the US should buy more bombers to offset the danger. The LRA panel, led by retired Gen. Larry D. Welch, a former USAF Chief of Staff, gave a mixed answer. On one hand, it said, “the ability [of bombers] to strike from longer range reduces some of the constraints associated with basing restrictions.” However, it also noted that “bombers … must be deployed forward to generate the sustained high sortie rates needed in major contingencies.”

Don’t Concede

The bottom line for the panel was that the United States shouldn’t concede on the access issue but keep working “to provide the means to continue effective operations [land-based tactical aircraft], even in the face of chemical or biological attacks.”

Dugan echoed this view. “US forces go where they need to be in order to pursue the national foreign policy objectives-and the associated military operations-in an effective manner,” he said. “The CINCs take all practical steps to mitigate the risks, and then we rely on a strong military deterrent posture and the long-standing national policy that the US will use all necessary means to protect its people and its forces from the threat of WMDs.” The whole matter, he concluded, is “overstated” by analysts. “I think the US still has, on a national basis, great credibility in its deterrent posture.” In any event, he said, Weapons of Mass Destruction “are no less effective over water than they are over land.”

For some naval officials, the Clinton Administration’s decision to send USS Independence to join USS George Washington during the 1998 Iraq crisis spotlighted naval forces as a possible alternative to land-based fighter forces. Marine Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, commander in chief of US Central Command, said just after the crisis that naval forces might have to play a bigger role in his region in the future. “In an era where access will be problematic,” he said, “sea-based air may be the only option.”

For government officials, the idea of dispensing with the messy access issue is attractive, but closer examination reveals problems. Naval forces offer joint commanders only limited force employment options. Naval expeditionary task forces may provide certain highly specialized capabilities without land support for a limited period. However, all evidence is that naval forces have “access” problems all their own.

In fact, said DFI, now that USAF has reduced its permanent overseas presence, “The Navy and Marines now rely on more overseas bases and facilities in foreign nations than the Air Force–making the Navy and Marine Corps more vulnerable to political access denial than the other services.”

The carrier battle group, built around a 90,000-ton Nimitz-class nuclear powered carrier and its embarked air wing, can sustain two to three days of operations relying on its own underway resources. Without land-based tanker support, its F-14s and F/A-18s are limited. The relative scarcity of aviation fuel and weapons would undercut any effort to conduct sustained air combat operations at sea.

The Land Tether

After a few days, a carrier must stand down for underway replenishment. Without land-based carrier onboard delivery aircraft, land-based P-3 patrol aircraft, or land-based Air Force tankers, force employment options diminish greatly. In the words of a 1992 Center for Naval Analyses report: “Sustained [carrier] operations almost inevitably require the establishment of regular [resupply] flights to and from a forward base. Thus, even the most modern carrier must maintain at least a minimal connection to a land base if it is to operate efficiently for any length of time.”

Some surface ships and attack submarines embark with a capability to launch Tomahawk land attack cruise missile strikes at targets as far away as 1,000 miles. The problem is that such strikes usually must be limited to preplanned targets. For sustained operations, the surface fleet needs theater facilities for repair or replenishment. When warships deploy to far-off regions on a long-term basis, port facilities like those in Bahrain are indispensable.

The amphibious ready group, or ARG, features a Wasp-class “little deck” carrier with a complement of 2,500 embarked Marines. It provides the nation’s only long-loiter response force for evacuations and small-scale contingencies. A Wasp-class ship can carry AV-8B Harriers but more often carries helicopters, which are useful only in environments with minimal or nonexistent air threats. The ARG offers no major strike options.

The anti-access threat to surface ships in littoral operations has been underappreciated, said Air Force officers, noting the danger of anti-ship missiles and mines. “Ships have continued to fall victim to lethal countermeasures as they attempted to move closer to land in littoral regions to project power on to land,” said one. He noted the cases of USS Samuel B. Roberts in 1988-a victim of mines in the Gulf-and two mining incidents in the Gulf during Desert Storm which required an AEGIS cruiser and Marine helicopter carrier to be withdrawn from action and repaired in dry dock in Bahrain.

Except for a handful of single-strike scenarios, the capability of the nation to act alone over extended periods using only naval forces constitutes a myth. To achieve response times similar to those of Air Force aircraft operating from in-theater land bases, the Navy would have to either double the size of its current 12-carrier fleet at immense cost or permanently forward deploy carriers overseas, creating a new type of access problem, not to mention political opposition of US home port communities.