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At Risk in Egypt's Turmoil: U.S. Military Access to the Middle East

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Three hundred combat-armed paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division plummeted from a cobalt Egyptian sky. U.S. and Egyptian marines swarmed ashore in waves of armored vehicles, and American jets streaked low overhead. It was October 2009, the most recent -- and perhaps the last -- of the massive combat maneuvers staged in Egypt every two years in an assertive demonstration of U.S. power and resolve in the troubled Middle East.

Whatever the outcome of the tumult wracking Egypt, those who eventually consolidate power in Cairo may not welcome back the biannual Bright Star military exercises.
Also suddenly at risk, along with Bright Star, is the access of U.S. military forces to Egypt's sprawling naval facilities at Alexandria and the huge Cairo West air base, as well as over-flight rights and guaranteed transit for U.S. warships through the Suez Canal -- all critical underpinnings of the U.S. ability to project power in the region, to contain Iran, reassure Israel and strengthen stability.

And which direction will Egypt's military take -- to continue as a U.S. strategic partner, or emerge as a foe?

As Defense Secretary Robert Gates observed after meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak two years ago, the United States relies on "full participation and leadership from Egypt'' as it grapples with Iran, the Arab-Israeli peace process and post-war Iraq.

Losing that relationship and access "would be a strategic disaster,'' said James Phillips, senior Middle East researcher at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "Not only because it would damage our capability to mobilize naval and other forces to help contain Iran, but also because it would weaken our whole defense strategy and network in the Middle East.''

It is that kind of worst-case scenario that military planners must take into account. At the Pentagon, where many officers have close personal friends inside the Egyptian military, there are both public and private expressions of hope that Egypt's military will help ease the country safely through the current turbulence.

"Egypt is not a client state of the U.S. or any kind of subservient country, but one strong enough to recognize and act in its own best interests,'' said retired Army Col. Robert Killebrew, currently a researcher at the Center for a New American Strategy, an independent Washington think tank. "My guess is that friendly relations between the [U.S. and Egyptian] services will continue.''

The United States has no military bases of its own in Egypt. Its headquarters for directing air and ground troops in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Iraq, are in Qatar. Stockpiles of tanks, ammunition, fuel, spare parts and other war materiel are warehoused in Kuwait, Qatar and Oman. U.S. missile batteries are deployed along the Persian Gulf's west coast. The U.S. Navy's regional headquarters is in Bahrain.

But in contingencies or crises, American forces have depended heavily on Egyptian facilities built with U.S. aid to U.S. specifications to accommodate U.S. forces as they move from the United States and Europe to Africa or westward across Jordan and Saudi Arabia to the Persian Gulf. American nuclear powered aircraft carriers, whose jets are playing a major role in Afghanistan, rely critically on their expedited use of the Suez Canal, giving them easy access to the Red Sea and Persian Gulf.

That's important because the region holds a scary number of potential conflicts: a war with Iran, a summons from Iraq's government for help in a new outbreak of civil war; and any number of scenarios involving Israel. For the Pentagon, the ability to quickly move forces into the region has been a major preoccupation since 1979, when the Iranian revolution suddenly demonstrated the fragility of many of the region's regimes.

For U.S. military planners, the sudden loss of access to Egypt would present a double problem.

Without Egypt, they would find their options for shipping air and sea cargo, refueling and repairing aircraft and consolidating troop movements narrowed to those along the Persian Gulf. The loss of landing rights in Egypt, for example, might mean that in a crisis, wide-body jets, each carrying hundreds of troops, would have to fly directly into congested Persian Gulf airfields, rather than into Cairo West, from which smaller transports would ferry troops into action.

And those Persian Gulf facilities are increasingly vulnerable to Iranian ballistic missiles.
Even now, according to Quadrennial Defense Review, the major strategic review completed by the Pentagon last year, U.S. forces need access to bases "more resilient than today's in the face of attacks.'' The study said planners are looking for ways to fortify those bases, with missile defense being a high priority, but protecting high-value airfields and ports where troops are disembarking is clearly difficult.

In war-fighting terms, the loss of Egypt might also force a greater reliance on long-range strike assets -- strike fighters, bombers and missiles -- at a time when the U.S. arsenal of such weapons is limited. In a Mideast war, fighters once might have launched from Egyptian airfields; without Egypt, they'd have to operate from carriers -- themselves vulnerable -- or fly exhausting air-refueled missions from distant land bases in Turkey or Europe. And longer missions mean fewer daily sorties.

The U.S. long-distance bomber fleet has shrunk significantly, from more than 1,100 aircraft in 1950, to 154 today, including 134 B-1 and B-52 bombers unable to penetrate sophisticated enemy air defenses. Last month, Defense Secretary Gates ordered renewed work on a new long-distance, nuclear-capable bomber to fill the gap, but that capability is years away, he said.

Losing access to Egypt, for military planners, would be part of a larger problem, said Mark A. Gunzinger, a former Air Force command pilot who served as a strategic planner at the Pentagon and White House. He is currently an analyst at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington.

"We have operated in the past with a great deal of freedom of maneuver in the air, at sea,'' he said. "We always knew we could deploy the fighters, the carriers can get in close, there's no significant threat to bases, our supply lines would be fairly secure.

"Now, across the board, we are looking at a future where we might want to assume any of that is true,'' Gunzinger said. "And we are not well postured for that eventuality.''

In all of these worse-case scenarios, there is a concern that the Egyptian military itself may suffer the kind of fate that befell Iran's professional military (also educated, trained and equipped by the United States) after the fall of the Shah in 1979.

"If radicals come to power in Cairo, the nightmare is what happened to the Iranian army: the upper echelons, several tens of thousands of officers, were all shot,'' said Killebrew. "That should serve as a cautionary tale.''

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Ed

I can't think why a free and independent Egypt would want to continue these exercises. The only country in the area that poses a credible threat to Egypt militarily is Israel and the odds of the United States fighting alongside of the Egyptians against the Israelis even in the unlikely event of an unprovoked Israeli sneak attack on Egypt are about the same as the odds of a submersible operating in the depths of the Marianas Trench being struck by lightning.

March 08 2011 at 12:27 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Ken

So we may not have military access to the Mid-East. So what !!!! Why do we think we are entitled to it. We would be far better off if we tended to our own problems instead of dashing about the world causing problems for other countries. It may hurt our egos, but we cannot afford to maintain our military dominance over countries that displease us and, exercising the use of this dominance has done nothing to benefit us. In fact the opposite. Created enemies, where we had friends, while bankrupting us. Of course the military contractors are happy with never ending, low level, war.

February 07 2011 at 7:16 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
joe

Possibly the only military access to the Middle East will be through Iraq. Isn't that something for the Iraq war critics to ponder?.

February 07 2011 at 6:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
tplapper

I would think Americans would have a great interest in Egypt seeing that American taxpayers have sent over 250 billion in military aid over there plus billions in other aid.

February 07 2011 at 11:27 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
rbenante

The people of the Middle East have been at war with each other since the beginning of time, and will continue to do so till the end of time. Let them get on with it, and on their own dime. Let them eat sand, and drink their precious oil. If Washington kept its nose out of every other country's business, perhaps we could take care of our own. USA begins with US, so let's start to take care of US.

February 07 2011 at 6:05 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
colincolindale

‘It feels good all of sudden to be Arab these days’

Yes! Subject to the proviso that Arab nations learn the essential lesson that democracy, per se, does not automatically mean that a so-called democratic government represents the will of the people.

Hitler was elected in 1933, to the detriment of both Germany and the world.

George W Bush was elected president of the US, twice, and yet he represented, if anyone, the minority American-Israel lobby to the detriment of Middle East peace and the US electorate.

The lesson being that a powerful minority political group can exert disproportionate influence in a democratic society owing to the inherent defect that a majority of the electorate is too often apathetic in valuing hard-won democratic benefits, which are immediately seized upon by vested interests to enrich and empower themselves at the expense of everyone else. They will claim that they are only acting in a democratic manner. Which they are, technically.

To avoid such misuse and subversion of democratic systems, the people need to be very aware how easy it is for powerful minority interests, with money, to subvert the system to their advantage.

Democracy is good, but it needs policing.

February 06 2011 at 6:43 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
Guardian Angels

I think we should allow Egypt to work things out for themselves. If they need assistance and ask for it, then we should try to assist them . If they need food and water then lets help, maybe an extra pack of cigerettes or something. If money is involved, then it should be applied in a way to serve all. I don't think we should push ourselves on them, let them feel like it was their idea.

February 06 2011 at 4:39 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
mcwhomper

i think its about time that russia and some of our other recently acquired allies take on some of the burden of keeping peace over there its our pockets that keep getting picked everytime there is unrest they have plenty of money to loan us to get out of debt but they keep it in thier pockets when there is no proffit from any thing let them supply the cash for these manuvers instead of the us.

February 06 2011 at 4:06 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to mcwhomper's comment
davidarnold1947

The reason past and present administrations are continually giving millions upon millions to other nations. Has very little if anything at all to do with helping those nations during times of strife. It's all about filling all those pockets along the way. Thirteen cents of every dollar sent to aid Iraq, ever gets there. How much ever reaches these other nations like Haiti? Washington politics? It's like a rampaging crowd of senators, congressmen and lobbyists. All running along side a large pot filled with taxpayer dollars. Each one reaching in with both hands and if they could, feet. Stuffing money in suit coats that were made with twenty or thirty pockets. Each corruptician is given his or her coat upon their successful campaign win.

February 07 2011 at 9:44 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
9.7 AOL WECLOME

I was wondering do they have a Taco Jons over there ?? Jon Tester of Montana a dem.is on a mission of good will, to make sure that all the Taco Jon's around the world are all getting the same amount of beef in every taco. Mr Tester has earmarked millions of dollars for this great effort of his,to show the boy's back on capitol hill,that this man from Montana a dirt farmer is willing to prove to the other member's on the hill,that he's up to finding out, WHERE IS THE BEEF an he is willing to put himself an maybe, any buddie thats willing to help and put them selfs in harms way to suceed. (this is not a payed advertisment)

February 06 2011 at 4:02 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
PABLO

The U.S. needs to send troops and equipment to Israel. Cement the bond between the two nations. Any attacks on Israel should be viewed as an attack on the United States and will retaliate accordingly. These are preparations against the worst case scenario exploding throughout the Middle East. Indeed, these actions should not need me to remind the country of that well ordered mantra, Be Prepared. Ask the Boy Scouts what it's all about for crying out loud!!!!

February 06 2011 at 2:35 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
3 replies to PABLO's comment

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