We are hearing a lot of irresponsible talk about our military bases in the Philippines being "essential" or "indispensable." We may well find ourselves forced out of those "indispensable" bases. But even if we are permitted to stay, there are better alternatives.
The bases can be judged essential only in short-term military considerations. They also have political liabilities. They will be leverage in the hands of either the wily President Ferdinand E. Marcos or the inexperienced opposition candidate, Corazon C. Aquino, to demand our continued political and military support. After all, neither candidate is likely to bring about sufficient political reform to halt insurgency. The more we tout the bases as indispensable, the greater the leverage we give them. For us, though, identification with an incumbent, unpopular regime could, as it did in Nicaragua and Iran, simply tie us to a dying cause. The bases would be lost in the long run anyway.
The Administration is reported to be planning to invest $1 billion into the Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Force Base. This signals that it is not just talk that we see the bases as indispensable. We ought to look at the alternatives before we make an investment that will make us even more vulnerable.
What are the bases for? They are principally forward points for storing supplies to be delivered to the fleet or to Air Force units deployed in the western Pacific or Indian Ocean areas. They also are training and repair facilities that are economical and convenient. Potentially both bases could be used for combat operations in defense of the Philippines, but logistic support and training are the primary uses. It was tremendously convenient, for instance, to use the bases as staging points for moving supplies into Vietnam in the early days of that conflict, but once we were established ashore, most supplies went directly by ship from the United States.
There are alternative ways to perform all of the functions of the bases:
--Build new facilities on Guam, our own territory. Although it is less conveniently situated, 1,600 miles from Manila, supplies and repairs could be handled there.
--Rely on aircraft carriers for any aircraft operations that are now planned from Subic or Clark.
--Strengthen the Navy's supply and repair ships to be able to sustain carrier and amphibious forces at sea for long periods and at long distances from any base.
--Plan to conduct any combat operations in the southwestern Pacific or Indian Ocean areas by having naval amphibious forces seize an airfield with immediate follow up by Air Force and Army units specifically designed to be airlifted.
Such an alternative strategy fits the fact that the United States is a maritime power, an island nation dependent on the seas for carrying on commerce in peace and for projecting military power during war. Hence, we must have a Navy to protect those vital interests. If we build that navy to sustain itself at sea much better than today's, we can use the world's oceans as our forward bases.
Floating bases are not necessarily cheap. The Navy presently has a goal of 64 mobile replenishment ships, but considers that a lower limit of what would be needed even with bases in the Philippines. To add another 10 ships would cost about $2 billion to $3 billion. The ships, though, would be assets that we own. It would not be the same as investing in bases on leased land and then being evicted. Even more important, reliance on sea basing would give us the flexibility to conduct military operations in any area near the oceans, not just areas within reach of the Philippines.
We have difficulty accepting a maritime approach today because, having found it necessary to maintain large forces on foreign bases in Europe over the past 40 years, we have forgotten how much better it would be to rely on our maritime power everywhere else. And, it would be wrenching for the Joint Chiefs of Staff to have to allocate more money to unglamorous supply ships and to bases in Guam rather than to new warships, combat aircraft and tanks.
Pressure to stay put in the Philippines will be particularly strong now that the Pentagon budget is under fire. But how many times have we made unwise decisions to stick with what's familiar because of a combination of short-term budget problems and a fear of change?
The roughly $1 billion being considered for improvements the Philippine bases could be used as a substantial down payment toward a maritime posture that is more flexible and less of a political liability. To pour such a huge sum of money down what could well be a political sink hole would be a foolish lack of vision.