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So Says Adm. James A. Lyons Jr.

August 10, 1986|DAVID DEVOSS | David DeVoss is a Los Angeles Times Magazine staff writer.

U.S. and Australian diplomats will meet in San Francisco this week to assess the ANZUS (Australia-New Zealand-United States) military alliance, which New Zealand recently left. Any decisions reached will be implemented in part by Adm. James A. Lyons Jr., 58, the commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. From his Pearl Harbor base, Lyons, who has 250,000 naval and marine personnel in his command, is responsible for the defense of 102 million square miles of ocean, stretching from California to East Africa.

Q: How does New Zealand's withdrawal from ANZUS affect the strategic equation in the Pacific? A: America has fewer allies in the Pacific than in the European theater. New Zealand's denial of port privileges not only to nuclear-powered warships but also to nuclear-capable ships leaves a gap in our deterrence structure. Not being able to rely on New Zealand's armed forces means I have six fewer frigates and destroyers to patrol the South Pacific.

Q: The South Pacific isn't exactly an arena for superpower confrontation. Why not humor the politicians in Wellington and use conventionally powered naval vessels in that part of the world? A: Because over 40% of today's United States Navy is nuclear powered. I can't have two navies in the Pacific--one for New Zealand and one for the rest of our allies. We've never asked New Zealand to join our strategic nuclear policy. All we want is for it to live up to its responsibilities as a member of ANZUS and provide facilities where we can make repairs and rest our crews. Without these port visits, we can't maintain a presence in the region. The door always is open to New Zealand, but I find it very difficult to order my men and women to go out and sacrifice their lives for a country that will not welcome us into its ports.

Q: The demise of the CENTO and SEATO alliances didn't produce a shift in the strategic balance of power. Why should we worry about the disintegration of ANZUS? A: I consider military alliances a key element in the overall deterrence equation. We have a handful of allies and friends, and when one of them chooses by its own actions not to live up to its alliance responsibilities, it means an awful lot in a strategic sense. Alliances are necessary for political stability, which we need more than ever, given the Soviet encroachment in the region.

Q: You mean Soviet activity outside Indochina? A: I'm talking about the entire Pacific and Indian oceans. The Soviet Pacific fleet is the largest of their four fleets. In 1960, the Soviets had 200 warships in their Pacific fleet. Today they have almost 500. This corresponds to a buildup in their other armed forces. In 1960, they had 20 land divisions in East Asia. Today they have 53, supported by sophisticated MiG-23 fighters, cruise missiles and Backfire bombers. Over one-third of their intermediate-range ballistic missile force is in East Asia. The string of Soviet bases stretches from the Red Sea's Dahlak Island, which the Ethiopians own but are not allowed on, through the former (British) base of Socotra near Aden, to Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam. (The United States has two bases in the Philippines, several facilities in Japan, plus the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. The United States' formal security relationships in the Pacific are with Australia, Japan, the Philippines and Thailand.)

Q: How immediate is the threat posed by all these bases? A: The permanent Soviet presence at Cam Ranh Bay changes the entire strategic equation. When we left Cam Ranh in 1975, there were two piers. Today there are seven. On any given day there are 20 to 30 surface combatants, three to five submarines, a squadron of fighter interceptors, anti-submarine warfare aircraft and surface-to-air missiles at Cam Ranh. The infrastructure there has quadrupled since we left. Next to Afghanistan and the Warsaw Pact, Cam Ranh represents the largest deployment of Soviet forces outside the Soviet Union. From there they can dominate the South China Sea and launch strikes with modern weapons anywhere in Australia.

Q: Doesn't the U.S. presence at Subic Bay and Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines effectively block further Soviet expansion? A: The buildup underscores their strategic importance. If we're going to remain a Western Pacific power, we have to have those bases. There is no good alternative. If the United States were ever forced to leave, I'd need two to three times the amount of forces I have now in certain categories to maintain the same presence and fighting capability. Let me hasten to add that at no time during the (February, 1986) election were the bases an issue. President Corazon Aquino, Gen. Fidel Ramos and Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile all recognize the vital role the bases play in maintaining regional stability.

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