It is the logistical equivalent of loading up, moving and unloading everyone and everything in the city of Norfolk, Va. -- population 230,000 -- including all the automobiles, to the Middle East. Fortunately for the Pentagon, Kuwait has given carte blanche for the use of its airfields, ports and warehouses in any upcoming war. Thanks to operations Southern and Northern Watch, which have patrolled the "no-fly" zones in Iraq for the last 12 years, the United States also has well-tended and continually expanded bases in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.
Qatar formally entered the mix when Operation Enduring Freedom began last year. The base at the British-controlled island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean also stands ready to host heavy B-2 and B-52 bombers.
Not everyone is on board. Jordan has made it clear to Washington that it cannot overtly host American forces on its soil. Also, Saudi Arabia is uncomfortable with the direction of U.S. policy. Pentagon leaders, however, remain confident the Saudis will ultimately allow everything except the launching of offensive strikes from their soil. But even if the United States were to lose its modern command center and air base at Prince Sultan, the lineup of alternatives is impressive.
Though media attention has focused on the new U.S. base at Al Udeid in Qatar, the buildup in Oman looms largest in Pentagon calculations. Oman was not much used in Desert Storm, but it now has three major bases that could serve as alternatives to other bases in the Arab world. For years, the Pentagon has been stockpiling munitions in Oman. In December, B-1 bombers operating from Diego Garcia moved to Thumrait, Oman. That reduced the need for shipping munitions to the more distant British base, and it brought the planes closer to Iraq. Moreover, munitions have been moved to Oman from Azraq in Jordan.
Beyond the Middle East, U.S. bases in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and other parts of Central Asia add to the capabilities against Iraq. Many of these bases had just become fully operational as the fighting in Afghanistan ended. Moreover, U.S. units stationed there are being augmented, and in some cases replaced, by French Mirages. F-16s are also expected from Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands. More allied aircraft in Afghanistan means more U.S. planes free for duty elsewhere. If necessary, these planes and some of the new bases, with their established ship and rail supply lines through Russia, could even play a direct role against Iraq.
Remember, F-15E Strike Eagles flew combat missions from Kuwait around Iran into Afghanistan. There is no reason why similar missions could not be flown from Central Asia to Iraq. Aerial tankers stand ready at 17 locations, including places like Bulgaria. Next month, the U.S. Central Command will send a mobile command post and a staff of 600 to Qatar for "Exercise Internal Look." Their mission: to test the networks of communications and computers needed to link together air, naval, ground, special operations, intelligence and coalition partners' assets during an Iraq war.
The Pentagon, said CENTCOM commander Tommy Franks, wants "to be sure that we have the right bandwidth lined up, to be sure that we can talk to our components." Even the laborious task of bringing in the heavy weapons and large formations of Army and Marine Corps troops is well advanced. Much of the heavy gear is already positioned in the region. Ships are bringing in more. The Dahl, for instance, left Charleston, S.C., on April 14 bound for the Persian Gulf with the largest shipment ever loaded on a Navy roll-on, roll-off transport.
Last week, as the United Nations Security Council debated and approved a resolution on Iraq, it is worth remembering that the best guide to White House intentions may be deeds, not words. By all signs, the necessary pieces of the great logistical puzzle are settling into place for war in early winter.
The Iraqis may chatter about whether the U.S. armed forces have what it takes for another war. The answer is just over the horizon, in all directions. And for those who worry about unilateralism, the Bush war machine seems to enjoy a surprising number of compliant, if not vocal, partners. Just look at Brig. Gen. Ann E. Dunwoody, Privratsky's replacement, and her Russian railroad.