The United States is truly involved in a Long War. While the Army and Marine Corps have enjoyed long periods between combat operations, the Air Force and naval aviation have been continuously deployed for combat since the just after the Iraqis invaded Kuwait in August of 1990. Continuous combat operations have now stretched for twenty-five years, making our commitment to the Middle East the longest war involving a major Western power since the Thirty Years’ War, which ended in 1648.
In the meantime, we drastically cut our overseas basing structure everywhere in the world except for the Arabian Peninsula and Afghanistan, which limits our ability to respond effectively to security challenges elsewhere in the world. As it turns to rely on airpower for solutions to national security problems, the United States would be well served to reconsider the placement of additional overseas basing infrastructure on territories held by consistent and reliable allies. The reinforcement and expansion of existing airbases along NATO’s southern flank will greatly enhance our ability to respond to emerging threats and maintain a long-term presence at acceptable cost.
The Arc of Stability
There has been an occasional focus on the various “Arcs of Stability” worldwide. Depending on the speaker, the arc can refer to a portion of the island chain from Indonesia through the Philippines, the so-called Shi’a crescent from Yemen around to Lebanon, or a rather unfortunate string of countries in northern Africa from Somalia around to Morocco. Putting aside the Pacific example, existing NATO and Gulf State infrastructure puts us in a position to operate from an “arc of stability” stretching from Spain to Oman, where the long-term survival of the allied nation-states is not in question. It is within that arc that we should revitalize our basing strategy so that we may continue to project airpower effectively to guard our national interests in the region.
The airbase structure in the southern tier of NATO is fairly robust, although the remaining bases still retain their post Cold War orientation, which focused mainly on Iraq and the Balkans. Camp Lemonier in Djbouti is well positioned to anchor one end of the arc and Rota, Spain, the other. Those bases are mispositioned for extended operations in the Levant or North Africa. Similarly, bases in the Arabian Peninsula are some considerable distance from Northern Iraq, Syria or Jordan.
The Basing Model
Rebasing does not require new facilities to be built from the ground up, merely for existing infrastructure to be differently utilized. It does require permanent presence, similar to the 39th Wing at Incirlik AB, Turkey. Incirlik was conceived in 1943 and built in 1951, intended to provide an emergency facility for bombers. Within five years, the base was supporting reconnaissance flights over the Soviet Union and was available to respond to crises in the Middle East. It has never had a permanently stationed flying wing, but it has been used extensively for expeditionary operations, most notably as the primary base supporting the no-fly zone under Provide Comfort and Northern Watch. The 39th Wing is a full-up airbase wing, overseeing a NATO facility with a major weapons storage facility, airfields, hangars, hardened shelters, family housing, transient facilities and a golf course. Turkey provides perimeter security and air defense, while other functions, including civil engineering and air traffic control, are shared. Incirlik has been used as a base for short-notice operational deployments since 1958, and is also home station for the 101st Air Refueling Squadron of the Turkish air force.
Bases along the arc need not be Air Force bases—the objective is to allow the routine employment of airpower for combat operations, surveillance, logistics and humanitarian relief. Three of the possible arc bases are current or former naval air stations, but the establishment of a Marine air station or Army airfield is not out of the question, depending on the expected mission.
All of the bases under consideration are operated by a NATO ally and many have hosted U.S. aircraft before. They stretch from Spain to Cyprus, mostly near the Mediterranean coast. The major hole in the map is the small island nation of Malta. Malta is in an ideal location for air operations over Libya, Tunisia and Algeria but is constitutionally barred from basing foreign forces of any kind.
Naval Station Rota (U.S. Navy). Rota is a naval station with tenant units from all four services. It has a large runway with extensive fuel and ammunition storage facilities and a large expanse of parking for fixed and rotary wing aircraft. It is heavily used by Military Airlift Command and lacks only support capabilities for UAVs or fighter/attack aircraft. Rota, which is just northwest of Gibraltar, would anchor the west end of the arc.
Decimomannu (Italy). Decimomannu (commonly called “Deci”) is an Italian airbase, and the training equivalent of Incirlik airbase. It is used most heavily by the Luftwaffe and Italian air force for training, and is the home of the Air Weapons Training Installation and its associated airspace. Deci has no permanent fighter presence and lacks hangar space and significant munitions storage. The airfield hosted F-16s and Mirage fighters for Odyssey Dawn, supporting combat missions for aircraft carrying air-to-air ordnance. Deci is only one of three airbases in Italy that can handle a loaded F-15E, the others being Aviano and Sigonella.
Naval Air Station Sigonella (U.S. Navy/Italian air force) With Malta out of the question for basing, Sigonella is only slightly less well-positioned. Sigonella is owned by the Italian air force with the U.S. Navy as the largest landlord despite being officially a tenant unit. A permanent P-3 detachment is established at Sigonella. Sigonella was established in 1958, ironically as the Navy began to outgrow basing on Malta, which was then British-owned. It has two long runways and expansive hardstand area, but no aircraft shelters. There is a medium-sized munitions storage area. The base is home to the Italian 41st Antisubmarine Warfare Wing, and was heavily used during Odyssey Dawn. Navy EA-18G and USAF and NATO F-16s and F-15Es flew combat missions from Sigonella.
NSA Souda Bay (U.S. Navy/Hellenic air force) There is a substantial distance between Turkey and Italy, mostly filled with water and Greece. The Air Force never established a permanent flying organization in Greece after WWII, but the Navy maintains a presence at Souda Bay, which is also a Greek F-16 base and home of the 115th Combat Wing, flying the Block 52+ F-16C. The facility is dual-use and is also referred to as Chania International Airport or Chania Airbase. Souda Bay is the southernmost fighter base in NATO, with two runways, 31 unmodified first generation TAB-V shelters and ample munitions storage. Phase hangars for the F-16 are available. The base is a regular training facility for USAFE combat aircraft, and can easily handle the F-15E’s heavy footprint. Souda Bay hosted a Marine Corps Aviation Contingency Battalion (pilot rescue), Norwegian F-16AM and Qatari Mirage 2000 during Odyssey Dawn.
RAF Akrotiri (Royal Air Force) Despite Britain’s membership in NATO, RAF Akrotiri is not actually a NATO base. Akriotiri is one of two Sovereign Base Areas retained by Britain when Cyprus was granted independence in 1960 and is British Overseas Territory. It was constructed in the 1950s and used in the Suez Crisis. In the 1970s it operated U-2 aircraft and the USAF’s 100th Strategic reconnaissance Wing, while the RAF home-based Lightning interceptors and nuclear-capable Vulcan and Canberra bombers there. RAF Akrotiri remains a FOB for the U-2, but the RAF’s sole permanent squadron is No. 84 Squadron, flying rescue helicopters. The base also is the winter training location for the Red Arrows demonstration team. The facility was used for support aircraft in Odyssey Dawn and has hosted both Typhoon and Tornado fighters. A six-aircraft Tornado detachment with E-3D and tanker support is permanently deployed to the facility in support of Inherent Resolv. The base has a single long runway with several large hardstand areas and two munitions storage facilities. It has hangars suitable for large aircraft but no hardened shelters. RAF Akrotiri is a viable alternative to Incirlik should host government constraints in Turkey prevent use of the facility.
Completing the Arc
The arc is incomplete. Airbases at Djbouti, the Persian Gulf and Turkey have supported a quarter-century of continuous operations in and around the Arabian Peninsula, Somalia and Afghanistan. The Mediterranean portion of the arc would have to be filled in, but it would require no new facilities to do so. Rota, Sigonella, Akrotiri and Souda Bay already host U.S. units, including permanent detachments of reconnaissance and patrol aircraft at Akrotiri and Signonella. Operations over Libya not only demonstrated the need for a basing arc to cover North Africa, but also demonstrated that the facilities to do it were already in place. Excepting Rota, all of the Mediterranean bases launched combat or combat support missions. Akrotiri offers a unique position in that it is independent of NATO entirely, requiring only cooperation from London.
The reestablishment of a permanent overseas basing structure intended to support air operations around the Mediterranean could enhance the ability to use airpower to support security operations in North Africa and the Middle East. The investment required to re-establish a permanent flying presence at these airfields is relatively inexpensive compared to the establishment of new facilities where none now exist. NATO’s existing infrastructure provides an umbrella of support and protection that is found nowhere else outside the United States’ own territory. Indeed, the bases along the Arc of Stability could well offset the Navy’s declining fleet of aircraft carriers by obviating the need for a permanent carrier presence in the Mediterranean. The Long War is indeed an enduring endeavor, and the United States would be well-served to shift some investment into establishing a robust, permanent airpower presence in the Mediterranean.