By Eric SchmittNew York Times
September 18, 2005
Even as the Pentagon is mulling plans to begin reducing the number of American combat troops in Iraq and Afghanistan next spring, the military has more than $1.2 billion in construction under way or on the drawing board to upgrade 16 air bases throughout the Middle East and Southwest Asia.
At a time when the United States military is bringing home troops from Europe, repositioning its forces in Asia and closing bases at home, the expansion underscores the continuing draw on resources to support the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Pentagon is paying for most of the improvements to runways, control towers, airport ramps and lighting systems, but wealthy Persian Gulf states like Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain are picking up the tab for hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade facilities for their American tenants. At this sprawling air base, for instance, the Qatari government is spending nearly $400 million to build a state-of-the-art regional air operations center. The 100,000-square-foot, fortified headquarters is expected to be operating by July 2008.
The Pentagon's notice of eviction from a pivotal base in Uzbekistan in July has forced the Air Force to look for alternative sites through which to ship cargo, relief supplies and soldiers to and from Afghanistan. But even before that setback, the military was gearing up to modernize its main base in Afghanistan, at Bagram, near Kabul. The Pentagon is building a new 11,800-foot runway there by next March to replace a Soviet-built runway designed for fighter jets that was cracking under the weight of much heavier American cargo planes. As part of nearly $100 million in overall improvements, the military is also building a hospital and housing for 1,000 service members. Permanent electrical, water and sewer systems are also in the works.
In southern Afghanistan, engineers are gearing up a $34 million project to expand and widen the damaged 7,900-foot runway at the Kandahar airport, which is used for both military and commercial air traffic. A big test will come in January, when the air field will be used heavily to ferry passengers flying to and from the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
In Iraq, the military is spending $124 million to build new ramps, runway lights and sufficient tarmac to park 138 Army helicopters at the air field near Balad, north of Baghdad.
Commanders insist they are not planning a permanent American presence, but merely carrying out essential repairs to runways, ramps, storage depots, and air field lighting to better serve current operations. And they have insisted that the Iraqi and Afghan governments will have the final say on when American forces will leave. "We're not constructing it to have a permanent, enduring presence," Brig. Gen. Allen G. Peck, deputy commander of American air forces in the Middle East, said of the construction at Bagram. "It's a pretty rustic, expeditionary operation."
Overall, the number of bases in the region that the Air Force is using regularly has dropped to about 16 from a peak of 36 during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, General Peck said. Under a strategy that has evolved since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Pentagon is moving away from large permanent overseas bases, like those in Germany and Japan, in favor of basing arrangements that allow the American military to use a wide range of air fields and other sites when needed, whether for training, emergency landings or in a national security crisis.
Many former Soviet republics have embraced a new American military presence in their midst. The refueling and cargo mission operated by the United States from Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan has been essential to ferrying humanitarian aid, troops and equipment to and from Afghanistan. About 1,000 American troops operate from the airfield, the base for a dozen KC-135 refueling jets and C-130 cargo planes. Lt. Gen. Walter E. Buchanan III, the commander of American air forces in the Middle East, said in an interview at his headquarters here that there were really only two enduring bases for the United States in the region: Al Udeid in Qatar and Al Dhafra air base in the United Arab Emirates, from which the Air Force flies U-2 spy planes, the remotely piloted Global Hawk surveillance aircraft, and KC-135 refueling planes.
The improvements at Bagram and Balad have drawn extra attention because they are the air hubs for the American military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. The improvements at Bagram are also to accommodate NATO and its air missions as the alliance gradually takes over security duties in the country.
In Iraq, most of the military flights that at one time flew into Baghdad International Airport have been shifted to Balad to allow the resumption of commercial air traffic at Baghdad. With the loss of the Uzbek base, Bagram will pick up additional C-130 missions, a shift that was likely to have happened eventually, senior officers said. As part of the increased security for Sunday's parliamentary elections in Afghanistan, the Air Force has also added more A-10 ground-attack planes to Bagram.
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