US Troops Retake the Dragon's Lair

Filipinos thought they'd sent the GIs packing, but the Pentagon found a way in through the back door.

It's been 17 years since the Filipino senate voted, after long and emotional debate, to shut down what some US military analysts considered the world's most important military basing complex—the American facilities at Subic and Clark, plus myriad smaller support and communications facilities. The historic vote shook relations between the Philippines and its most important ally. That a small and weak country would stand up and say no to the world's only remaining superpower reverberated across the globe.

Since then, the Pentagon's every move here has provoked controversy, as well as speculation that America is seeking to reestablish its old base footprint—contentions both governments have denied. What has emerged, though, is a new and different kind of basing that has allowed the US to quietly reassert itself.

The radical overhaul plan unveiled by the Bush administration in 2004 (see "Mission Creep") directs the Pentagon to shed some of its large, well-equipped bases in favor of smaller, simpler ones in far-flung locations. "We are not talking only about basing," Douglas Feith, then undersecretary of defense, told the House Armed Services Committee that June. "We're talking about the ability of our forces to operate when and where they are needed."

These new sites could ratchet "from cold to warm to hot" if needed, said Marine General James Jones, the European forces commander, but without the infrastructure—family housing, malls, schools, golf courses—that typify the old facilities. This attitude adjustment was driven, in no small part, by long-brewing resentment of American heavy-handedness overseas. "We have found it increasingly difficult, and politically costly to maintain bases," a federal commission concluded as far back as 1988.

Indeed, besides the closures in the Philippines, US bases have been shuttered or terminated in recent years in Puerto Rico, Panama, and—soon—Ecuador as a result of citizen outcry. (See "Unwelcome Advances.") Recent base proposals in Poland and the Czech Republic have encountered fierce public opposition. While Turkey's Incirlik air base is now a key wartime supply hub, that nation refused to let US troops use its bases for the Iraq invasion. And public hostility toward the US military presence is long-standing in South Korea and Japan's Okinawa. (See "The Pentagon's Modest Proposals.")

The Pentagon realizes its restructuring may have the added benefit—besides putting the US in a better position to contain China's global ambitions—of undermining citizen opposition to its presence. Compared to the military's "Main Operating Bases"—those vast overseas entities that have been dubbed "little Americas"—the new Forward Operating Sites are temporary (more on that later) bare-bones camps, closer to the action and lacking family amenities. Treading lighter still are Cooperative Security Locations, or "lily pads," minimally staffed stealth bases that often contain caches of US weapons and gear and can be activated in case of nearby conflict, or for training exercises with local troops. "We could use it for six months, turn off the lights, and go to another base if we need to," General Jones noted.

It's a convenient setup in nations that covet US aid and military support but whose officials see a more visible US base as a political liability; in Algeria, for instance, one of many African nations where America keeps a lily pad, officials have stated publicly that they would never allow a US base on their soil. "We don't want to be stepping all over our host nations," US Navy Rear Admiral Richard Hunt noted in 2004. "We want to exist in a very nonintrusive way."

There's more to the equation, though. Ever since the late 1990s, when the Pentagon began to acknowledge China as a potential military rival, the brass realized US troops were concentrated in the wrong part of Asia, largely South Korea and Japan, and aimed at the former Soviet Union and North Korea.

Since then, a chorus of US defense analysts, military officials, civilian leaders, and influential commentators have pegged the Philippines as critical to America's future military plans, located in what some call the Dragon's Lair, those portions of the Western Pacific where China might seek to prevent the US from deploying.

For instance, the Project for a New American Century, a conservative think tank, proposed that the Navy consider establishing a home port in the Philippines, and that the Air Force station a wing here. A Rand study commissioned in 2002 by the Air Force suggested renting an island from the Philippines for a base.

One small obstacle: Filipinos don't want the US troops around. "The general view of Philippine security experts," noted another Air Force study, "is that for domestic political reasons it would be difficult to give the appearance that the United States is reestablishing its bases."

So the goal has been to avoid such appearances. "We are adapting our plans and cooperation of the past to the future," explained former Pacific Command chief Admiral Dennis Blair at a 2001 press conference. "Those plans do not include any request by the United States for bases in the Philippines of the kind that we have had in the past."

The US, in other words, would try something new.

Seeds for that something were sown in 1998 with a Visiting Forces Agreement, signed by President Clinton, that allowed the US to reenter the Philippines with troops, ships, and gear for military training, humanitarian and engineering projects, and similar missions.

Beyond troop readiness and assistance, as the Pentagon well knows, such operations play a critical strategic role. The relationships they forge with host nations are "our biggest guarantor of access in time of need," noted former Pacific Commander Admiral Thomas Fargo in March 2003. "Access over time can develop into habitual use of certain facilities by deployed US forces with the eventual goal of being guaranteed use in a crisis."

After 2001, America's activity in the archipelago ramped up dramatically. As many as 37 exercises—involving anywhere from a few dozen to as many as 5,000 troops—were scheduled in 2006 alone, up from about 24 during the preceding years, prompting former US Ambassador Francis Ricciardone to describe the US presence as "semi-continuous."

This was no accident: By rotating troop contingents through the region at high frequency, the Pentagon has created a formidable de facto military presence without drawing much public attention. In 2004, Rand military analyst Eric Peltz cited this strategy in congressional testimony as a way to sustain a long-term military position without permanent forward basing.

Further adding to the troop counts, an increasing number of Navy ships have deployed to the Philippines for training and humanitarian missions, although none of this manpower is acknowledged in the Pentagon's periodic troop-strength reports.

The frequent deployments also create openings for the US military to tailor local infrastructure to future needs. In General Santos City, the US constructed a deep-water port and a modern civilian airport, and built one of the country's best roads to connect them. At Fort Magsaysay, where US troops routinely deploy for training, the local airport was renovated and its runway strengthened to handle the weight of C-130 planes. In Basilan and Sulu, also US training venues, the US Agency for International Development has built roads and ports that allow huge ships to make berth.

To top it all off, the Filipino government has stepped up as a key ally in the war on terror, providing US troops with a broad range of support services that enable the Pentagon to sustain its military operations. Following 9/11, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo granted the US near-unlimited access to the country's ports and airspace. The following fall, the countries signed a mutual logistics pact that basically makes the Philippines a regional supply hub for the Pentagon. The government has agreed to provide US troops with a wide variety of essential supplies and services ranging from food, water, and fuel to medical services, repair and maintenance, and storage. The pact also covers construction and use of temporary structures. In exchange, the Americans provide ample military aid—an average of nearly $50 million annually since 2002—plus new and used equipment, and political support for the ruling political factions. In short, the American military has managed to finagle a deal in which a foreign government provides all the functions of a conventional base, but without incurring the monetary and political costs of building one.

As an added insurance policy, the Philippines is among the countries where the US is developing lily pads. While the Filipino government has offered no details, military author Robert Kaplan, who has visited various such facilities around the world, provided their general description in The Atlantic Monthly:

"A cooperative security location can be a tucked-away corner of a host country's civilian airport, or a dirt runway somewhere with fuel and mechanical help nearby, or a military airport in a friendly country with which we have no formal basing agreement but, rather, an informal arrangement with private contractors acting as go-betweens. The United States provides aid to upgrade maintenance facilities, thereby helping the host country to better project its own air and naval power in the region. At the same time, we hold periodic exercises with the host country's military, in which the base is a focus. We also offer humanitarian help to the surrounding area. Such civil-affairs projects garner positive publicity for our military in the local media. The result is a positive diplomatic context for getting the host country's approval for use of the base when and if we need it."

It is therefore not base size that matters, but whether the host government can be convinced to give the US military what it wants. And sometimes temporary leads to permanent. In 2002, the US deployed to the southern Philippines a unit called the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines. Initially presented as part of on-again-off-again training exercises, the unit never left, and has quietly built a significant base-support infrastructure, with assistance from US contractors.

This emerging US base lacks the amenities of Subic and Clark. But who needs that when you've got major logistics help, freedom of movement, and permission to preposition gear and build roads, ports, and runways? In addition, most Filipinos remain unaware of the unit's presence and activities. "After more than 10 years," noted armed forces historian C.H. Briscoe, "PACOM has reestablished an acceptable presence in the Philippines."

Thus has the US military managed to position itself closer to an emerging global rival. At no time since 1991 has America been more entrenched. Yet no longer are troops confined by the thousands to huge fortifications; now they deploy by the hundreds all over the islands, bedding down in camps that technically belong to the Philippine military. A soldier stationed here back in the day could expect to stay put for years. Now, the troops must be prepared to ship in and out at short notice. Before, they stored their gear in huge storerooms and warehouses; now it is scattered about in various locations, guarded and maintained by host-nation governments or private companies, and ready to be picked up en route to the fighting.

Through the back door and largely out of sight, the United States has gradually but firmly reintegrated the Philippines into its global posture, effectively reversing that historic decision nearly two decades ago to end nearly a century of US military presence.