February 5, 2011 — Three hundred combat-armed paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division plummeted from a cobalt Egyptian sky. U.S. and Egyptian marines swarmed ashore in waves of armored vehicles, and American jets streaked low overhead. It was October 2009, the most recent -- and perhaps the last -- of the massive combat maneuvers staged in Egypt every two years in an assertive demonstration of U.S. power and resolve in the troubled Middle East.
Whatever the outcome of the tumult wracking Egypt, those who eventually consolidate power in Cairo may not welcome back the biannual Bright Star military exercises.
Also suddenly at risk, along with Bright Star, is the access of U.S. military forces to Egypt's sprawling naval facilities at Alexandria and the huge Cairo West air base, as well as over-flight rights and guaranteed transit for U.S. warships through the Suez Canal -- all critical underpinnings of the U.S. ability to project power in the region, to contain Iran, reassure Israel and strengthen stability.
As Defense Secretary Robert Gates observed after meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak two years ago, the United States relies on "full participation and leadership from Egypt'' as it grapples with Iran, the Arab-Israeli peace process and post-war Iraq.
Losing that relationship and access "would be a strategic disaster,'' said James Phillips, senior Middle East researcher at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "Not only because it would damage our capability to mobilize naval and other forces to help contain Iran, but also because it would weaken our whole defense strategy and network in the Middle East.''
It is that kind of worst-case scenario that military planners must take into account. At the Pentagon, where many officers have close personal friends inside the Egyptian military, there are both public and private expressions of hope that Egypt's military will help ease the country safely through the current turbulence.
"Egypt is not a client state of the U.S. or any kind of subservient country, but one strong enough to recognize and act in its own best interests,'' said retired Army Col. Robert Killebrew, currently a researcher at the Center for a New American Strategy, an independent Washington think tank. "My guess is that friendly relations between the [U.S. and Egyptian] services will continue.''
The United States has no military bases of its own in Egypt. Its headquarters for directing air and ground troops in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Iraq, are in Qatar. Stockpiles of tanks, ammunition, fuel, spare parts and other war materiel are warehoused in Kuwait, Qatar and Oman. U.S. missile batteries are deployed along the Persian Gulf's west coast. The U.S. Navy's regional headquarters is in Bahrain.
But in contingencies or crises, American forces have depended heavily on Egyptian facilities built with U.S. aid to U.S. specifications to accommodate U.S. forces as they move from the United States and Europe to Africa or westward across Jordan and Saudi Arabia to the Persian Gulf. American nuclear powered aircraft carriers, whose jets are playing a major role in Afghanistan, rely critically on their expedited use of the Suez Canal, giving them easy access to the Red Sea and Persian Gulf.
That's important because the region holds a scary number of potential conflicts: a war with Iran, a summons from Iraq's government for help in a new outbreak of civil war; and any number of scenarios involving Israel. For the Pentagon, the ability to quickly move forces into the region has been a major preoccupation since 1979, when the Iranian revolution suddenly demonstrated the fragility of many of the region's regimes.
For U.S. military planners, the sudden loss of access to Egypt would present a double problem.
Without Egypt, they would find their options for shipping air and sea cargo, refueling and repairing aircraft and consolidating troop movements narrowed to those along the Persian Gulf. The loss of landing rights in Egypt, for example, might mean that in a crisis, wide-body jets, each carrying hundreds of troops, would have to fly directly into congested Persian Gulf airfields, rather than into Cairo West, from which smaller transports would ferry troops into action.
And those Persian Gulf facilities are increasingly vulnerable to Iranian ballistic missiles.
Even now, according to Quadrennial Defense Review, the major strategic review completed by the Pentagon last year, U.S. forces need access to bases "more resilient than today's in the face of attacks.'' The study said planners are looking for ways to fortify those bases, with missile defense being a high priority, but protecting high-value airfields and ports where troops are disembarking is clearly difficult.
In war-fighting terms, the loss of Egypt might also force a greater reliance on long-range strike assets -- strike fighters, bombers and missiles -- at a time when the U.S. arsenal of such weapons is limited. In a Mideast war, fighters once might have launched from Egyptian airfields; without Egypt, they'd have to operate from carriers -- themselves vulnerable -- or fly exhausting air-refueled missions from distant land bases in Turkey or Europe. And longer missions mean fewer daily sorties.
The U.S. long-distance bomber fleet has shrunk significantly, from more than 1,100 aircraft in 1950, to 154 today, including 134 B-1 and B-52 bombers unable to penetrate sophisticated enemy air defenses. Last month, Defense Secretary Gates ordered renewed work on a new long-distance, nuclear-capable bomber to fill the gap, but that capability is years away, he said.
Losing access to Egypt, for military planners, would be part of a larger problem, said Mark A. Gunzinger, a former Air Force command pilot who served as a strategic planner at the Pentagon and White House. He is currently an analyst at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington.
"We have operated in the past with a great deal of freedom of maneuver in the air, at sea,'' he said. "We always knew we could deploy the fighters, the carriers can get in close, there's no significant threat to bases, our supply lines would be fairly secure.
"Now, across the board, we are looking at a future where we might want to assume any of that is true,'' Gunzinger said. "And we are not well postured for that eventuality.''
In all of these worse-case scenarios, there is a concern that the Egyptian military itself may suffer the kind of fate that befell Iran's professional military (also educated, trained and equipped by the United States) after the fall of the Shah in 1979.
"If radicals come to power in Cairo, the nightmare is what happened to the Iranian army: the upper echelons, several tens of thousands of officers, were all shot,'' said Killebrew. "That should serve as a cautionary tale.''