Small, Distributed, and Secure: A New Basing Architecture for the Middle East
The recent assassination of Iranian physicist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh may not have been an American-led operation, but it nonetheless raised the risk of reprisal attacks, quite possibly targeting U.S. bases. The vulnerability of American military bases in the Middle East to missile attack is not new, but growing Iranian capabilities make U.S. assets deployed in the region more vulnerable. In recognition of this threat, a rethink of U.S. basing architecture is needed.
The administrations of both Barack Obama and Donald Trump sought to scale back commitments in the Middle East in order to focus on countering Russia and China. But these plans were repeatedly thwarted by challenges in the region, as well as nervous local partners, and complications created by Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. President-elect Joe Biden has also argued for a reduced U.S. presence in the Middle East. It is this impulse to disengage from the region, combined with the risks to U.S. bases there, that makes a rethink so essential.
Instead of relying on a few large, permanent bases close to Iran that could end up as an easy bullseye for an Iranian missile attack, the United States should rethink its regional posture and instead consider a constellation of smaller, distributed bases. As Washington shifts to do more with a reduced U.S. presence in the region and reprioritize diplomacy as the preferred means of engagement, a distributed basing architecture would enable greater flexibility and enhance the security of U.S. forces.
Bases Built for a Bygone Era
The Middle East was not always the main focus of U.S. defense policy. For much of the Cold War — the last era when a peer-level threat dominated U.S. defense planning — it had a tiny U.S. military presence. But the Iran-Iraq war, particularly Operation Earnest Will, changed how American defense planners treated the region. Only after this conflict, as well as America’s victory in the first Gulf War and the concurrent collapse of the Soviet Union, did the region take on its present-day importance to U.S. policymakers.
The American basing arrangements in the Middle East are, with some exceptions, relatively new. After being built in the early 1990s, many bases subsequently expanded in both importance and size after the Sept. 11 attacks. An extensive American basing infrastructure now spans the region, including Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, which houses the regional Air Operations Center, Camp Arifjan, the Army’s forward headquarters in Kuwait, and the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command in Bahrain. The United States has also increased its footprint at preexisting bases, like Muwaffaq Salti Air Base in Jordan.
At present, the U.S. bases and military facilities in the region serve as the command, basing, and logistics hubs for U.S. military activities throughout the U.S. Central Command area of operations. While many of these bases began as relatively austere expeditionary facilities, they have since been transformed into permanent facilities due to ongoing and often simultaneous operations in the region since the first Gulf War. The “forever wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the more recent fight against the Islamic State, have further ballooned these operational hubs.
After decades of ongoing operations, these major operating bases are now being called on to serve a range of peacetime demands. These include deterrence missions against Iran and security cooperation efforts intended to strengthen the military’s ties with partner nations and shore up their capabilities. The U.S. presence at such bases also serves as an assurance to these partners and a demonstration of Washington’s commitment to their defense.
Indeed, even as the U.S. footprint in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with related operations, has diminished, U.S. basing architecture has continued to expand. Host nations’ concerns about the domestic costs of aligning with the United States have fallen away, resulting in the expansion of existing bases and access to new ones. Both Al Udeid Air Base and Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates are expanding significantly to accommodate more U.S. forces on a more permanent basis. While these may have once been thought of as expeditionary bases, with U.S. military personnel living in tents, these brick-and-mortar facilities are now fixed and permanent infrastructure. Yet the steady expansion of these bases has not always served to advance U.S. goals or the security of its regional partners, particularly as the threats facing them have grown.
The Iranian Missile Threat
Compounding the eroding operational rationale for the current U.S. basing footprint in the Middle East is the ongoing threat to U.S. forces by Iranian missiles. The United States has been involved in numerous wars since the fall of the Soviet Union, but these conflicts have not featured an adversary with precision missiles capable of targeting U.S. forces operating from large regional bases. As U.S. air superiority, in particular, has become essential to the American way of war, adversary capabilities have been built to prevent the United States from massing forces before conflict, as was the case during the buildup to the first Gulf War and then again before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. The proliferation of conventionally armed ballistic and cruise missiles, as well as loitering munitions and unmanned aerial vehicles, could impede the U.S. military’s ability to operate from forward bases. Iran could seek to destroy targets such as aircraft or air defenses that the United States could not quickly or easily replace.
Already, Iran has demonstrated the capability to strike targets with precision. In one recent instance, cruise missiles and unmanned drones struck oil refinery facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais, in what appeared to be an Iranian effort to punish the Gulf Arab states for supporting American sanctions. In a separate attack, following the Trump administration’s decision to kill Qassem Soleimani, the former head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran fired a ballistic missile salvo at Ayn al Assad air base in Iraq and other targets. Iran demonstrated the precision of its targeting by striking the U.S. side of the base, hitting fixed infrastructure and causing multiple cases of traumatic brain injury among U.S. servicemembers.
As these examples show, Iran has not only the hardware but also the ability to execute precision strikes on close targets, including U.S. bases. Iranian rhetoric has long focused on the vulnerability of these bases, but only in recent years has the Iranian regime demonstrated its capabilities to strike targets in Syria and Iraq from inside Iran. The Islamic Republic’s steadfast investment in its missile forces — particularly road mobile missiles — confronts U.S. forces with the challenge of locating and destroying dispersed and concealed small mobile targets. Iran has the largest and most diverse missile inventory in the Middle East, featuring a mix of close-range, short-range, and medium-range ballistic missiles, as well as land-attack and anti-ship cruise missiles. The sheer number of Iranian short-range ballistic missiles enables it to launch large salvos of weapons at nearby targets that can overwhelm U.S. missile defenses. Meanwhile, Iran’s missile capabilities — including improved targeting accuracy — enable it to hit critical infrastructure or unsheltered aircraft, which are often parked in tight formations on ramps. Crucially, the largest and most important U.S. bases in the region fall within range of these missiles and drones.
The Islamic Republic has also amplified its conventional capabilities with unconventional tools. This includes its use of proxy groups, which it has armed with missiles and drones, to extend its reach and to create plausible deniability. For example, Iranian-backed proxy groups in Iraq routinely launch mortars and rockets on the U.S. Embassy compound and U.S. bases in Iraq. The use of proxies also makes it difficult to attribute attacks directly to Iran, complicating potential responses.
The threat posed by Iranian missiles is not going away anytime soon. At present, U.S. missile defense capabilities are constrained by competing global needs. The United States, quite simply, does not have enough Patriot missile systems to meet demand and, therefore, has to make decisions about where to send them. Relocating too many of these systems to the Middle East may leave the United States undercovered in arguably more important regions like the Indo-Pacific and Europe. But even if the United States did have enough air defense systems to provide sufficient cover, Iran has the requisite number and types of missiles to overwhelm or bypass these systems.
While the Biden administration is likely to abandon Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy in favor of renewed diplomacy, this does not mean the Iranian threat to U.S. bases will immediately disappear. As it has in the past, Iran might wish to retain a coercive threat as a means to secure a more favorable deal with the United States and to deter Washington from punitive action should talks fail. Iran’s missile arsenal and its proxy networks are fundamental to this calculus, and U.S. forces and bases remain vulnerable to an attack.
A New Architecture for a New Strategic Environment
America’s large, sprawling air bases and logistics hubs in the Persian Gulf are now less necessary to protect U.S. interests and more vulnerable to Iranian missile attacks. Vestiges of outdated wars, their size and location have become liabilities. Instead of maintaining its current basing structure, the United States should consider downsizing to a constellation of smaller bases distributed throughout the region that occasionally host rotations of U.S. units.
To implement this approach, Washington should scale down major operating bases like Al Udeid and Camp Arifjan. The remaining continuous footprint would emphasize the logistics and maintenance units required for facility upkeep and periodic U.S. rotations. Leaving these bases altogether would amount to abandoning sizable investments in infrastructure and could also harm U.S. relationships with regional partners. Therefore, it is wise to maintain a slimmed down presence for peacetime activities, including limited counter-terrorism operations and security cooperation.
At the same time, Washington should turn smaller and redundant bases that are unnecessary for operational imperatives over to host nations. Since port access is more important for U.S. maritime operations than naval bases, the United States should also limit its naval presence to its base in Bahrain while maintaining access to key ports, such as Duqm in Oman and Jebel Ali in the United Arab Emirates. Air bases located farther from Iran, such as Muwaffaq Salti Air Base in Jordan and the Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia, should remain as is, but will take on new importance.
To complement these changes, Washington ought to secure pre-established access and overflight agreements and pre-position equipment at hardened locations to ensure U.S. capabilities in the region can be ramped up quickly if needed. This would be undergirded by a flexible logistics network, which would enable the swift buildup of bases as needed during contingencies without creating more risk to critical assets, increasing deployment costs, or relying on major operating bases as logistics hubs.
In the event of a crisis with Iran, the United States should redeploy forces located near the Persian Gulf to bases farther away like Muwaffaq Salti Air Base and Prince Sultan Air Base, where reinforcements could also be sent. Iran has fewer ballistic missiles that can reach these bases, giving U.S. forces there more time to take defensive countermeasures in case of an attack. Crucially, positioning assets at and conducting operations from these bases would prove just as effective. The recent demonstration that the Combined Air Operations Center could be transferred to Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina showed that air operations do not have to be run out of Al Udeid in order to be effective. This eliminates the need to maintain such a large footprint at a base so vulnerable to aerial attack.
The renewed U.S. presence at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia provides an illustrative example of the role that smaller, more distant bases could play in this new approach. The United States has rebuilt some of the key infrastructure at Prince Sultan Air Base, chiefly runways and air shelters. Since then, it has maintained a small presence at the base, consisting primarily of U.S. Army and Air Force personnel. Assets and capabilities, including F-16s and F-35s, as well as Patriot and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense systems, have rotated in and out, demonstrating agility under the Pentagon’s “dynamic force employment” rubric. Prince Sultan Air Base provides strategic depth in case air assets need to disperse from more easily threatened locations like Al Udeid and Al Dhafra.
The United States can reduce its military footprint in the Middle East through a mix of base closures and consolidations. But enhancing the security of U.S. forces and the survivability of U.S. assets in the region requires a move away from major operating bases to a network of distributed bases. A layered and distributed network of bases would enable the United States to further disperse its forces, which would improve their resiliency and reduce their attractiveness as targets.
The U.S. military posture in the Middle East needs to be updated to reflect new priorities and growing threats. As Washington shifts to do more with less, a distributed basing architecture would better fit the frame of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, which prioritizes strategic competition with China and Russia. Large, sprawling bases like Al Udeid served their purpose during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, as those conflicts wind down and the United States prioritizes other, more pressing threats, these bases are relics of the past that need to be rightsized. And the overall U.S. posture in the region needs to become more resilient.
The United States has depended on a relatively permissive environment to support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, knowing that the Taliban and al-Qaeda did not have the wherewithal to strike U.S. facilities. As U.S. defense planning focuses again on planning for war with great powers while contending with greater resource constraints as a result of COVID-19, U.S. basing must follow suit. While Iran is not a great power, its missile capabilities and ability to strike U.S. assets with precision munitions should not be ignored. A dispersed basing architecture would provide Washington with more flexibility to respond to Iranian provocations. It would also be a step toward winding down the American presence in the region and planning for a future focused on great-power competition.
Becca Wasser is a fellow in the defense program and co-lead of the Gaming Lab at the Center for a New American Security.
Aaron Stein is the director of research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.