U.S. mulls alternatives to Manas Air Base
February 8, 2009
President Barack Obama has repeatedly said he intends to focus more attention on U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and devote fewer resources and manpower to efforts in Iraq. But while the new administration and the Pentagon continue to discuss sending thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan, threats by Kyrgyzstan have shifted attention a few hundred miles to the northeast.
The potential closure of Manas Air Base — a key site the U.S. uses to ferry massive amounts of personnel and equipment into Afghanistan — has the U.S. scrambling for options.
Manas, located on a small part of Manas International Airport, is sometimes unofficially referred to as the "Gateway to Afghanistan," although some military cargo planes bypass it and fly directly into or out of locations such as Bagram and Kandahar. Still, Manas handles about 15,000 passengers and 500 tons of cargo monthly. KC-135s stationed there flew almost 3,300 missions in 2008, distributing gasoline to more than 11,400 aircraft over Afghanistan. The Air Force assigns several hundred airmen to the base, but most U.S. forces spend just a day or two there while transiting through.
Asked why the Air Force couldn’t just skip Manas entirely and fly all its cargo and personnel directly into Bagram, Kandahar or Kabul, officials said they wouldn’t discount the possibility of such an option — although no one was publicly endorsing it, either.
"It is important to have options in many locations," Col. Gus Schalkham, public affairs officer for U.S. Air Force Central, said in an e-mail response. "We never want to limit our logistics capabilities to just a few sites."
Maj. Joe Kloppel, a U.S. Central Command spokesman, echoed that sentiment.
"You never want a single point of failure," he said. "Any time you’re talking about logistic flows and transportation, the more options the better."
Kloppel, who has served in Afghanistan, said a number of additional factors might be in play as well, but said: "I would not want to comment on the Manas vs. Bagram thing."
One factor against more direct flights into Bagram could be the weather. Flights sometimes can’t land there due to dust storms or fog and are redirected to Manas — a little more than an hour’s flight to the northeast.
Another is that many long-distance military flights into the area require in-air refueling services of KC-135s. The Air Force might want to limit such operations over the skies of Afghanistan, which has seen increasing activity by U.S. fighter aircraft in recent years.
Bagram’s runways, which have already been expanded, can also get crowded. It has been home to A-10 Warthogs and is used heavily by Army helicopters. Military officials have stated a desire to substantially increase the number of helicopters in the country along with additional troops.
Commanders in the field have expressed a desire to get those helicopters closer to where troops are engaging the enemy. But most other locations — including virtually all the smaller forwarding operating bases where troops routinely come under attack — aren’t large enough to offer the craft adequate protection from rocket or mortar fire. And fuel and other logistical issues could be challenging.
The U.S. already has multiple transportation options and routes in play. Many air missions originate in the States and pass through places such as Ramstein Air Base in Germany or Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. Ramstein is known as the military’s largest transportation hub overseas.
First Lt. J.D. Griffin, a public affairs officer with U.S. Air Forces in Europe, said the base "… has always been a major hub for troops and supplies en route to and from Afghanistan and will continue to aggressively support Operation Enduring Freedom." He noted the base hadn’t received any word from the State Department about a possible closure of Manas.
Incirlik, which borders Iraq and is several hours closer to Afghanistan by air than Ramstein is, supports both KC-135 refueling operations and a cargo lift in which military and civilian aircraft bring supplies into the base in southeastern Turkey and then C-17s ferry it to various destinations in the theater. Much of that operation has concentrated on getting supplies to troops in Iraq and adjustments would have to be made to supply Afghanistan, which is farther to the east.
The Air Force also has various operations in several other countries in the region, including Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain.
Much of the nontactical supplies used by U.S. forces in Afghanistan start off by ship and arrive in the country via commercial trucks that pass through Pakistan. Routes there have come under increasing attacks by the Taliban or al-Qaida lately — some temporarily halting new supplies from coming in.
A report by The Associated Press on Friday quoted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as stating his country had agreed to let U.S. "non-military" supplies pass through Russia.
But it wasn’t clear how such an operation might work, because Russia doesn’t share a border with Afghanistan and other countries would have to agree to the deal as well. It also wasn’t clear whether such a move would replace or supplement routes through Pakistan or operations through Manas.
Stars and Stripes reporter Jennifer H. Svan contributed to this report.