Not long after the U—2 surveillance aircraft was shot down over Soviet territory in 1960, Nikita Khrushchev approached Pakistan’s ambassador at a diplomatic reception and told him that he had looked carefully at the map, taken out a pen and drawn a big red circle round Peshawar. In his characteristically blunt way Khrushchev was issuing a threat that no further U—2 flights violating Soviet airspace were to take off from Pakistani bases such as the Badaber facility outside the capital of Northwest Frontier Province. In his first public speech on the incident, the Soviet leader directed his remarks toward General Ayub Khan and his colleagues when he declared: ‘Don’t play with fire, gentlemen!’footnote1

In spite of a secret ‘letter of understanding’ granting the United States full access to the Peshawar air base and use of the Badaber monitoring station for a period of ten years, Pakistan’s military authorities pulled back from their undertaking in the face of international exposure. us intelligence flights were no longer permitted access to Peshawar, although the us ‘lease’ on the Badaber facility remained operational until it officially lapsed in July 1969. For the next twenty-three years, despite varying degrees of intimacy and tension with the United States, none of the successive civilian and military regimes in Pakistan felt in a position to offend nationalist sentiment by offering such facilities again. However, reliable sources in Washington and in the top Pakistani military claim that since 1983 General Zia-ul-Huq’s government has given the green light to American P—3 surveillance aircraft, Mauripur near Karachi being mentioned as the base most frequently used.

Unlike the U—2, which was created primarily for high-altitude surveillance of land-based targets, the P—3 Orion aircraft is an integral part of the global us network tracking the Soviet fleet, particularly its nuclear submarines. The use of Pakistani airbases by the P—3 has been one element in the surveillance of the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf which has occurred in parallel with the major American build-up in Southwest Asia since 1979. The P—3, according to one us aeronautics journal, now ranks as ‘the West’s standard land-based anti-submarine warfare (asw) and maritime patrol aircraft’. Manufactured by Lockheed Corporation, Brubank, the same firm which designed and constructed the U—2, the P—3 contains state-of-the-art electronic equipment providing rapid ‘on-top localization’ to back up the vast array of fixed ocean hydrophones, ground receiving stations, and regionally based aircraft.

The use of Pakistani airbases falls into Washington’s much broader vision of regional ‘security’, involving the first new geographically unified military command to be established by the United States in more than thirty-five years. This military formation, known as the us Central Command or centcom, has been operational since January 1983 and is now considered to be on a par with nato in Europe and cinpac in the Pacific. Its formal ‘area of responsibility’ covers nineteen countries—three more than nato—in Southwest Asia, the Persian Gulf and the region stretching from Kenya and Somalia to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Yet its ‘command area’ is the Indian Ocean itself, and the territory of the forty-four littoral and hinterland states. If required, the Central Command can call upon an intervention force of some 300,000 troops for deployment in Southwest Asia. By 1989, when it reaches near-peak operational capacity, it will be able to land at least 450,000 personnel in the area under wartime conditions. Whatever the precise total of combat manpower available to centcom, it is agreed that it is second only to the us forces assigned to Western Europe.

The Central Command is the direct descendant of the us Rapid Deployment Task Force (rdf) formed in March 1980, in the wake of the overthrow of the Pahlavi regime in Iran. In the view of American military planners, the rdf was an immature and inadequate force: indeed, the former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger once described it as ‘neither rapid, nor deployable, nor much of a force’. This condition is now being swiftly transformed. The us military has budgeted more than $14bn up to 1988, in the largest coordinated construction programme undertaken outside the United States since the end of the Vietnam War. Base facilities are being systematically upgraded in a wide arc from Kenya to Pakistan.

In a report to Congress last year, Caspar Weinberger outlined a series of immediate regional requirements and policy objectives in Southwest Asia. These included: (a) ‘gaining approval for and developing land-based prepositioning sites’ for the huge supplies of material to us forces that are eventually deployed; (b) ‘obtaining both overflight rights and enroute access’ from countries that have not already granted them; (c) ‘obtaining access to and improving selected airfields and sea ports in the theatre’; and (d) ‘obtaining additional host nation support agreements with countries en route to and in Southwest Asia’.footnote2 According to a report of the Indo-American Task Force on the Indian Ocean, Congressional testimony at closed-door executive hearings has detailed the use of Pakistani facilities and the regulations governing us access. One of the American participants is quoted as saying: ‘General Kingston and the Central Command hope to draw Pakistan into a network of understandings which has implications for the subcontinent since Pakistan is covered by centcom. . . . P—3 asw planes are occasionally using Pakistani airfields, and there will be pressure for more access of this type.’footnote3

Weinberger also listed the bases for which the United States has already negotiated access and which it is now engaged in upgrading. Thus, ‘facilities that would be unique to potential us operations at the location’ are being constructed, at a cost of $91mn, at the former Soviet base at Ras Banas in Egypt, strategically sited on the Red Sea. us forces are already in position on the Red Sea islands of Titan and Sinafir, near the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba, as a ‘trip-wire’ guarding a so-called buffer zone along the Egyptian—Israeli border. According to Israeli press stories, the backbone is drawn from centcom’s 82nd Airborne Division and functions within the command structure of the rdf. At the same time, the Aitam airbase in Israel’s Negev region has been equipped to accommodate us forces in time of war. ‘According to Pentagon estimates, only three days would be needed to air-lift us forces to Saudi Arabia through Israel. They could reach Kuwait in one and a half days, Iran in two.’footnote4