48. Memorandum From the Joint Chiefs of Staff to Secretary of Defense McNamara1
- Status of Wheelus Air Base (U)
1. The Joint Chiefs of Staff have noted Ambassador Badeau’s recent message (Cairo message 2136 to the Secretary of State, dated 18 March 1964) in which he requests further guidance prior to carrying out Department of State instructions (State message 4292 to Cairo, dated 17 March 1964)2 to conduct conversations with President Nasser relative to Wheelus Air Base. The Ambassador posed eight questions in his message, four of which concern the importance of Wheelus Air Base and properly require a judgment of military considerations. Specifically, the following are provided as suggested answers to the Ambassador’s four questions:
a. “What is US firm estimate of strategic value of Wheelus?”
(1) Training. Wheelus Air Base is critical to the requirements of the Air Force for the maintenance of combat ready crew status for all fighter and fighter interceptor crews assigned in the European area. The base is the only facility in the area that provides important all year good weather, gunnery and bombing ranges, and other facilities capable of accommodating the large numbers of personnel to be trained. At any one time, there are approximately 100 fighters and fighter interceptors scheduled for training operations at the Weapons Training Center, Wheelus Air Base. Crews are rotated every thirty days. This schedule permits each crew member an opportunity to maintain his proficiency and to requalify himself every six months. These are minimum air training requirements for combat crews. The weather factor is important in that it permits dependable scheduling not only at the Weapons Training Center, but also for the return of these crews to their duty stations to assume their combat alert status. As long as combat ready air forces remain on the European continent, a training facility such as Wheelus will remain an essential requirement.
(2) Contingencies. Beyond its significance as a training site, the strategic location of the base has even greater importance. It enhances the US capability to support over 50 contingency plans relating to the Middle [Page 78]East, North and South Africa, and the Indian Ocean area. The loss of Wheelus Air Base would undoubtedly require revision of these plans with the attendant likelihood of degradation of effective response. During our increase of readiness for operations in the Lebanon crisis in 1958, Greece denied the United States certain landing and overflight privileges. In these circumstances, the availability of Wheelus was—and could again be—of major importance.
(3) Cold War. As the location of the base is significant to the support of US contingency plans, its location is equally important in support of cold war activities. The air support furnished the United Nations during the Congo emergency could not have been as effective and timely had Wheelus Air Base not been available. US efforts would certainly have been more costly. Were we called upon to provide support for the UN Peacekeeping Force now active in Cyprus, Wheelus would be an important facility in assuring such support. The emerging, volatile nations of Africa South of the Sahara are potential trouble areas in which US interests may require involvement. Wheelus Air Base remains the last US foothold of significance on the Continent of Africa. The combination of US withdrawals elsewhere, the high likelihood of continuing disturbances throughout the area, the strategic interests of the United States, and the role we assume in UN operations increase its strategic importance.
(4) Other Significant Uses. Other activities are conducted at Wheelus Air Base. The storage of War Reserve matériel is directly related to the ability of US forces to respond to contingencies since they make possible support of continued operations in remote areas. In addition, the base, again because of its location, serves effectively for strategic aircraft recovery. Military Air Transport Service aircraft operate through Wheelus Air Base and service areas in the Middle East and Africa. The base also includes an important communications station of the Defense Communications System. In addition, a number of important electronic detection devices to monitor nuclear activities of the USSR and France are located and operated on the base.
b. “Is US now convinced that retention of Wheelus rights is a top defense priority?”
Yes. The Joint Chiefs of Staff attach high importance to the retention of the base. In addition to its importance to US security interests, the base has helped to forestall covetous external interests and has provided the Libyan Government security during its national emergence and development. This has unquestionably contributed to the maintenance of the stability of the Mediterranean area. Just as our departure could very well encourage United Arab Republic subversion or aggression, our removal would make more difficult effective response to preserve Libyan independence.[Page 79]
c. “Is retention of Wheelus Air Base such a vital US interest that we prepared to go all the way in its protection?”
The United States should be prepared to take all necessary actions consistent with our longer-term objectives of preserving the independence and stability of Libya. A Wheelus Working Group has been organized by the Department of State to assist all action agencies to achieve maximum effectiveness in dealing with the problem. The United States should be prepared to take such necessary steps as would serve to eliminate or reduce the pressures being brought to bear on the Libyan Government. Pressures emanating externally should be dealt with at the source.
d. “Does the US in fact see no alternative between complete possession and complete relinquishment of Wheelus rights?”
The United States does not now enjoy complete possession of the base. The Royal Libyan Air Force is in possession of a portion of the base and has the utilization of many other areas and facilities. As the space requirements for the Libyan Air Force increase, additional space will be provided. The United States would be willing to discuss additional sharing of base space should the Government of Libya raise the issue. Libyan flags are prominently displayed in designated areas and there exists no dispute over the arrangement under which the Libyan Air Force and the US Air Force work and live side by side. The United States is not rigid in the question of extremes in the exercise of base rights, and the existing agreement does not preclude conversations toward the alteration or adjustment of base space, usage, possession, or command relationships.
2. Beyond the factors outlined above, it should be recognized that Wheelus Air Base has become a symbol of world-wide deployments, the loss of which could serve to reinforce pressures on the United States to evacuate bases and installations in such additional places as Ethiopia, Morocco, the Azores, Spain, Cuba, Japan, Okinawa, the Philippines, and Panama. In this context, the loss of Wheelus could only be viewed as an extremely serious setback to the overseas posture of the United States. Whereas a single base may be of signal importance, the world-wide US system of bases is of vital importance to national security.
3. In view of the above, the Joint Chiefs of Staff consider that the retention of Wheelus Air Base is of primary importance to the security interests of the United States. They recommend that steps be taken to relieve pressures on the Libyan Government and that their views be forwarded [Page 80]to the Secretary of State for use in the formulation of positions regarding Wheelus Air Base.
For the Joint Chiefs of Staff:
Rear Admiral, USN
Deputy Director, Joint Staff