WASHINGTON -- The devastating volcanic explosions in the Philippines have forced U.S. officials to consider moving many of the military operations there to other Asian and Pacific sites in an arrangement that could become permanent.
Some officials already believe that Mount Pinatubo, which literally blew its top and inundated two huge U.S. facilities with volcanic ash, has caused irreparable damage to Clark Air Base and severely crippled Subic Bay Naval Station.
"Everything's disrupted there," one senior Navy officer at the Pentagon said last week. "We can't begin to talk about resuming operations until everyone's satisfied the volcano has really quieted down. Even then, we could end up only with Subic."
The fate of Clark Air Base depends largely on the condition of the runways there, said the officer, who insisted on anonymity. "There's no way that airfield will be operating like it was."
One preliminary estimate by the Navy's Pacific Fleet Command put the damage to the Subic Bay shipyard at 75 percent. Officials reported that the sheer weight of rain-soaked ash destroyed at least 160 buildings at Subic and about 30 warehouses, hangars and other structures at Clark.
A strong desire remains here to revive the stricken bases under a new long-term lease with the Philippines, but several officials acknowledged in interviews that temporary steps to transfer routine operations to other military bases in the region could well become permanent.
Last week, the Pentagon said the threat of continued volcanic activity may persist for up to three years. Mount Pinatubo began erupting June 9 after lying dormant for more than 600 years and has continued intermittently to spew massive columns of ash into the sky.
Both military bases have been shut down indefinitely, and U.S. officials say their main concern now is conducting an evacuation and damage assessment operation, code-named Fiery Vigil. As a result, "just about all of the routine stuff . . . had to be rechanneled somewhere else," said Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams.
Military officials explained that some essential functions of Clark Air Base -- largely a refueling, maintenance and logistics hub -- have been moved temporarily to other locations in the western Pacific Ocean, mainly in Guam and Okinawa.
Navy activities at Subic may be relocated to Singapore, Guam and 7th Fleet headquarters in Yokosuka, Japan, but military officials said no decisions have been made yet.
Mr. Williams and other officials stressed that the future U.S. military presence in the Philippines rested not only on the extent of the damage from Mount Pinatubo, but on the outcome of prolonged negotiations with the Philippines on the terms of a new lease for the bases and other facilities.
The current pact expires Sept. 16.
"The question of whether we are going to remain in the Philippines is something we clearly have to look at in light of this disaster, and that will depend on how the base negotiations go," Mr. Williams said.
"If there's a lot of reconstruction that has to be done and big investment that has to be made in staying in Clark and Subic, then you have to look at that vs. the amount of time that the base contract will run for."
The United States has been seeking a 10-year lease at $360 million a year, but the government of Philippine President Corazon C. Aquino has demanded more cash compensation. At the last round of talks last month, Filipino negotiators sought $825 million a year for a lease of only seven years.
Ties between Manila and Washington have been severely strained ever since the Philippines charged that the Americans broke agreements on compensation for the bases when it cut $96 million from aid commitments of $481 million in 1990. Rising opposition to the U.S. military presence, fueled by nationalist sentiments and a vigorous Communist guerrilla movement, has contributed to an impasse in negotiations.
From the outset of the talks, which began Sept. 18, U.S. officials have expressed their preference to hold on to the Philippine bases, but not at any cost. The White House, echoing remarks made repeatedly by Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, declared a year ago that U.S. forces would be prepared to leave "if we're not wanted."
Last week, officials denied that the volcanic activity prompted a formal policy review that might spur a dramatic, permanent withdrawal from the Philippines. But they said a debate within the Pentagon was brewing and reported that contingency plans prepared before the base talks began were still viable.
For the U.S. military, the value of the bases lies in their strategic location, which makes it easier to control the sea lanes through the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca, where oil-laden commercial supertankers serve U.S. East Asian allies and trading partners. The bases, which rely heavily on relatively low-cost Filipino labor, also serve as a key staging point for forces bound for the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf.
But senior officials revealed last year that they could withdraw forces from the Philippines in a year at a one-time relocation cost of at least $3 billion to $4 billion. Their plans rely on several alternative sites that "are not as strategically located as the Philippines, but we can still meet our commitments from these locations," said Adm. Huntington Hardisty, then-commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Command.
Aiding military planners is a new agreement, signed by the United States and Singapore on Nov. 13, that permits U.S. military ships and planes greater access to existing facilities in the tiny Southeast Asian country.
The Paya Labar airfield in Singapore is being viewed as a prime refueling stop for cargo flights to Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and onward to the Persian Gulf. More ship repairs may be sought at Singapore's Sembawang shipyard, but strictly on a commercial basis without the more reliable, cheaper Philippine labor costs.
Pentagon plans cite Guam for its existing military ship repair facility, logistics center, ammunition and nuclear weapons storage areas and airstrips. The planned withdrawal of B-52s from Anderson Air Base would allow the facility to absorb some Philippine-based aircraft or more frequent stopovers by cargo planes.
A retired U.S. diplomat in Manila, who has returned to Washington, said the Navy was poised to move more ships to Japan but was concerned about concentrating too many forces there, and possibly rousing local sensitivities about the U.S. military and nuclear weapons.
"The Japanese don't want all the [ship repair] work sent to Yokosuka," said the former official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "They'd certainly be happier if we stayed in the Philippines or if we have something in Singapore and elsewhere."