WASHINGTON -- The Navy is exploring the possibility of basing an aircraft carrier, minesweepers or other ships of the 6th Fleet in the Israeli port of Haifa, a major shift in deployment strategy that could have serious repercussions at home and in the Middle East.
Navy officials say privately they are not eager to initiate such a move. But they say pressure from Senate committees and pro-Israel interests in Washington help to explain why they are considering Haifa as a possible home port for U.S. ships.
Only yesterday, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, chairman of the Defense Appropriations subcommittee, told Israeli officials on a visit to Tel Aviv that he will obtain money to make Haifa's port a permanent home for part of the fleet.
The 6th Fleet, headquartered in Gaeta, Italy, where the command ship USS Belknap has its home port, now draws virtually all its naval assets from carrier battle groups based in Norfolk, Va., and Mayport, Fla. As many as five aircraft carriers are needed to keep one stationed in the Mediterranean on a near-continuous basis, a congressional analysis shows.
The Navy's only other overseas home ports are in Sicily, where the submarine tender USS Orion is based, and in Japan, where the USS Independence carrier battle group has been based in Yokosuka and a group of amphibious ships in Sasebo since 1973.
Although no decisions are imminent, those favoring the creation of a foreign home port argue that the Navy must find new ways to project U.S. power overseas with fewer ships, aircraft and sailors. A permanent move to Haifa would represent a commitment to Israeli security and bolster U.S. defense of the Suez Canal and Arabian peninsula, they say.
But even advocates acknowledge that such a move could mobilize strong opposition, especially in U.S. communities distressed by military base closings and defense layoffs.
Moreover, the Arab reaction is difficult to anticipate. If the proposal materializes at a difficult time in the Mideast peace talks, "it could be viewed as evidence of bias," said a senior Arab diplomat here.
"This matter will not be exploited [by Arabs for political gain] unless there's a need to exploit it," he added.
Another Arab diplomat said there was a tacit acceptance, even among Mideast powers not friendly to the United States, of U.S.-Israeli defense cooperation.
A former senior naval officer, retired Vice Adm. William Rowden, who commanded the 6th Fleet from 1981 to 1983 and who is working on a Haifa feasibility study for the Navy, said: "If you want to reduce the number of carriers, you can do it by home-porting in Haifa. There's no question you can stretch your capability for forward presence."
"But I don't hear a real good discussion of how the political issues will be settled to make it OK. People say, 'Leave that to the State Department to work out,' " he said. "I get nervous about that."
Incentive vs. reward
There have been suggestions that influential members of the Clinton administration are receptive to the idea of home-porting ships in Haifa, both as a budget-cutting device and as a foreign policy tool, although administration officials are in no hurry to act as long as the Middle East peace talks remain stalled and the Navy feasibility study is incomplete.
Some officials believe the Haifa proposal would give Israel an added security guarantee against concessions Jerusalem might
make in the peace negotiations. But there are conflicting views over whether a home port proposal should be used as an incentive to propel the peace process forward or as a reward for an Arab-Israeli settlement.
Dore Gold, an Israeli military analyst with close defense ties in Tel Aviv and Washington, said he expects that Israeli officials would welcome the home-porting plan if it is not tied to unacceptable concessions in the peace process.
"The question is whether this is integrated into the peace process," Mr. Gold said in Jerusalem. Creating a permanent base could "give Israel a sense of some kind of strategic umbrella under which Israel can take greater risks in the peace process," he said. But if that risk involves returning the Golan Heights to Syria, there would be controversy, he predicted.
A potential obstacle is who will pay for the cost of building base facilities, he said.
Taking the initiative
Israeli officials in Washington said their government has not conveyed any official interest in creating a home port in Haifa, adding that they were unaware of any "concrete proposal" circulating within the U.S. government. "It's true you have all kinds of private ideas being aired, but I am totally unaware that the notion of a permanent presence is being considered," one official said.
So far, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and other pro-Israel groups have been waging a low-key informational campaign to stimulate interest within the Clinton administration and Congress so that Washington will be seen as taking the initiative.
"It would certainly be of great benefit to the United States," said James Colbert, spokesman for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, a Washington-based group that promotes stronger U.S.-Israeli security ties. "You really have to look at where the hot spots are in the world and decide where we need to be with a smaller fleet.
"It's about time for the U.S. to bring its good relations with Israel to the forefront rather than hide it," he said.
Until recently, his group's board of advisers included Defense Secretary Les Aspin and CIA Director R. James Woolsey, both of whom stepped down after joining the Clinton administration.
Neither official has taken a public position on the Haifa issue, although both are familiar with it. A spokesman for the National Security Council said the staff just began to review U.S.-Israel security policy but did not have any immediate plans to discuss options involving Haifa.
The lobby groups for Israel are taking an incremental approach, first by encouraging allies in Congress to make the case that U.S. interests would be best served by increasing the amount of Navy maintenance work at the port. A later step would involve helping policy-makers generate a persuasive national security requirement for stationing ships there.
But these groups, along with some defense analysts and other proponents of "overseas home-porting," concede that creating a new naval base in a foreign country will be a tough sell at home, especially since Israel -- unlike Japan, which relies heavily on the United States for its own defense -- is unlikely to share the necessary expenses.
Officials at AIPAC declined to comment, but congressional aides and others familiar with their lobbying efforts said they understood that the group was now focusing narrowly on the short-range goal of increasing Haifa's ship repair business.
Alarms already have been sounded by the Shipbuilders Council of America, an industry group that has accused the Navy of using foreign ports and contractors to do routine maintenance of U.S.-based ships in violation of federal law. The council has objected to an increased U.S. naval presence in Haifa, declaring in a statement, "To tie the 6th Fleet to a politically volatile base may be unwise in a geopolitical sense."
Navy budget cuts and the industry's inability to draw commercial business away from foreign-subsidized shipbuilders already threaten losses of 180,000 industry jobs by the end of the decade, said John J. Stocker, the council president.
By some estimates, dredging Haifa Bay so that an aircraft carrier could receive dockside maintenance work could cost $200 million. Millions more would be required to build housing, schools and other facilities for exclusive U.S. use.
Congress already has moved discreetly toward increasing the Navy's use of Haifa for routine port calls and ship repairs. Tucked into defense appropriations bills for 1991 and 1992 were provisions setting aside $15 million to upgrade Israel Shipyard's facilities at the port and dredge access lanes in Haifa Bay, and $2 million for the Navy to find out what else Haifa needs to meet all the "repair, supply and prepositioning needs of the 6th Fleet in both peace and war."
Last fall, Congress added language to the 1993 defense authorization bill ordering an analysis of several peacetime deployment issues, including "potential locations and associated costs for home-porting additional aircraft carriers or other naval forces overseas" and the "potential availability of facilities for supporting forward naval operations."
The Haifa improvements were sought by Mr. Inouye, a Hawaiian Democrat who is a staunch advocate for Israel in Congress.
Mr. Inouye said in a recent Washington interview that he considered it premature to discuss Haifa as a future home port -- which he insisted was not on his agenda. But his caution apparently was not reflected in his conversations with top Israeli officials on a visit to Israel yesterday.
He told them he had initiated a $57 million expenditure in the defense budget "for expanding Haifa Port in order that the 6th Fleet can use the port as a permanent base in the region," according to a report by Israel Radio.
Mr. Inouye could not be reached last night for further explanation.
The issue of overseas home-porting is not new, but it has taken on new urgency as the Navy grapples with strategies to carry out its missions in three traditional areas of operation -- the Mediterranean, Persian Gulf-Indian Ocean, and Western Pacific -- with fewer aircraft carrier battle groups.
President Clinton has pledged to cut land and air forces in Europe and to reduce the number of operational carriers by 1997 from the current level of 14 ships to 10. The annual operating cost of a carrier battle group and an air wing is $1.5 billion, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates, but other analysts put it as high as $3 billion.
20% cut in Navy size
A Congressional Research Service analysis, which pro-Israel lobbyists have used in their contacts with administration officials, concluded last fall that finding a home port in the Mediterranean would allow a 20 percent cut in the size of the Navy.
The Navy feasibility study due to Congress in April, will not make recommendations for or against home-porting, but it could set the stage for hearings later this summer, congressional aides said.
One knowledgeable U.S. official said the feasibility study is not expected to estimate the cost of creating a home port in Haifa, which he predicts will be "exorbitant."
"I know that the incremental approach is the only way it will go [through Congress]," the official added. "If you come in with a big, whopping military construction [budget] submission in this day and age, in this budget environment, no way. It's just not going to happen."