The Rapid Deployment Force: The Few, the Futile, the Expendable

November 8, 1984 • Policy Analysis No. 44

In the Persian Gulf the situation is becoming increasingly strained. Gulf shipping is being regularly attacked, the United States has sold Stinger anti‐​aircraft missiles to Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia has shot down Iranian fighters, Iran has threatened retaliation, President Reagan has offered U.S. help to protect gulf shipping from attack, and U.S. warships in the gulf have begun escorting oil tankers chartered by the U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command. Meanwhile the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council say they are ready to use force to keep Iran’s air force at bay, but they do not want U.S. combat forces on their soil.

Given the uncertainty and confusion currently reigning in the Persian Gulf with regard to oil exports, one wonders what has happened to the Rapid Deployment Force (RDF), which now is known as the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and is the latest U.S. unified command. (Because of the generally imprecise discussion of this issue, as well as the changes incurred by historical evolution, it has been necessary to use both the terms Rapid Deployment Force and U.S. Central Command. Although the RDF preceded CENTCOM and technically no longer exists, it is used throughout the paper in order to avoid unnecessary confusion.) After all, it was the specter of a threat to Persian Gulf petroleum that served as an official rationale for the RDF. Indeed, after the fall of the Shah of Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the RDF supposedly emerged full‐​blown from the brow of the Pentagon into public consciousness. This emergence was made official by President Carter in his State of the Union address on January 23, 1980, when he declared: “Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf regions will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America. And such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”[1]

Yet at a time when the threat to oil supplies has risen appreciably, nobody in the Reagan administration is suggesting that U.S. CENTCOM might have to send in the troops. There seems to be a curious reticence, almost as though the U.S. bull has finally learned to tread warily in the global china shop. However, if the RDF is not going to be used at a time when Western oil supplies are threatened with drastic curtailment, under what circumstances would it be used? Why was it formed in the first place? What can it do? Despite the enormous amount of literature produced about the RDF (one bibliography lists 279 references), these questions remain unanswered.[2]

When one considers that an ever‐​increasing share of resources is being devoted to the RDF, a long look at the history of the force is warranted. One defense analyst notes that the FY 1985 Department of Defense (DOD) budget allocates $59 billion for the RDF, “of which about $47 billion is for the Persian Gulf. (In 1985, the Pentagon will continue to increase its primary allocation of forces to the Persian Gulf. It will begin to implement a plan to create as many as five additional ‘light’ Army divisions, justified mostly by the Persian Gulf or Southwest Asia requirement, but without adding any significant manpower to the Army.)”[3] A past Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report stated that “the RDF, and particularly the plans for a larger version, could give rise to pressure for eventual increases in the defense budget and could hamper efforts to reduce the budget deficit in the next few years.”[4]

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