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

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In the Persian Gulf the situation is becoming increasinglystrained. Gulf shipping is being regularly attacked, the UnitedStates has sold Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to Saudi Arabia,Saudi Arabia has shot down Iranian fighters, Iran has threatenedretaliation, President Reagan has offered U.S. help to protectgulf shipping from attack, and U.S. warships in the gulf havebegun escorting oil tankers chartered by the U.S. Navy's Military Sealift Command. Meanwhile the six members of the GulfCooperation Council say they are ready to use force to keepIran's air force at bay, but they do not want U.S. combat forces on their soil.

Given the uncertainty and confusion currently reigning inthe Persian Gulf with regard to oil exports, one wonders whathas happened to the Rapid Deployment Force (RDF), which now isknown as the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and is the latestU.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 termsRapid Deployment Force and U.S. Central Command. Although theRDF preceded CENTCOM and technically no longer exists, it isused throughout the paper in order to avoid unnecessary confusion.) After all, it was the specter of a threat to PersianGulf 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 fromthe brow of the Pentagon into public consciousness. This emergence was made official by President Carter in his State of theUnion address on January 23, 1980, when he declared: "Let ourposition be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside forceto gain control of the Persian Gulf regions will be regarded asan 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 risenappreciably, nobody in the Reagan administration is suggestingthat U.S. CENTCOM might have to send in the troops. There seemsto be a curious reticence, almost as though the U.S. bull hasfinally learned to tread warily in the global china shop. However, if the RDF is not going to be used at a time when Westernoil supplies are threatened with drastic curtailment, under whatcircumstances would it be used? Why was it formed in the firstplace? 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 ofthe force is warranted. One defense analyst notes that the FY1985 Department of Defense (DOD) budget allocates $59 billionfor the RDF, "of which about $47 billion is for the PersianGulf. (In 1985, the Pentagon will continue to increase its primary allocation of forces to the Persian Gulf. It will beginto 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 plansfor a larger version, could give rise to pressure for eventualincreases in the defense budget and could hamper efforts to reduce the budget deficit in the next few years."[4]

David Isenberg

David Isenberg is a research associate at the Pacific Northwest Research Center in Eugene, Oregon.