1. Archive

A year after war, MacDill's CentCom still seen as viable

When Central Command was created at MacDill Air Force Base more than a decade ago, the critics said it was a paper tiger.

The command couldn't respond quickly to a crisis in the Middle East, the critics charged, and it wouldn't be able to fight a war from Tampa.

Then came a massive mobilization in Saudi Arabia, cots in MacDill offices and sudden hero status for Central Command's general.

The paper tiger had proven it could fight.

One year after war began in the Persian Gulf, Central Command (CentCom) has earned praise for its foresight and preparation. Former CentCom officers boast that their intricate plans have paid off.

"The war in the gulf was proof that Central Command had prepared well," said retired Lt. Gen. C.C. "Buck" Rogers, who was deputy commander of CentCom during the war. "Its planning efforts and exercise efforts were pretty much on target."

CentCom, originally called the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force, was started by the Carter administration to direct military operations in the Middle East and respond to "brush-fire" wars. It was based at MacDill because the Pentagon was unable to find a Middle East country that would give it a home.

The gulf war now makes the founders of CentCom look downright prescient.

Although the command spent much of its energy preparing for a possible Middle East war against the Soviet Union, it also prepared for other scenarios. A story 12 years ago in the New York Times said one possible mission could be "repelling an incursion from a smaller nation, such as Iraq, into the oil-producing nations around the Persian Gulf."

Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, said, "I think Carter had the right idea that we needed to worry more about the Middle East."

Until the late 1970s, responsibility for that region practically fell between the cracks of the U.S. military commands, analysts and retired officers said.

"That area of the world got very little attention," said retired Maj. Gen. Bob Taylor, one of the command's founders.

CentCom changed all that.

Its officials talked with military leaders in Middle East nations and prepared for a variety of possible wars. A sign in the command's main conference room in the early 1980s carried this philosophy: "Think War."

CentCom, consisting of officers from every branch of the service, now oversees U.S. military affairs in 18 countries in the Middle East, Southwest Asia and Northeast Africa. That area includes more than 70 percent of the world's oil reserves.

During the gulf war, the command's warehouse-size building at MacDill was busy around the clock. Many workers flopped onto cots to catch a few hours of sleep between 12- or 15-hour shifts.

Although most of the command's 800 staffers were in the Middle East during the war, about 200 remained at the MacDill headquarters. They were helped by an additional 750 called in from other military units.

The gulf war gave the little-known military headquarters recognition around the world. Its public affairs office received as many as 100 calls a day during the war and then was besieged after the war with requests about CentCom commander Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf. Some reporters wanted to know the color of his eyes, others his favorite ice cream.

Today, things have quieted down considerably.

Some CentCom employees still wear the chocolate-chip fatigues that became famous during the war, but most days they wear staid uniforms with plain-colored shirts (green, blue or tan, depending on the branch of the military) and wrinkle-free slacks or skirts.

The office now gets only eight to 10 news media calls each day. Gen. Joseph P. Hoar has replaced Schwarzkopf, and no reporters have called about Hoar's favorite ice cream.

Despite the resounding victory, Korb, of the Brookings Institution, said he has doubts about CentCom's ability to mobilize quickly in the Middle East because the command is not based in the region.

"It wasn't rapid," Korb said. "It took us seven months to fight that war. It's very rare that you get seven months to assemble your troops."

After the war, the Defense Department said it was considering moving at least part of CentCom to the Middle East. But no concrete plans have been announced.

Rogers, who directed CentCom's operation in Tampa during the war, said the command still can respond quickly. He said the CentCom-directed rapid-deployment troops arrived in the Middle East quickly after President Bush decided to send them. When those troops failed to persuade Iraq's Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait, CentCom officials decided "a lot more forces were needed."

_ Information from Times files and the New York Times was used in this report.