WASHINGTON -- The nation's strategic nuclear forces would be largely unaffected by a U.S. military pullout from the Philippines because the Air Force and Navy have not based nuclear weapons there for years, anti-nuclear activists and military experts said yesterday.
"There is still a nuclear presence in the Pacific, and if you believe in nuclear deterrence, you've got plenty of firepower," said Damian Durrant, a Washington-based research analyst for Greenpeace USA.
"Our impression is that Subic Bay [naval base] is essentially replaceable. It's inconvenient for the Navy, but not significant. It will not have a great impact on nuclear operations."
U.S. officials refused to confirm or deny the presence of nuclear weapons in the Philippines but also played down the military impact of losing bases there.
The likelihood of a U.S. military withdrawal from the Philippines grew Monday, when a majority of the Philippine Senate cast a preliminary vote against extending U.S. rights to the Subic Bay base and other smaller facilities.
At the Pentagon, spokesman Pete Williams said the United States had opened "very preliminary discussions" with several Asian countries about an expanded U.S. military presence if U.S. forces have to leave the Philippines. He would not elaborate, but other officials said Japan, Australia, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei have been contacted.
"We're sort of shopping around right now," a U.S. military official said. "We don't want to upset anybody."
Although the military has valued the Philippines for its strategic location in the Western Pacific and as a staging point for forces bound for the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf, it has refrained from storing nuclear weapons at the ammunition depots there at least since the 1970s, said Robert S. Norris, analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, who tracks nuclear proliferation.
All nuclear air-launched cruise missiles are based "only in the continental U.S. and were never in Guam or anywhere else overseas," Mr. Norris said. The region's long-range bomber force, a squadron of B-52Gs in Guam, was dropped from the strategic war plan in 1988 and took on conventional missions before being deactivated a year ago, he said.
The Vietnam-era F-4E planes of the 3rd Tactical Fighter Wing at Clark Air Base in the Philippines "were removed from nuclear mis
sions long ago," Mr. Norris said. Military officials said the last planes were removed by June 6 as part of a global redeployment of U.S. overseas forces.
"No doubt ships come and go with nuclear weapons aboard, but there's been no permanent land storage," Mr. Norris said. Munitions depots have "neither the special facilities nor personnel" required by Air Force regulations for nuclear weapons storage, he said.
Declassified Navy records show that four aircraft carriers and 16 attack submarines called briefly on Subic Bay in 1985, the last year such records were released by the service. Military experts said they think those vessels were carrying nuclear bombs or Tomahawk missiles with nuclear warheads.
Military officials, referring to operations in the Philippines, said their initial contingency plans call for diverting refueling, logistics and maintenance operations at Clark to other Western Pacific locations, mainly on Guam and Okinawa.
Crow Valley, a sophisticated air combat and bombing range for training U.S. and allied fighter pilots, was closed after the Mount Pinatubo volcano erupted in June, and pilots from as far away as South Korea and Japan may have to go instead to training grounds in Alaska, California and Nevada.
Navy activities at Subic Bay could be shifted to Singapore, Guam and Japan, officials said. Members of the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force are likely to move for good to their division headquarters in Okinawa.