Defense Leaders Say Middle East Threats Rising
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
MUSCAT, OMAN, June 20, 1997 There's no getting around it. Duty in the Middle East is tough and dangerous, and it's getting more so.
Defense officials say U.S. troops aboard ship in the Persian Gulf and on the ground in places like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain face threats on several fronts: Iran and Iraq, terrorism and in some cases, a harsh desert environment.
During a five-day visit to the Middle East June 14-18, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen talked about regional threats with U.S. troops and local government officials. Army Gen. Binford Peay III, commander, U.S. Central Command, accompanied the secretary to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.
Throughout the trip, Cohen said, local leaders in all five countries offered solid support for the U.S. containment policy toward Iraq and Iran. They also expressed growing concern about Iran's ongoing weapons buildup.
"Iran's words and actions suggest it wants to be able to intimidate its neighbors and to interrupt commerce in the gulf," Cohen said at a press conference in Bahrain. "The United States will not allow this to happen."
Stressing America's commitment to defending the region, Cohen said the United States has overwhelming naval strength in the gulf and is fully capable of protecting U.S. ships, interests and allies.
"America's power in the gulf rests on our resolve, the quality of our forces and the support of our allies," he said.
Iran and Iraq continue to violate international norms of good behavior, Cohen said. Iraq poses a land threat. Iran threatens ships at sea, and this particular threat recently heightened.
Iran's acquisition of weapons of mass destruction and continuing support of terrorism threaten stability, Cohen said. The most immediate concern, however, is Iran's acquisition of missiles that can strike neighboring nations and its boasting about its ability to close the Strait of Hormuz, he said.
Over the last few years, Iran has concentrated on developing a more robust anti-ship missile capability, Cohen said. Iran's military has sharply increased training launches of sea-based missiles from about 20 last year to 60 so far this year. In June, it successfully tested air-launched cruise missiles for the first time.
The two developments mean the threat to U.S. forces is increasing and the need for surveillance and readiness is greater than ever, said a senior defense official traveling with Cohen.
During the Iran-Iraq war, which started in 1980, Iran had mines and small boats with rocket-propelled grenades, the official said. It acquired land-based cruise missiles about 10 years ago, and last year it put Chinese-made C-802 cruise missiles aboard its ships. Today, about 20 patrol boats are armed with missiles with a range greater than 20 miles.
"You now have a 360-degree threat. Before, you knew any cruise missile that might come at you was coming from land," the official said. "Now, that attack could come from any direction."
June 3 and 6, Iran tested air-launched Chinese C-801R missiles from an F-4 aircraft, he said. Air-launched missiles narrow the time line," he said, creating a 360-degree threat in seconds rather than hours.
"Does that mean we're scared and we're going to leave the gulf? Obviously, not," the official said. "We have some of the most capable [defense] systems in our ships out here. The Aegis destroyer, for example, is designed specifically to handle a cruise missile threat."
After talking with U.S. Navy officials in the region, Cohen said he is satisfied the United States "is fully capable of defeating an operation the Iranians might launch against us or our allies."
Iran's military buildup is but one of the threats U.S. service members must face in the Middle East. Iraq's Saddam Hussein continues to threaten regional stability, posing a threat to Kuwait and potentially to Saudi Arabia, Cohen said.
"Iraq's refusal to comply with the U.N. Security Council resolutions and its arsenal of weapons of mass destruction show that Saddam Hussein remains a threat to peace and stability," he said.
Peay said the Iraqi threat changes from week to week, and U.S. military officials watch it every day in great detail.
"Over the past year and a half, Saddam Hussein has increased his [air force] training level," Peay said. For the first time, U.S. officials have seen some night operations training.
"It's not significant, and I don't want to create the image of a monster 10 feet tall because, certainly, his forces don't compare professionally to our Air Force," Peay said. "But Hussein is still the largest threat in the region. Saddam's force is not a professional force. However, he still has the largest land army in the region, and he is only miles from the Kuwait border."
A stop at Camp Doha in Kuwait gave Cohen and Peay a firsthand look at America's rapid deployment abilities. About 15 hours after 1st Cavalry Division's 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment, left Fort Hood, Texas, in mid-June, the unit married up with armor equipment pre-positioned in Kuwait and headed for the field.
In Saudi Arabia, Cohen and Peay visited Prince Bin Sultan Air Base, where U.S., British and French pilots fly sorties over southern Iraq to enforce U.N.-sanctioned no-fly and no-drive zones. Duty there is tough, and the environment is hazardous, Peay said. But, he added, people are well-trained; the safety record is superb, as is the operations record.
Allied pilots at the base fly 50 to 250 sorties a day into what's known as "the box" over unfriendly territory. Temperatures at the remote desert air base can reach 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Troops share the desert sands with cobras, aggressive vipers and wild dogs. Other than an occasional camel, there is nothing else in any direction for miles and miles.
The 5,000 U.S. personnel at the base moved there from Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, after a terrorist truck bomb at the Khobar Towers billeting complex killed 19 Americans and injured about 450 others.
Following the June 1996 bombing, Central Command took hundreds of steps to improve security for U.S. troops stationed throughout the region. This included expanding security perimeters and adding fences and other physical barriers at facilities. Today, incoming vehicles must zigzag past multiple concrete jersey walls before getting anywhere near entrance gates.
Military officials also reviewed stateside training for people being assigned to the region and training once new arrivals were on site, Peay said.
"We've also done an awful lot of work ensuring the fusion of our intelligence to be sure we can react on the intelligence," Peay said. "Terrorism is very much related to human intelligence. While you certainly can get a feel in various locations where the terrorist threat may be higher or lower, it's still difficult to geographically pinpoint it with great precision."
The threat of terrorism in Central Command's domain "ebbs and flows, week to week, from country to country," Peay said. Generally, many gulf states are in higher states of alert against terrorism than most countries around the world.
At Prince Bin Sultan, airmen are restricted to base except when they're flying down range, Peay said. Those stationed at Eskan Village outside Dhahran and at Camp Doha in Kuwait have somewhat more contact with the local community, but defense officials try to keep the U.S. footprint small.
Military officials are looking at tour lengths to improve Middle East duty for U.S. troops. They're trying to balance the need to accomplish the mission with maintaining morale, Peay said.
"Some of our tours today are much shorter than in the past. We've also extended a number of our supervisors. They're here for a longer period of time [to provide continuity.]"
The Saudis are building permanent quarters for U.S. troops at Prince Bin Sultan Air Base, which will be more secure than the tents troops live in now. Completion is about nine months away.
Overall, Peay said, security at the desert base is superb, but that by no means implies a terrorist can't get through and find the weakest point.
"I'm never satisfied with security -- you always must remain vigilant," Peay said. "You never finish enhancing defensive security. You improve security every day, whether you're in a tactical infantry unit or defending an air base."
Peay said he is satisfied, however, with the anti-terrorist effort under way, which makes force protection a top priority throughout the command.