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The Protection of U.S. Forces Abroad
By secretary of defense report to the president, No location specified, Monday, September 16, 1996

Defense Issues: Volume 11, Number 88-- The Protection of U.S. Forces Abroad Terrorism directed against U.S. military forces is a real threat because the fact is, enemies know it's a low-cost, low-risk, high-payoff way to attack the United States.


Volume 11, Number 88

The Protection of U.S. Forces Abroad

Executive summary of the Downing task force report on the Khobar Towers bombing and terrorism, part of Annex 1 in a secretary of defense report to the president, released Sept. 16, 1996.

On June 25, 1996, a terrorist truck bomb estimated to contain the equivalent of 3,000 to 8,000 pounds of TNT exploded outside the northern perimeter of Khobar Towers, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, a facility housing U.S. and allied forces supporting the coalition air operation over Iraq, Operation Southern Watch. There were 19 fatalities and approximately 500 wounded. The perpetrators escaped.

This bomb attack marked the second terrorist strike at U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia within eight months. On Nov. 13, 1995, a 220-pound car bomb exploded in a parking lot adjacent to an office building housing the Office of the Program Manager, Saudi Arabian National Guard, in Riyadh, causing five U.S. and two Indian fatalities. A Department of State Accountability Review Board investigated this attack and made recommendations to improve U.S. security in the region. The DoD also conducted a departmentwide review of anti-terrorism readiness following the November 1995 bombing. The Anti-terrorism Task Force report made recommendations concerning enhancements to the security posture of deployed forces, education and training, intelligence sharing and interagency coordination. The Department of State recommendations were being addressed and the DoD actions were approved and being implemented at the time of the second bombing.

The United States has strategic interests in maintaining a force presence in Saudi Arabia and the gulf region and in conducting coalition military operations to contain regional aggression. Consequently, the security of U.S. Central Command forces is paramount. On June 28, 1996, the secretary of defense directed an assessment of both the facts and circumstances surrounding the attack on Khobar Towers and the security of U.S. forces in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the remainder of Southwest Asia.

The secretary of defense appointed [Army] Gen. Wayne Downing, the retired commander in chief of U.S. Special Operations Command, to conduct the assessment of the Khobar Towers bombing. Gen. Downing was directed to assemble a task force and assess the following areas:


  • The adequacy of security at Khobar Towers;
  • The division of responsibility between Saudi authorities and U.S. Central Command for security at Khobar Towers, as well as between DoD and host country authorities elsewhere in the region;
  • The "sufficiency and effectiveness" of intelligence in the area of responsibility of U.S. Central Command; the adequacy of U.S. Central Command's "security policies";
  • The adequacy of "funding and resources for security" in the area of responsibility;
  • The adequacy of "coordination on intelligence and antiterrorism countermeasures" among Central Command, U.S. embassies, host governments and allies; and
  • Recommendations on how to prevent new, or minimize the damage of new attacks.

The charter emphasized that the assessment was "not a criminal investigation." It granted Gen. Downing and his task force access to all information pertinent to the assessment and charged them to visit such places as the director deemed necessary to accomplish his objectives.

Gen. Downing assembled a joint service task force composed of diverse disciplines to address all areas of the assessment. The task force included active and retired military persons, DoD civilians and representatives from multiple U.S. government agencies, including the State Department, Department of Energy and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The team included experts in intelligence, terrorism, force protection and antiterrorism, physical security, operations security, explosives, programming and budgeting, command relationships, training and education, medical matters and the Southwest Asia region. Lt. Gen. James Clapper, U.S. Air Force (retired), former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, headed the intelligence assessment for the task force.

The Downing task force undertook the assessment in two distinct phases. Phase I comprised research and analysis of previous reports, documents, policies, assessments, statutes, directives, instructions and regulations relevant to force protection in the Department of Defense and the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility.

In Phase II, the task force conducted on-site assessments of security and detailed interviews with commanders, staff and servicemen and women at all levels involved in security at Khobar Towers and other U.S. military facilities in Southwest Asia.

The task force began its assessment at Headquarters, U.S. Central Command, at MacDill Air Force Base [Fla.] and at Eglin and Patrick Air Force bases [Fla.], the home stations of service members at Khobar Towers at the time of the bombing.

The task force then proceeded to Riyadh and Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, where the preponderance of the assessment effort was concentrated. The task force examined force protection in Dhahran, Riyadh and Jeddah. Gen. Downing met with Saudi officials to discuss their understanding of responsibilities for force protection of U.S. forces.

The task force then visited Kuwait, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Egypt and talked with U.S. and host country representatives. Recommendations for immediate actions to improve security were provided to commanders at each location. In all, the task force visited 36 sites and conducted over 400 interviews from the commander in chief, U.S. Central Command, to individual soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen stationed throughout Southwest Asia.

Finally, Gen. Downing and three other task force members visited Israel, Jordan, France and the United Kingdom to discuss force protection issues with anti-terrorism experts in those countries.

The military forces of the United States are currently superior to all others in the world. Convinced of the futility of challenging our forces directly, some enemies are waging war against us asymmetrically. Some of these enemies believe that our greatest vulnerability is the American intolerance for casualties in the pursuit of objectives that often do not have an apparent direct link to vital national objectives. A small number of potential enemies have selected terror as a faceless, low-risk, high-payoff strategy that the United States' political system finds difficult to counter.

Terrorism, then, is a form of warfare. Sometimes labeled the "weapon of the weak," it is nevertheless a powerful strategy. It provides our opponents a force-projection capability that far exceeds their conventional military means. If the nation proves incapable of responding to terrorism, it will continue to be a threat to the United States.

Parts II through IV of the report contain 26 detailed findings from the assessments of U.S. military facilities at Khobar Towers, other locations in Saudi Arabia and representative countries in Southwest Asia. Seventy-nine recommendations have been provided to assist in the resolution of identified issues. Findings and recommendations requiring immediate remedial action related to force protection were provided to commanders at each location.

The task force could not survey all locations in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility within the time frame of this report. These include Eritrea, Ethiopia, Jordan, Kenya, Pakistan, Oman, Sudan and Yemen. The task force had only a limited opportunity to assess force protection in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain. A follow-on assessment team should conduct a more in-depth survey of all sites throughout the region.

The assessment task force recommended that the Department of Defense take a range of actions to deter, prevent or mitigate the effects of future terrorist attacks on servicemen and women overseas. None will -- in and of themselves -- provide an environment secure from all potential threats.

However, the task force strongly believes that to assure an acceptable level of security for U.S. forces worldwide, commanders must aggressively pursue an integrated systems approach to force protection that combines awareness and training, physical security measures, advanced technology systems and specific protection measures tailored to each location. A comprehensive approach using common guidance, standards and procedures will correct the inconsistent force protection practices observed in the theater. The task force believes that the designation of a single Department of Defense element responsible for force protection, to include anti-terrorism and counterterrorism, is required. This entity would have policy, resource and research and development responsibilities, as well as a capability to assist commanders in the field with implementation of force protection measures.

The Department of Defense must establish realistic standards for force protection that provide commanders and staff guidance for construction and hardening of facilities and other overseas sites against the terrorist threat. Basically, the Department of Defense uses State Department standards for physical security.

For the threat level, Building 131 at Khobar Towers required no standoff distance from the perimeter according to State Department standards. Actionable standards will allow commanders to plan and program for the appropriate resources to protect troops and installations. While all U.S. commanders in the gulf thought they had sufficient resources for force protection, they were not knowledgeable of technologies to enhance protection or how to develop an integrated systems approach to security. Consequently, they underestimated true requirements.

The joint chain of command must have the authority to execute force protection measures. The command relationships in the gulf were designed to support a short-term contingency operation, Operation Southern Watch, and enhance the transition of U.S. Central Command to war.

The retention of operational control of forces in the theater by service component headquarters located over 7,000 miles away and the assignment of tactical control and oversight to a small, functional joint task force headquarters located in the theater did not support the intensive, day-to-day command attention required to ensure force protection of service members assigned to the command.

The issue of inadequate organization and structure of joint task force headquarters for peacetime command and control was addressed in the assessment of the Joint Task Force - Provide Comfort following the shoot-down of two U.S. Army helicopters by U.S. Air Force F-15s in April 1994. The DoD must clarify command relationships in U.S. Central Command to ensure that all commanders have the requisite authority to accomplish their assigned responsibilities. Further, review of temporary joint task force organization and structure must occur frequently to allow adaptation to changing threats and missions.

While committees at all levels in the theater and in the United States were active in discussing force protection policies and practices, this did not contribute materially to the security of military people and facilities. Committees are not effective without the emphasis and personal attention of commanders. In part, the inconsistent and sometimes inadequate force protection practices among service forces, joint headquarters and different countries resulted from insufficient command involvement.

U.S. intelligence did not predict the precise attack on Khobar Towers. Commanders did have warning that the terrorist threat to U.S. service members and facilities was increasing. DoD elements in the theater had the authority, but were not exploiting all potential sources of information. Human intelligence is probably the only source of information that can provide tactical details of a terrorist attack. The U.S. intelligence community must have the requisite authorities and invest more time, people and funds into developing HUMINT against the terrorist threat.

The chain of command of the 4404th Wing (Provisional) did not take all measures possible to protect the forces at Khobar Towers. The command relationships established in the region did not support unity of effort in force protection. There were no force protection or training standards provided by U.S. Central Command to forces assigned or deploying to the theater. The rotation and manning policies established by the U.S. Air Force did not support complete, cohesive units, especially security police, who were capable of coping with a viable terrorist threat.

The commander, 4404th Wing (Provisional), focused the force protection efforts of the command on preventing a bomb from penetrating the compound at Khobar Towers. Other vulnerabilities were not addressed adequately. Intelligence indicated that Khobar Towers was a potential terrorist target, and incidents from April through June 1996 reflected possible surveillance of the facility. Combined with the November 1995 attack in Riyadh, this should have triggered enhanced force protection measures, regardless of their impact on workload or quality of life.

The 4404th Wing commander was ill-served by the intelligence arrangement within his command, which focused almost exclusively on the air threat for Operation Southern Watch. His senior headquarters, U.S. Air Forces Central Command and U.S. Central Command did not provide sufficient guidance, assistance and oversight to the 4404th Wing (Provisional) to avert or mitigate the attack on Khobar Towers. Their location 7,000 miles away contributed to this shortcoming. Placing all forces in Saudi Arabia and the gulf region under the command of a single commander in the theater will help resolve the force protection problems identified during the task force assessment.

Host nations have responsibility for the security of U.S. service members and installations in their country. The option of locating forces in isolated areas may not always exist. U.S. commanders and staffs must appreciate the importance of positive, working relationships with their host nation counterparts for force protection. Through these relationships, they can influence selection of locations of installations, allocation of host nation guard forces and priorities and enhancement of host nation security as threat conditions escalate.

The division of responsibility for force protection in the Department of State and the Department of Defense memorandum of understanding does not adequately support U.S. forces in countries with a large military presence. In Saudi Arabia, the chief of mission did not have sufficient resources to fully execute the force protection mission. Further, not all forces were under the chief of mission or combatant commander, creating a seam where certain units did not benefit from active oversight.

The secretary of defense has the authority to assign forces to the combatant commander to redress this shortfall.

During its visits, the task force was impressed with the magnificent work being performed by Americans throughout the region. The 4404th Wing (Provisional) was especially notable. The reaction of these men and women to the bombing on the night of June 25th saved many lives. The care accorded to the more than 500 injured by both their comrades and U.S. and Saudi medical teams was remarkable.

The wing reconstituted and began flying combat missions over Iraq within 48 hours of the tragedy, a testament to the professionalism and fortitude we observed throughout the command. This same quality and professionalism were evident in the men and women of all services everywhere we visited in Southwest Asia.

The report contains detailed discussion of these and other issues. It provides recommendations to resolve each. The task force has deliberately not recommended further study of issues, but suggested actions to address vulnerabilities to terrorist acts in both the short and long term. Given the security practices found in the theater, measures to improve physical security, tailored for each site, should have a high priority.


Published for internal information use by the American Forces Information Service, a field activity of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs), Washington, D.C. Parenthetical entries are speaker/author notes; bracketed entries are editorial notes. This material is in the public domain and may be reprinted without permission. Defense Issues is available on the Internet via the World Wide Web at