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Desert Sands in Store for U.S. Forces

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 5, 1996 – There's nothing but miles and miles of sand and sky as far as the eye can see. It's dry and it's hot, 115 degrees Fahrenheit on an early August day. A hat, sun block and a good pair of shades are absolute necessities at Prince Sultan Air Base, Saudi Arabia.

By September, about 4,000 U.S. troops will move to the air base near al-Kharj, a town about 60 miles south of Riyadh, the Saudi capital. Defense Secretary William Perry visited the site during a four-day trip to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait July 29 to Aug. 1.

Based on a flood of intelligence reports, DoD has raised the threat status in Saudi Arabia to the highest possible level, Perry said. Although the reports do not clearly indicate a specific attack, he said, officials believe one is imminent.

The sophistication of the terrorist bombings at Khobar Towers in Dhahran in June and at Riyadh in November indicates the attacks may be tied to international terrorist groups. If the bombing was the result of state-sponsored terrorist groups, Perry said, the United States would retaliate. Asked whether this would entail military action or economic sanctions, Perry said "I would not rule out or rule in any action at this point."

Perry talked about the trip during an Aug. 3 roundtable meeting with journalists at the Pentagon. The defense secretary traveled to the region to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to preserve security and stability in the Persian Gulf. He also gained support and cooperation from Saudi defense officials for a new set of force protection measures.

"I could not be happier with the agreement that I got from [Saudi Defense Minister] Prince Sultan," Perry said. "I laid out a very detailed and specific proposal to him. He agreed to the proposal verbally. We wrote it down. We shook hands, and he turned to his military commanders and said, 'I want to see this implemented.'"

The security plan includes moving U.S., British and French Southern Watch air operations to Prince Sultan Air Base. Three U.S. Patriot batteries will remain at Dhahran Air Base. Patriot crews will move from Khobar Towers to tents at a more secure area of the base. Three Patriot batteries and crews will remain at Riyadh Air Base, about 20 miles outside Riyadh. About 1,000 U.S. troops, part of the security assistance program in Riyadh, will consolidate their living and working space at the site. Saudi officials plan extensive accommodation and force protection improvements for the facility, Perry said.

"One of the consequences of the move is that some of the families will not be able to be accommodated [at the new sites], and they will be coming home," Perry said. About 4,000 of the 5,000 personnel in Saudi Arabia are on unaccompanied tours, he noted. Fewer service members will have accompanied tours in the future, he said.

The United States and Saudi Arabia will share the estimated $200 million cost, Perry said. The Saudis will provide the bases and facilities, and maintain the security perimeter. They will also provide food, fuel and transport. The United States will pay for the cost of moving the forces, including moving units to and from the United States to erect facilities such as tent cities.

This is not the first time U.S. forces will be stationed at Prince Sultan Air Base. During Desert Storm, about 100 U.S. aircraft operated from the desert base, Perry said. Since then, the base has not been used for active air operations. A Saudi government air academy is housed there, and some Saudi air units are in the process of moving back.

The base has everything needed to maintain modern air operations and is in excellent condition, Perry said. "The base has a very large runway of a length and width more than adequate for all the operations we're considering," he said. "It has quite adequate taxi strips and aprons, revetments, a large modern administration building and well-equipped, modern maintenance facilities."

What's lacking, however, are living accommodations, Perry said. In the desert nearby, hardpacked pads remain where U.S. tents stood during Desert Storm. The tent city will soon be reborn as Air Force engineers reconstruct temporary housing. Saudi officials also plan extensive improvements to the infrastructure of the base, he said.

An important feature of the base, Perry said, is the fact it's out in the middle of the desert. The security perimeter can be set a quarter mile outside the base, he emphasized. "We can put this huge perimeter around it so that any imaginable bomb that anybody brings up to it is not going to cause damage inside."

At Khobar Towers where 19 airmen were killed and 450 were injured by a terrorist truck bomb June 25, the perimeter was about 100 feet from the living quarters. A request by U.S. officials to move the security perimeter back to about 400 feet had not been acted upon by Saudi officials prior to the blast.

Perry also stopped in Kuwait to assess security. He visited a U.S. armored battalion at Camp Doha to see firsthand the unit's force protection measures. "They are extensive and very effective In fact, I had the distinct feeling as I went into Camp Doha that this was on a war footing," he said. "It is a very hard target for anybody who might want to attack it."

More than 15,000 U.S. troops are stationed in the Persian Gulf region, Perry said. About 100 U.S. tactical aircraft are at bases in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. A fleet of about 20 warships are in the Arabian Gulf. Pre-positioned armored equipment is in Kuwait, Qatar and afloat in the Persian Gulf, Perry said.

"This force is deterring aggression and doing it very successfully," he said. "Their very success in carrying out the mission makes them a target for terrorism." While none of the military powers in the region can contend with the U.S. force militarily, he said, they can attack through terrorism.

"The purpose of these attacks is to drive our forces out of the gulf," Perry said. "We will not be driven out. We will not be divided from our friends in the region -- the Saudi government, the Kuwaiti government and others."##END#

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