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Operation Desert Focus

Operation DESERT FOCUS was initiated in August 1996, reflecting an agreement between Secretary of Defense, Dr. William Perry, and Saudi Minister of Defense and Aviation, Prince Sultan. Through deliberate planning and phased activities, this massive reshaping of forces affected thousands of DoD personnel on the Arabian Peninsula.

US air assets in Saudi Arabia relocated from Dhahran and from Riyadh to the remote Prince Sultan Air Base during Operation Desert Focus. The move's purpose was force protection, and came in the wake of the 25 June 1996 terrorist bombing at Khobar Towers which killed 19 airman, and wounded many more. U.S. and Saudi Arabian officials agreed to split the $200 million cost of relocating more than 4,000 US troops.

Khobar Towers is a compound built by the Saudi government near Dhahran that housed the residential quarters of almost 3,000 U. S. military personnel of the 4404th Air Wing (Provisional), along with military personnel from the United Kingdom, France and Saudi Arabia. U.S. military personnel first occupied this compound in 1991 during the coalition force buildup before the Gulf War. Shortly before 10 p.m. local time on Tuesday, June 25, 1996, a fuel truck parked next to the northern perimeter fence at the Khobar Towers complex, and a tremendous explosion occurred. The highly sophisticated attack on Khobar Towers used a bomb estimated at between 5,000 and 20,000 pounds. The blast completely destroyed the northern face of the building, blew out windows from surrounding buildings and was heard for miles. Nineteen American service members were killed, and hundreds more were seriously injured. Many Saudis and other nationals were also injured.

The Khobar bombing prompted a major realignment of the US force posture in Saudi Arabia, an effort known as Operation Desert Focus. This new posture was intended to greatly enhance force protection, while still permitting the US to accomplish SOUTHER WATCH missions.

US Central Command implemented five primary measures to create a more secure posture for its forces deployed throughout the region: relocation, footprint reduction, hardening, reducing transportation vulnerability, and institutionalizing anti-terrorist programs.

  1. Initial relocation of personnel enhanced force protection through consolidation and movement to more defensible and secure locations. The majority of operations and support function for Operation SOUTHERN WATCH, previously located in urban areas, has been moved to the more defensible Eskan Village and Prince Sultan Air Base, south of Riyadh. The Command's security assistance organizations in Saudi Arabia, OPM-SANG and USMTM, have collocated their headquarters and some support functions within existing, secure facilities in Eskan Village. Elsewhere, similar programs have relocated personnel in Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman.

  2. The Defense Department re-examined its personnel assignment policies for Saudi Arabia. After comprehensive review, the Command eliminated non-essential personnel billets throughout the region. Early return of DoD families and non-essential civilian employees further reduced the Command's vulnerability to terrorist action. While the majority of the operational forces with the 4404th Air Wing are on temporary duty and deploy on rotational assignments for up to 179 days at a time before returning to their home bases, many of the DoD personnel permanently assigned to Saudi Arabia with OPM/SANG and USMTM were on multiyear tours accompanied by their family members. At the time of the Khobar Towers bombing, DOD sponsored nearly 800 military dependents in Saudi Arabia alone. Subsequently, the Department of State implemented an "authorized departure" of all U.S. government dependents from Saudi Arabia in July 1996, which provides monetary entitlements to any families who wish to leave. In addition, DoD has withdrew command sponsorship for dependents of most permanently assigned military members, which had the practical effect of an orderly, mandatory return. Nearly 300 dependents arrived by charter aircraft in Charleston, SC, on 18 August 1996. Subsequently, nearly all permanent assignments in Saudi Arabia were one-year, unaccompanied tours.

  3. Some of the units in Saudi Arabia cannot be relocated without degrading their effectiveness. USMTM and OPM/SANG security assistance personnel who train and advise the Saudi military must be in close proximity to their Saudi counterparts in the capital and at various bases. Patriot missile battery crews must be located near the urban areas and air bases that they defend. While these units must continue to work where they are now, steps were taken to improve their security by consolidating them and moving them to more secure housing areas, providing more guards and barriers, and taking other steps to enhance their protection and lessen the impact of any future attacks. Throughout the region, the Command is hardening existing sites and facilities, from the smallest and most remote field training sites to Prince Sultan Air Base and Camp Doha. Commanders are integrating physical, procedural, and operational security enhancements. Fortified perimeters, surveillance and patrolling techniques, and strictly enforced entry control procedures are in place and enforced by military policemen. They work closely with host-nation military and police forces, creating interlocking and overlapping defenses.

  4. With the cooperation and support of the Saudi Arabian government, the US began immediately to relocate deployed air forces (the 4404th Air Wing) from the Saudi air bases located in urban concentrations at Riyadh and Dhahran to an isolated location at the uncompleted Prince Sultan Air Base near Al Kharj, where many coalition forces were located during the Gulf War. At Prince Sultan Air Base, security measures include a more than adequate perimeter standoff distance, internal patrols by US security forces, entry control, route reconnaissance, and internal checkpoints. US security forces have been reinforced, host nation security forces have been energized, and specialty units - military working dogs, EOD, and Counter Intelligence - have been provided to commanders in the region. While personnel were living in tents initially, the facility offered a very effective defenses against terrorist attacks. This relocation effort required over 1,400 truck loads to accomplish. More than 500 tents, most of them air-conditioned, were erected to house more than 4,000 troops and provide dining and recreation facilities, communications sites, and maintenance and operations facilities. The refueling tankers and reconnaissance aircraft from Riyadh were the first to arrive, followed by the move of the fighters and other aircraft from Dhahran. More than 2,000 additional military personnel were deployed to Saudi Arabia temporarily to assist in this effort to provide security for the moves, erect facilities and provide services at the base until permanent arrangements are in place. The Saudi Arabian government assumed responsibility for constructing permanent facilities. The isolated location and large size of the Prince Sultan Air Base allows for extensive perimeters and avoids intense concentrations of troops.

  5. When and where Command personnel must leave the confines of these secure locations, their vulnerability during transit has been reduced. Techniques to reduce vulnerability include measures to make US personnel less conspicuous, including less use of buses and government vehicles, greater use of civilian vehicles and civilian clothing during transit, and physical security measures that include armor kits for vehicles and body armor for people. During transit, travelers vary routes and schedules, reducing predictability. When warranted, armed escort is provided for movement.

The I Marine Expeditionary Force provided counterintelligence team support to Joint Task Force Southwest Asia (JTF-SWA) in the aftermath of the Khobar Towers bombing in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Effective route survey and counterintelligence ensured protection of JTF-SWA movements in Riyadh, to include the U.S. Air Force 4409th Operational Group aircrew relocation to and from the airfield. The deployment was extended into FY [fiscal year] 97 in light of a continued terrorist threat.

CCJ6 and DISA-CENT immediately began exhaustive planning to implement the Commercial Satellite Communications Initiative (CSCI) to address bandwidth shortfalls. This initiative provides large capacity communications pipes that can support burgeoning requirements for voice, data, video and imagery - Information Superiority that the modern warfighter requires to conduct high tempo operations. Relocating critical communications nodes, put into motion by Operation DESERT FOCUS and related force protection activities, resulted in the complete restructuring of the theater's C4 systems architecture. Over a five month period, ten tactical satellite systems, 24 satellite communication links, two strategic telephone switches, and four tactical telephone switches were activated or relocated. Additionally, two strategic telecommunication facilities were built from a cold start. Movement of these assets resulted in relocating or activating over 1,500 critical C2 circuits while simultaneously supporting Operations SOUTHERN WATCH and DESERT STRIKE.

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