In late June and early July of 1987, as tensions rose in Europe and elsewhere, the Persian Gulf region became a bastion of virtual serenity. As the superpowers moved towards an imminent conflict, the Iran-Iraq war receded dramatically.Whether this was by design, or circumstance remains debatable. It would be fair to assume Baghdad and Tehran had independently recognized the deteriorating global situation for what it. An unofficial ceasefire was agreed to and placed in effect almost immediately.
The lull in fighting didn’t bring celebratory reactions from either nation’s neighbors. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain looked warily to the north and east, nervously wondering where the next threat would originate from. In the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh, King Fahd was already aware of how ripe a target his country might appear to Iraq, Iran, or even the Soviet Union. The expansive oil fields of eastern Saudi Arabia translated to power and wealth for the kingdom. Whoever controlled those fields held immeasurable influence and power on the global stage. Unfortunately, Saudi Arabia was incapable of defending the boundless natural resources located beneath its territory. The Saudi military, although well-equipped with the latest Western weapons, was small and not very effective. The King understood and accepted that the key to his kingdom’s survival was the United States. He was a staunch ally of the United States, a position born out of necessity as much as candor. Once, he had been quoted as saying that, “After Allah, we can count on the United States.”
For much of the late 70s and early 80s, the Saudis invested billions in upgrading its military infrastructure. The undertaking was not to benefit its own military forces as much as it was to increase the interoperability between Saudi installations and US forces. Airbases were rebuilt to US standards. Pre-positioned fuel and weapons depots were created and strategically placed throughout the country. King Fahd was farsighted in his thinking, realizing the day might come when a large influx of US forces into Saudi Arabia could materialize. As June turned to July, it appeared more likely that the day was looming.
When REFORGER was getting underway on 5 July, a request was made by King Fahd at the most inopportune time. He placed a telephone call to President Reagan, and quite bluntly invited US forces to use his country as a base of operations if the situation required. It was a request for help, masked as an offer to help, and both leaders understood this. Following the conversation, Reagan spoke with his NSC about the issue. The Joint Chiefs, and Secretary of Defense favored taking the Saudis up on their offer.
The two nightmare Persian Gulf scenarios for the Pentagon were built around a Soviet/Iraqi move to seize the Saudi oilfields, and a Soviet invasion of Iran, to capture the Iranian oilfields and close the Strait of Hormuz. Since the US had only a token military force in the Persian Gulf currently, it would have to move additional forces in to counter a move against the oil fields. Saudi Arabia was the perfect staging area for a buildup of forces in the region to counter Soviet designs on either the Arabian Peninsula or Iran.
A Soviet move against the oil fields was such a horrifying prospect, the US military had created a command specifically to deal with it just four years earlier. Central Command, formerly the Rapid Deployment Force, was tasked with preventing Soviet domination of the region. CENTCOM, as it is known, was comprised of combat and support units from each service that were able to deploy swiftly. Unfortunately, the forces able deploy fastest are generally always light infantry units, not equipped with the heavy weapons needed to stop Soviet armor.
Annual CENTCOM exercises focused on countering a Soviet invasion of Iran. Lessons learned were then fed into already existing contingency plans. Saudi Arabia was the linchpin for CENTCOM’s plans. It could build up and stage its forces directly from there in relative safety. In the event of a direct Soviet effort against the Saudi oil fields, CENTCOM’s forces would have the advantage of a preexisting infrastructure, as well as a network of installations for its air and ground forces to fight from.
In Washington, it was a matter of priorities. REFORGER was going to consume the lion’s share of airlift capability for some time, and the majority of USAF combat squadrons currently being readied were going to Europe. After some debate, the Reagan administration decided the best way to support the Saudis, as well as American national interests in the region, was to move a strong force into the kingdom. But it was not going to be done at the expense of slowing down REFORGER. A middle ground had to be found.
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs got the ball rolling with a call to CENTCOM’s stateside headquarters at MacDill AFB outside of Tampa. He informed CENTCOM’s Commander-In-Chief General George Crist, USMC, of the Saudi’s request. He ordered Crist to create a plan based on reinforcing the Saudis. Admiral Crowe also wanted Crist up in DC at 9 AM the next morning to present it to the president and NSC.