In late June and early July of 1987, as tensions rose in Europe and elsewhere, the Persian Gulf region transformed into 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 was not known at the time. It was safe to assume that both Baghdad and Tehran had independently recognized the deteriorating global situation for what it was and chose to shift their military and diplomatic focuses to other areas for the time being.
The lull in fighting did not bring celebratory reactions from either country’s neighbors. Instead, nations such as 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 seem to Iraq, Iran, or even the Soviet Union. The vast oil fields of eastern Saudi Arabia translated to power and wealth for the kingdom. Whoever controlled those fields, held sway over immeasurable influence and power on the global stage. Unfortunately, Saudi Arabia was incapable of defending the boundless resources located beneath its land. The Saudi military, though well-equipped with Western weapons, was small and not very effective. The King understood 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. This 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, and pre-positioned fuel and weapons depots were strategically placed throughout the country. King Fahd understood that the day could come when a large influx of US forces into Saudi Arabia might materialize. As June turned to July, it appeared that the day could be coming soon.
As 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 recommended that he take the Saudis up on their offer.
Two nightmare scenarios for the Pentagon centered around a Soviet/Iraqi move to capture 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 provided the perfect foundation 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, units that can deploy rapidly are generally always light infantry units, not equipped with the heavy weapons that would be 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 lynchpin 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 pre-existing network of ready installations for its air and ground forces to fight from.
In Washington, it was a question of priorities. REFORGER was going to consume the lion’s share of airlift capability for some time, and the majority of USAF combat squadrons being readied would be heading to Europe. The Reagan administration wanted to assist the Saudis by moving a mid-sized force to the kingdom. But it was no going to be done at the expense of slowing down REFORGER. A middle ground needed 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 request. He ordered Crist to put together a plan to reinforce the Saudis and be up in DC at 9 AM the following day to present it.