Vital Peripheries: Arabian Peninsula/Persian Gulf 8 July, 1987


On 8 July, 1987 CENTCOM was in the best possible shape possible. A brigade of paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division was on the ground at Cario West Air Base in Egypt. A detachment of E-3 Sentries, along with two fighter squadrons, one of F-15s and the other of F-16s, and accompanying tankers were at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. The Maritime Prepositioning Ships carrying the equipment of a Marine Amphibious Brigade had left their anchorage at Diego Garcia and were steaming towards the Strait of Hormuz with the Constellation battlegroup taking up position to support its transit. Marines from the 7th Marine Amphibious Brigade based at Twentynine Palms in California were moving to Saudi Arabia by air to mate up with the equipment now at sea. A large contingent was on the ground already, and CENTCOM expected to have the brigade’s manpower entirely in Saudi by 11 July at the latest. It was a matter of available airlift assets and priorities. There simply were not enough transports and CRAF aircraft available at the moment to satisfy everyone’s needs. Europe was the priority, and CENTCOM simply had to deal with it.

The brigade from the 82nd was in Egypt as a compromise of sorts. AFSOUTH was loudly complaining about the lack of ground reinforcements available for his command. He wanted to take the entire 82nd and use it as a fire brigade of sorts wherever it might be needed in his command’s area of responsibility. General Crist, CINC-CENT came down hard on the idea, complaining quite correctly that the 82nd Airborne was tagged for his command’s use in wartime. Admiral Crowe personally settled the matter and ordered the 82nd to stage at Cairo West for the time being. If it was needed in the Med or Southern Europe it would go there. If it was needed in Saudi, the force would be sent there. Through negotiations with the Egyptians, a deal was reached where the Egyptian Air Force would handle airlifting the unit wherever it needed to go.

The rest of the division was still at Fort Bragg and would not move until the first brigade was committed. The entire 101st Airborne Division was operating under the same principle. Behind those two units, the 7th Light Infantry Division and an assortment of Marine units were on the deployment list. They were prepping now, yet it was anyone’s guess when they would actually be ready to deploy.

The US Air Force was preparing to move more of its elements tagged for CENTCOM to the Middle East. The remainder of the 49th TFW (F-15s) and 388th TFW (F-16s) were hurriedly packing, and A-10s from Myrtle Beach and F-111s from Mountain Home had received warning orders to move. With just another five days of peace, Crist would feel better.

Unfortunately, five days did not appear likely. Five hours of peace was a more realistic estimate. Throughout the day, the situation had been progressively moving from bad to worse on a number of fronts. Crist had not paid that much attention, but nevertheless heard rumblings. In his command’s theater things were quiet. The Soviet forces in Yemen were doing nothing outside of routine patrols. In the Arabian Sea, naval activity was minimal. Most significantly, the Northern Caucus Military District was not making any moves to suggest operations against Iran or Saudi Arabia were imminent. That, however, could change at a moment’s notice, Crist was aware.

As was the case for general officers around the world at that moment, he had more than enough to occupy his mind. Yet, unlike the majority of his American peers, General Crist was, for the moment, a man without a war on the horizon. Strangely enough, instead of providing comfort to him, the thought filled him with apprehension.



Vital Peripheries: Arabian Peninsula/Persian Gulf 5 July, 1987


*Author’s note: I jumped around the timeline again. I apologize. But this idea came up long after the project was underway and I wanted to backtrack a bit and fit it in. Again, apologies. – Mike*

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.