A pair of terrorist bombs that shattered US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bloody reminders to American armed forces of the dangers facing them around the world every day. Although only three service members were among the 12 Americans killed in the truck bomb attacks in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, the 250,000 US military personnel deployed overseas represent a large and tempting target of terror.
“These bombings,” said Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, “are a stark reminder of the threat to US personnel posed by terrorists whose only means of attacking America is through such cowardly acts.”
Despite efforts to improve security, Cohen said, the bombings show that Washington will never be able to eliminate all the risks that US troops and diplomats face when they serve in foreign nations. Even so, the Pentagon, made painfully aware of that vulnerability by a number of deadly incidents in recent years, is making force protection one of its top priorities.
“We now feel pretty confident that when we send our troops into harmful situations … the commander himself focuses on the force protection issue,” said Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr., whose US Atlantic Command is a force provider to the other unified theater commanders.
That focus on force protection has been sharpened considerably since a massive truck bomb devastated the Khobar Towers housing complex in Saudi Arabia on June 25, 1996, killing 19 Air Force personnel and injuring about 500 Americans.
Oasis No More
The bloody attack on the Dhahran facility, which housed about 3,000 US personnel and several hundred Allied forces conducting the Operation Southern Watch missions over Iraq, was all the more shocking because it occurred in a country thenDefense Secretary William J. Perry noted had long been seen as “an oasis of calm and safety” in the tumultuous Middle East region.
There had been a warning that conditions had changed seven months earlier when a car bomb exploded in Riyadh, killing five Americans assigned to the security assistance team working with the Saudi Arabian National Guard.
Though security at Khobar Towers was improved following that blast, it was not enough to deal with the unprecedentedly large bomb packed into a fuel truck that stopped against the concrete barriers around the high-rise complex. As Air Force security personnel tried to react, the force of about 20,000 pounds of explosives destroyed the front of the nearest building, turning window glass and concrete walls into deadly shrapnel.
Bloody though it was, Khobar was neither the first nor the worst terrorist attack on US military personnel. In 1983, a truck bomb caused the collapse of a building housing Marines in Beirut, Lebanon, killing 241 American servicemen-most of them Marines.
The repercussions of the Khobar blast were felt intensely in Washington, stimulating a sweeping change in the way the services look at force protection. “Khobar Towers was a point in Air Force history that refocused us … on protection of the force,” said Brig. Gen. Richard A. Coleman Jr., chief of Air Force Security Forces. He went on to say, “Force protection is an inherent part of the mission, now. That’s the culture the Air Force has adopted.”
The road map for the force protection efforts since Khobar is the report from the commission Perry appointed to investigate the bombing. The panel, led by retired Army Gen. Wayne A. Downing, described a security structure at Khobar and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf that had been hobbled by fractured chains of command, confused security standards, poor intelligence, shortage of properly trained and equipped security personnel, and a general lack of emphasis on force protection.
“A comprehensive approach to force protection is required,” reported the former commander in chief of US Special Operations Command. Although there were disturbing similarities between that report and the findings of the commission that studied the Beirut bombing, the Pentagon’s response to Downing-unlike in 1983-was swift and extensive.
Perry ordered immediate implementation of many of its major recommendations, declaring that, when planning to deploy forces overseas, commanders “will place the threat of terrorism front and center.”
One of the first actions to improve security after Khobar was the relocation of essential personnel in the Persian Gulf area to quarters that were easier to defend.
Within months, all Southern Watch operations and assigned personnel had been moved from Dhahran to Prince Sultan AB, Saudi Arabia, a desolate outpost in the desert south of Riyadh. Whereas the old facility had a security perimeter that was within mere yards of critical structures, the new base allowed miles of empty space between the first security posts and the occupied facilities.
Those Americans working with the Saudi National Guard and the Army Patriot missile crews had to stay in Riyadh, but most of their quarters and offices were moved into Eskan Village, a walled compound guarded by an elaborate set of sensors called the Tactical Automated Security System.
“I defy you to find a better protected base anywhere,” Coleman said.
Air Force personnel who were deployed to Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates also were moved from their urban quarters to nearby air bases. Security was enhanced around the three relatively remote compounds holding Army pre-positioned equipment in the Gulf. Nearly all of the US dependents in the Gulf were sent home as most of the assignments in the region were converted to unaccompanied tours. Technically, the Navy usually has the most personnel in the Gulf region, but most of them are aboard ships that spend much of the time under way, reducing their vulnerability to the usual terrorist attacks.
Downing had high praise for the Marine Fleet Anti-terrorism Security Team that protects Navy facilities in Bahrain. In addition to sending the FAST platoon to Bahrain after Khobar, the Navy nearly doubled the size of its compound to hold more of its shore-based personnel and to expand the security perimeter.
Most of the urgent security improvements after Khobar were undertaken in the US Central Command area. However, force protection efforts increased markedly elsewhere.
The Air Force, for example, moved quickly to tighten the security for two radar stations established in the jungles of South America as part of the American counterdrug operation. A sophisticated system of night vision equipment and remote sensors and improved weapons greatly extended the reach of the security personnel protecting the isolated bases in the violence-torn region.
Force protection also has been a primary-perhaps dominant-concern for the Army commanders of the peacekeeping mission in Bosnia. That focus on security, which includes a ban on alcohol and mingling with the local population, has created some morale problems but has paid off in zero casualties stemming from hostile action.
Another immediate response was the creation of a new office in the Joint Chiefs of Staff organization to be the focal point for force protection throughout the services. Marine Brig. Gen. James T. Conway, the first director of the new office, said all of Downing’s 81 recommendations were acted on within a year, with “the strong assistance” of the commander of Central Command, who had much of the action.
The JCS group clarified who had the force protection authority for deployed forces and dependents in each region, publishing doctrine and standards to guide local commanders and acting as a catalyst for finding or developing technology to enhance force protection, Conway said.
Another key step was setting up a four-tier system of training for the terrorist threat and for development of unit and individual measures to reduce the risks, Conway said.
The first level of training focuses on individual service personnel and dependents who are about to be deployed. The second concerns NCOs and junior officers who will teach force protection in their services. The others are for unit commanders and senior commanders and staff officers who will implement these new security provisions.
Tapping Into Intelligence
Conway’s office also has worked to implement Downing’s call for more intelligence focus on terrorism and better distribution of essential information. After Khobar, the Defense Intelligence Agency created the Office of Counterterrorism Analysis to study terrorist organizations. In addition, the JCS asked the FBI to provide better warnings of terrorist threats. Finally, more unit commanders gained access to a secure intelligence data network.
Because of the improved flow of intelligence, Conway said, the JCS has stopped asking if theater commanders have the latest information and now ask, “What are they doing about it?”
The JCS office also established five vulnerability assessment teams. They are expected each year to conduct about 100 studies of the force protection capabilities of military units around the world, Conway said. Those assessments are not something that a commander should fear, he said, noting, “We’re out there to try to help him protect his people.”
The services have launched their own force protection improvements. The Air Force in particular has moved aggressively because of the potential vulnerability of units during its highly mobile operations. Even before Khobar, Air Mobility Command decided to create a group of specially trained security personnel, called the Ravens, to protect its strategic airlifters when they are sent to high-risk areas.
“Before the Ravens, we sent our aircraft out around the world with very little protection,” said Col. Lawrence R. “Rocky” Lane, chief of security at AMC.
Now, the Ravens analyze the security risk for a proposed mission, suggest ways to minimize the dangers, and send a team to protect the aircraft and to help the crew avoid danger, Lane said. “We’ve instilled security in everything AMC does,” he said.
This attitude prevails throughout the Air Force, Coleman said. “The question is asked every time before we deploy: How’s it [the force] going to be protected?” he said. “We will not move resources anywhere anymore unless they’re protected.”
One force protection initiative was the creation of the 820th Security Forces Group at Lackland AFB, Texas, which is intended solely to deploy on short notice.
“It will play a big role” in the operations of the highly mobile expeditionary force of the future, Coleman said.
The Air Force also has changed the training of its security personnel to put the emphasis on the skills needed to protect the force; has bought armored vehicles to replace its thin-skinned security vehicles; and has bought “an unequaled amount of night-imaging equipment,” Coleman said.
Another key step was creation of a Force Protection Battlelab, at Lackland, to expedite the flow of new technology and concepts to the force. “We go find innovative ideas … and nurture them to the point that they can be taken to the field,” said Col. Donal J. Collins, the lab’s commander.
The lab’s first mission was helping to enhance the security of those radar sites in South America, Collins said. The package of sensors developed for those sites is being modified into kits for deployment with future Air Expeditionary Forces or other units, he said.
The lab’s next two priorities are developing sensors to detect explosives in large vehicles, such as the truck that destroyed Khobar, and an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle that can extend the threat detection perimeter beyond visual range by day and night, said Collins.
The explosives detection package is set for a proof-of-concept test in November, he said.
The lab also is working on better ways to detect biological agents in food or water and on a computer program that will allow a commander to assess the threats against him and effectiveness and cost of protective measures, Collins added.
Those concepts are being shared with the other services and federal agencies, as are many of the force protection initiatives being developed by other commands, he said.
The services also have put their money where their mouths are in the greater emphasis on force protection. Coleman said spending on security in the Air Force has doubled since Khobar, and Conway said total DoD spending on force protection went up from $3.2 billion to $3.5 billion.
Even so, there still exist shortages in funds, equipment, and, particularly for the Air Force security forces, personnel. Coleman said his force is under strength and has dipped recently because of low retention caused by the stress of increased deployments, but he voiced hope that recruiting and retention incentives will bring the security force back to strength within a year.
Regardless of how much resources are put into force protection, the experts acknowledged there are limits to what they can do. In the first place, Lane noted, “Force protection cannot be the mission. If it is, we don’t get the job done.” And despite the efforts, everyone concedes that, somewhere, sometime, a terrorist will succeed again in attacking Americans.
“The terrorist tries to look for the weak target,” Conway said. “We can do [our] absolute best … as commanders at given installations, but one of us is weaker than the others. … That’s where the terrorist will go.”
Coleman said he tells his security force that “right now, some guy is out there plotting evil against the United States. It’s your responsibility to make sure he doesn’t succeed.”
Otto Kreisher is the national security reporter for Copley News Service, based in Washington, D.C. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “In the Sandbox,” appeared in the August 1998 issue.