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Pentagon halts flight training for all 850 Saudi military personnel in the US: report

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper addresses the Reagan National Defense Forum, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Simi Valley, California, Dec. 7, 2019. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)
December 10, 2019

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has ordered a military-wide halt on all flight training for 852 Saudi Arabian military members training in the U.S., a new report says.

Esper issued the order in a memo to Pentagon leaders, which was revealed late Tuesday, and also ordered a stronger vetting process for foreign military students who come to the U.S. for training, as well as a formal review of that process, which must be concluded in 10 days, ABC News reported exclusively.

“I direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence (USD(I)) to take immediate steps to strengthen personnel vetting for International Military Students (IMS), and to complete a review within 10 days of policies and procedures for screening foreign students and granting access to our bases,” Esper said in the memo, which was obtained by ABC News.

“These efforts will seek to more closely align IMS vetting procedures with those we apply to U.S. personnel,” Esper added. “With respect to specific training programs and personnel under their cognizance, the Secretaries of the Military Departments may take additional security measures as they see fit.”

The move is part of “a safety stand-down and operational pause” across the U.S. military.

Earlier on Tuesday, the U.S. Navy independently suspended flight training for at least 300 Saudi Arabian students.

More than 300 Saudi Arabian students currently training at three Florida military bases are indefinitely suspended from flight training, Navy Cmdr. Clay Doss confirmed to The Associated Press.

The suspension affects 140 students at Pensacola Naval Air Station, 35 at Whiting Field, and 128 at Naval Air Station Mayport.

Classroom training will resume this week, and students other than Saudi Arabian students will resume flight training.

The Pensacola base is considered “the Cradle of Naval Aviation” where all flight training begins, according to the Navy.

The suspension comes four days after the death of three NAS Pensacola aviation students in the Dec. 6 attack carried out by Royal Saudi Air Force 2nd Lt. Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, a pilot who was one of approximately 200 foreign military members training at the base, Reuters reported.

Escambia County Sheriff deputies responded to the incident and confronted Alshamrani after receiving details of his location from a dying victim, Ensign Joshua Kaleb Watson, who was shot five times.

Deputies engaged in a firefight with Alshamrani, killing him and leaving one deputy with a gunshot wound to the arm, and the other deputy with a gunshot wound to the knee.