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Saudis expanding US military access to airfields, port, to counter Iran

Royal Saudi Naval Force and USS Winston S. Churchill transit the Arabian Gulf. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. William Gore)
February 02, 2021

The U.S. military is expanding its ability to operate from Saudi Arabia in the event of a war with Iran, striking a preliminary arrangement with Riyadh to use various air bases and seaports in the country’s western regions.

The U.S. military has long kept a host of military assets and thousands of troops in Gulf kingdoms on the eastern flank of Saudi Arabia, including at permanent bases in Qatar, Kuwait, the UAE, and elsewhere. But Iran’s ballistic missiles have improved, those bases have become increasingly vulnerable, analysts say.

In a conflict with Iran, the United States would be able to transport troops in and out of the region from the west, posture fighters and other aircraft further from Iran’s missile launchers, and “lily-pad” eastward into the fight, Gen. Frank McKenzie told reporters traveling with him to the region to inspect three of the new locations.

“The Arabian Gulf would be contested waters under any scenario of armed conflict with Iran, so you look at the places where you would move your forces as they enter the theater from being in a contested area,” McKenzie said. “Certainly the Red Sea, the western [part] of the Arabian peninsula presents those opportunities.”

This expansion initiative has been underway for at least a year. Its revelation comes as the new Biden administration has vowed to take a more skeptical eye towards the relationship with Saudi Arabia — and to attempt negotiations with Iran for an updated version of the Iran nuclear deal that then-President Trump abandoned in 2018. But it hints at the seriousness with which military leaders at U.S. Central Command, which governs all American troops in the Middle East, takes the possibility of a war with Tehran. And it signals that even as the Biden administration has sought to take a tougher line on Riyadh, U.S.-Saudi ties are deepening at the military level.

McKenzie cautioned that U.S. use of the three Saudi facilities he inspected on Monday — one commercial port and one industrial port in Yanbu and airfields in Tabuk and Taif — were still “highly contingent.”

“We’re just exploring possibilities here, nothing more than that and we’re working closely with our Saudi hosts,” the Marine Corps general said. “It is nothing more than contingency work now — certainly nothing is firm — but it gives me the opportunity to come out here and look at the ground and see.”

Still, U.S. Central Command has conducted proof-of-concept tests at the industrial port at Yanbu, at least once bringing U.S. troops into the region from the Red Sea, and at both of the airfields. McKenzie said CENTCOM will continue to bring units through Yanbu on rotation to ensure the command’s logistical muscles remain flexible.

While no new infrastructure is needed at the airfields, Yanbu will require some additional development, McKenzie said. He said negotiations are ongoing to determine the precise scope of the project, which will be dual-use “without exception” and funded by Riyadh, not Washington. “We’ll move at their pace on this,” he said.

“An airbase, you can bring fighters of an expeditionary nature there for a few days and be gone and there’s very little footprint left. It’s a little different in industrial port,” McKenzie said. “You can see things are a little more permanent there. An airbase you can come in and come out very quickly. That’s the beauty of having a number of bases you can flex to should you be required to.”

The expansion isn’t limited to the three sites McKenzie visited on Monday, he said, but he declined to name other locations that the military is looking to use. It also won’t affect how the military is using its usual network of bases and access points in the Gulf: “You should not see this as a zero-sum game,” he said.

The idea, instead, is to enable the command to take more damage and keep fighting — what the military calls “robustness.” That “means you increase the number of bases you can operate from so if you’re hit you can take that hit, shift to another location and still be able to operate,” McKenzie explained. “What it does is it gives us options and options are always a good thing for a commander to have.”

Concerns about Iran’s conventional missile program have grown in recent years. In a 2019 attack on a Saudi oil refinery, Tehran paired cruise missiles with kamikaze drones to temporarily cut the nation’s oil production in half. Earlier this month, Tehran conducted military drills using drones in a similar fashion to the 2019 Saudi attack and also recently armed drones with air-to-air missiles.

Middle Eastern nations — and any U.S. bases housed there — could have only minutes to react if Iran fires missiles. While many U.S. allies in the Middle East have advanced missile defenses including Patriot and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, those defenses proved imperfect against the kind of attack the Iranians launched against the Saudi oil refinery.

“Iran has the largest arsenal of ballistic missiles in the Middle East,” said Behnam Taleblu, an Iran policy specialist at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “Iran is working to advance the lethality of its ballistic missiles, enhancing things like accuracy, survivability and range.”

The Biden administration has sought to draw a clear line between its handling of the notoriously tricky relationship with Riyadh and the previous administration’s. Trump, and in particular his son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner, embraced the relationship with Riyadh, promoting arms sales and other military support to the country even as a bipartisan group of lawmakers sought to curtail such support over the killing of civilians in the Saudi-led campaign against Houthi figures in Yemen and the brutal murder of Washington Post columnist and Virginia resident Jamal Khashoggi. Biden and his team promised a bigger emphasis on human rights in their handling of Riyadh and its young crown prince and the country’s de facto ruler, Mohammed Bin Salman.

But even as administration officials have insisted that they will take a tougher line on Saudi Arabia — Biden referred to Riyadh as a “pariah” during the Democratic primary debates and promised it would “pay the price” for the Khashoggi killing — they have continued to defend the strategic partnership. In a Sunday statement from State Department spokesman Ned Price condemning a drone attack on Riyadh, the administration committed to “help our partner Saudi Arabia defend against attacks on its territory.”

“I think the Biden administration does have wiggle room — it’s a question of, can Washington walk and chew gum at the same time,” said Taleblu. “On the macro issues, the Saudis are with us…. I think the administration can do things like get tough on human rights without having to sacrifice the strategic relationship.”


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