Defending the Troops

Air Force security police Staff Sgt. Alfredo Guerrero was standing on the roof of Building 131 at the Khobar Towers housing complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, shortly before 10 p.m. last June when something caught his attention. A fuel truck, followed by a car, was moving through a parking lot along the outside of the fence surrounding the complex. The vehicles stopped, and the truck turned and backed into some hedges along the fence adjacent to the eight-story barracks where Guerrero stood. As he watched, two men got out of the truck and into the car, which sped quickly away.

Guerrero knew immediately something was wrong. He radioed the security desk and with two other guards, starting on the top floor, began pounding on residents' doors, ordering them to evacuate. Seven minutes later, by the time he and the other guards had worked their way through the top three floors, Guerrero's suspicions were confirmed. An explosion tore through the barracks, ripping off its facade and pushing the outside walls apart four feet. Before the dust settled, 19 U.S. airmen were dead and more than 500 Americans, Saudis and other foreign nationals were injured.

The blast from the bomb planted on June 25 by terrorists intent on driving a wedge between the United States and its Persian Gulf allies was felt 20 miles away. It is still felt in the corridors of the Pentagon 10 months later. In the intervening months, numerous task forces, steering committees, assessment teams and investigation panels have been convened and dispatched to gauge the threat of terrorism against U.S. installations and defend against it. But force protection, the military's term for safeguarding troops and civilian personnel in military operations, is a lot like intelligence: You don't always know how well it's working until it fails.

There's no doubt that Guerrero's quick reaction, honed by years of military training in the art of force protection, saved many lives. But numerous shortcomings in planning, budgeting and intelligence collection and dissemination contributed to the military's vulnerability to attack. Through a series of initiatives begun by former Defense Secretary William Perry and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Shalikashvili, Pentagon officials hope to dramatically reduce that vulnerability in the coming months. Such improvements cannot come too soon. In February, embassy officials in Saudi Arabia issued an unusually strong warning of potential terrorist attacks against U.S. personnel in the kingdom.

Undeclared War

"Terrorism represents an undeclared war against the United States," says retired Army Gen. Wayne Downing. Downing, the former chief of the U.S. Special Operations Command, led an investigation of the Khobar Towers bombing last summer at the request of then-Defense Secretary Perry. At a Pentagon press briefing last fall, he was not sanguine about the future.

"The military forces of this country are currently and clearly superior to all others in the world," said Downing. "Convinced of the futility of challenging our forces directly, some enemies are waging war against us asymmetrically. They use terrorism. Some of these enemies feel our greatest vulnerability is our intolerance for casualties. If we prove ourselves incapable of responding to terrorism, the terrorists will continue to represent a significant threat to us, especially to our servicemen and women deployed overseas."

Downing commended Perry for taking steps to reduce U.S. vulnerability to terrorism and addressing many of his task force's recommendations, including developing a more unified approach to force protection in the Persian Gulf region. But the real test will be how well DoD carries through on current intentions. "The devil is in the details," Downing said at the press briefing. "What is the follow-through going to be to ensure the actions we have recommended are implemented and not forgotten?"

It is a relevant question. In 1983, terrorists attacked a U.S. barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, killing 241 Marines. The commission investigating that incident found many problems, striking in their similarity to the findings of the Downing task force 13 years later in Saudi Arabia. In both attacks, investigators found that commanders failed to take adequate security measures commensurate with deteriorating threat conditions, a situation exacerbated by evolving missions and complex chains of command; and that the level of human intelligence and counterintelligence capability was deficient.

Pentagon planners hope new force protection measures and training can be institutionalized throughout the military community to prevent the same mistakes from being made in the future.

Increased Vulnerability

The mission in Saudi Arabia began in 1992 following the Persian Gulf War when the 4404th Fighter Wing (Provisional) moved into Khobar Towers to enforce a "no fly" zone in southern Iraq. At the time, the threat of terrorism in Saudi Arabia was thought to be relatively low and the mission itself was deemed temporary and staffed accordingly-the average tour length was 90 days and personnel turnover was high. Also, because of the temporary nature of the mission, the command lacked resources that would be found in a permanent wing; for instance, the command had an ad hoc intelligence structure, and there was only one Arabic interpreter assigned to the entire 3,000-member unit. The force structure remained constant over time, despite an expansion in the unit's mission, the growing permanence of the mission, and heightened terrorist concerns in the region.

All these things led to increased vulnerability of the personnel assigned to the 4404th. In addition, there were intelligence warnings about an increased security threat. On Nov. 13, 1995, a car bomb exploded outside a military training facility in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, killing five Americans.

While Air Force Brig. Gen. Terryl Schwalier, commander of the 4404th, took many actions to improve force protection following the November bombing, the Downing task force singled him out for not doing enough under the circumstances. Schwalier, the task force concluded, neglected to raise issues with his superiors that were beyond his capability to fix and he failed to take actions that could have mitigated the effects of the bombing. Specifically, despite concerns about terrorists' potential access to the area directly beyond the fence surrounding Khobar Towers, Schwalier did not suggest expanding the perimeter or raise those concerns with either his chain of command or his Saudi counterparts, who had responsibility for and control of the area beyond the perimeter fence where the bombing took place.

"Khobar Towers didn't occur because the base wasn't locked down and secured," says Brig. Gen. Richard Coleman, director of security forces for the Air Force. "You have to ask yourself what caused an NCO like Sgt. Guerrero to be up on top of Khobar Towers at night and recognize immediately what the threat of that tanker was. His action saved lives. Those people were aware of the threat. They had been indoctrinated. You might even say the base was locked up so tight it drove your adversary outside," Coleman says.

In fact, the Downing report noted, in April, two months before the bombing at Khobar Towers, the commander of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations Detachment at Dhahran Air Base sent a message to his headquarters at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington about the security situation at the housing complex. The commander wrote that "security measures here are outstanding, which in my view would lead a would-be terrorist to attempt an attack from a position outside the perimeter. . . If a truck parks close to the fence line, and the driver makes a quick getaway, I think the building should be cleared immediately."

The commander's prophetic message was never relayed to Schwalier, however. Likewise, when the Bolling headquarters office responded to the message by sending a special agent to investigate the security situation at Khobar Towers, Schwalier was not informed of either the agent's visit or his findings and recommendations.

Not only was the dissemination of intelligence a problem, but there was a serious lack of human intelligence regarding the situation inside the region. More than a decade after the Beirut bombing, where such shortcomings were evident, "we still have enormous difficulty in gaining firsthand, inside knowledge of terrorist plans and activities," Downing said.

Myriad Concerns

Intelligence analysis and dissemination was not the only problem at Khobar Towers, however. There were communication problems between the 4404th and their Saudi hosts and security police were poorly trained and equipped for the mission. For example, personnel shortages meant guards worked 12-hour shifts for six days at a time in 100-degree heat with only their binoculars and poorly maintained weapons. Security personnel did not conduct extensive training exercises for fear of offending their Saudi hosts.

In April, despite several incidents that indicated Khobar Towers could be under surveillance by terrorists, command officials declined to elevate the threat level because they felt it would be difficult to justify a request for additional security police. "The decision not to go to [the higher threat level] appeared to have been based on the availability of security forces and their ability to sustain operations for an extended period of time, rather than on what was required by the threat," the report found.

Also, the 4404th did not make force protection a high funding priority. The installation of Mylar, a shatter-resistant window coating, and surveillance systems for the fence line were deferred, despite indications they should be installed sooner.

Though it is easy to second-guess decisions made by members of the 4404th after the bombing, it seems clear that issues of force protection did not rate the attention they deserved by command leadership. Pentagon officials want to change that.

Immediately following the Khobar Towers bombing, Perry ordered a reassessment of the U.S. forces deployed in the Gulf region, which led to a major realignment and redeployment of units in the region. Specifically, U.S. troops were relocated to bases that would be easier to protect and force protection was made a top priority, both in terms of funding and attention. Local commanders were given increased responsibility and authority for protecting their troops and a new division of responsibility on force protection matters was established between the United States and host nations. In addition, Perry initiated efforts to improve the collection and timely dissemination of intelligence on threats to U.S. forces. He also asked Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall to consider disciplinary measures against Air Force officials in the Khobar Towers incident.

Perhaps most significantly in the long run, Perry placed responsibility for force protection with the Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, establishing a new office devoted to anti-terrorism and force protection. Through the Joint Staff, each of the services has been tasked with assessing its own force protection posture and establishing clear budget priorities with regard to force protection. It is currently difficult to measure how much the services spend to protect troops, because funding is often included in other accounts. The way buildings are constructed, military police are trained, and personal gear is designed all have an impact on how safe U.S. personnel are from terrorism.

Military personnel have also changed the way they view their responsibilities. "Our days of operating just inside the air base perimeter are over," says Coleman. "We will extend our tactical perimeter out so we deny any advantage 200 to 300 meters past our legal defense boundary." Improved intelligence will be critical to such measures. While service officials are confident improvements will be made, they are not overly optimistic.

"Are we going to get to the point where we have predictive intelligence of an attack? That's really difficult," says Col. Bob Neubert, chief of the security, force protection and law enforcement division on the Army staff. I don't think anybody can do that really well. Look at the Brits and the Israelis-they're still attacked with regularity in spite of very sophisticated programs that focus on terrorists."

"What we can hope to have are better indicators of trends that we can use to heighten awareness, tighten [threat condition] levels, and put more security measures in place," he says.

Col. Joel Dickson, chief of the Army's Force Protection Assistance Team, which was established to respond to the Joint Staff requirements, says "One of the hardest questions is how far do you go to try to preclude some type of an act from occurring? That's where that predictive analysis and assessment of the threat are critical, in applying not only resources but making procedural changes.

"We don't have the resources to cover every contingency, nor do we want to assume a bunker mentality where we can't do our day-to-day missions because we have encapsulated ourselves with protective measures. There's really a balance that comes into play here," Dickson says.

Increasing Challenge

The current focus on force protection is not new. Service men and women who served in Europe during the 1970s and early 1980s remember well the terrorist activities of the leftist Red Army Faction. U.S. personnel were trained to spot and react to potential terrorist activity, Coleman says. "We held seminars, we didn't travel with luggage that marked us as standouts, we questioned things around us-we had that awareness. We're doing the same kinds of things again today."

However, the potential damage from terrorism is increasing, military officials say. As terrorists develop more powerful weapons and become more sophisticated in their use, safeguarding U.S. personnel overseas will become increasingly challenging. And the Pentagon's vast arsenal of fighter aircraft, submarines, aircraft carriers, tanks and missiles will offer little help.

To keep pace with developing technologies, the Air Force this month will establish a Force Protection Battlelab at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, to test better methods and products to protect against everything from chemical attacks to bombings.

How effective will all these measures be?

"The proof of the pudding is when we go out and do a mission and no one gets hurt," Coleman says. "Basically you send a force out and you come back with the same people who left. That's the barometer for success."

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