Desert Stronghold

Feb. 1, 1999

A Republic of Sand and Razor Wire

In the distance, the bright lights of Prince Sultan AB, Saudi Arabia, create a fiery nighttime glow, but they don’t reach the lonely wooden guard shack tucked behind a knoll a few hundred yards inside the desert outpost’s chain-link perimeter. There, all is in darkness.

Under the brown camouflage netting draped over the shack, an Air Force security forces specialist studies a large TV screen that projects a vivid orange-and-yellow thermal image of everything a nearby electronic camera can spot for miles around.

Out front, standing behind sandbags and facing the perimeter, his partner scans the darkness with a night vision scope bolted to an M-60 machine gun. It’s a quiet night.

“You sit out here for 12 hours and nothing happens,” said the machine gunner, Amn. Elisha Brackett, of York, S.C., “but today might be the day. You have to be ready.”

Not long ago, only a few yards separated most Saudi-based US airmen from terrorist attack. That all changed on June 25, 1996, the day that a terrorist truck bomb blew up next to a high-rise apartment building in the Khobar Towers complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killing 19 airmen and wounding some 500 others.

The US commitment to enforcing United Nations sanctions against Iraq continued, however, and American troops were moved to the more isolated location of Al Kharj, a desolate area 50 miles southeast of the Saudi capital of Riyadh.

Now, military personnel stationed at this remote Saudi air base are protected by miles of fenced desert, scores of barriers, and hundreds of uniformed security forces authorized to shoot to kill. Airmen call it the “Sandbox.”

Special motion sensors dot the desert. Along the roads that crisscross the base, drivers slowly snake through multiple check points buttressed by concrete barriers and razor wire.

With ID checks mandatory at each checkpoint, the going is slow. Security forces and bomb-sniffing dogs search incoming vehicles, especially those of the third-country nationals who come on base to prepare meals, dig ditches, and clean latrines. The workers, kept in partitioned areas during the search process, endure painstaking security checks to obtain the special passes that officials require.

Security forces make up 10 percent of the 4,200-odd personnel on the US side of the base, which is divided into Saudi and US sectors. There are only two gates into the interior of the base: one for normal traffic and one for contractors working on roads and a new Saudi air control tower. Both gates are heavily guarded. Everywhere one looks, one finds a pair of security forces specialists in a guard shack or on patrol, checking, questioning, and watching.

The facility very likely is the most heavily guarded operational installation used by the US military. This, clearly, is what retired Army Gen. Wayne A. Downing had in mind when in 1996 he released a report criticizing security at Khobar Towers and recommending more extensive force protection measures.

US officials at Prince Sultan call the concept “layered” security, and the layers are thick. Lt. Col. Cease Middleton, a Grafton, Va., native and commander of security forces at the base, calls Prince Sultan a “fortress.” He and other officials express confidence that the chances a truck bomber could get through the base’s defenses are dim.

“We present a hard target for a terrorist,” said Col. Terry Thompson, until recently the vice commander of the 4404th Wing (Provisional), the unit that occupies Prince Sultan-or P-SAB, as the troops say. “We have good force protection against a truck bomb-type setup. This is a very secure environment.”

These days, officials have different concerns, such as terrorists wielding a portable missile that could shoot down one of the base’s aircraft. Another concern: chemical attack, possibly delivered via long-range missile, by a nearby nation that seeks to drive the US presence from the Gulf region.

Defenses against medium-range missiles include the base’s multitude of radars and a battery of Army Patriot missiles. It is the short-range missile threat, however, that provokes greatest fear. Officials are understandably vague when asked about the precise measures being taken to secure the area around the huge Saudi base, where terrorists armed with portable missiles could wreak havoc. But several factors and standard practices, they said, help to minimize the risk.

One factor is the base’s size and remoteness. The 225-square-mile installation is surrounded by miles of empty desert, and US forces work inside a double-fenced area at its center.

“There is a vast amount of area out there,” said MSgt. Jeff Straut, a security forces supervisor from McConnell AFB, Kan. “We put people out there doing look­sees.”

Inside the fences, the US area is dotted with bunkers where personnel would flock in the event of an attack. Aircraft crews employ tactical takeoff and landing techniques to minimize their low-altitude exposure near the base.

While the job is long on responsibility, it is slow on action. Day in and day out, the work of military cops features a mind-numbing repetitiveness under harsh conditions that challenge even the most motivated troop. “We had a six-hour sandstorm the other day,” said SSgt. Chuck Hawkins of Lakeland, Fla. “It almost takes your breath. It’s tough duty.”

Security forces have a trick for staying awake on 12-hour guard shifts. They get fruit juice concentrate from a mess hall, pour an inch’s worth into a half-liter water bottle, and fill the rest with water to make an incredibly sugar-rich drink. “They call it ‘Saudi crack,’ ” joked one airman. “Keeps ’em awake for four hours.”

Particularly dangerous is the work of the security forces at the search areas near the entrance gates, especially those who control the bomb-sniffing dogs. These dogs are trained to sit up when they detect a suspicious odor, to avoid possibly setting off an explosive device. Still, the specialists know that if a well-hidden bomb were to be triggered, it likely would happen during a search.

“You think about that just about every day,” said SrA. Craig Fagan of Pittsburgh, who controls Pete, a powerful-looking Belgian Malinois. Fagan, normally stationed at Langley AFB, Va., said he takes proper precautions. “I make sure my dog clears that door before I open it.”

Despite the hazards, he said, “I volunteered for this job. I’m willing to take those risks.”

Added SrA. Brian Sartori, another Langley-based dog handler, “Someone’s got to do it because [there’re] 4,000 people on P-SAB. Someone’s got to protect them.”

Plans for early 1999 called for troops who were living in tents inside the US part of the base to move to a new barracks complex 6.5 miles away. The move figured to present new security challenges because the complex lies outside the heavily guarded inner perimeter. But the US project officer insists that US airmen will be safe.

“You not only have to get on the base, but you have to pass two or three checkpoints before you can enter” the new barracks complex, said Maj. Tom Laffey, a civil engineer normally stationed at Langley. “And then there are additional security measures.”

The $150 million project, paid for by the Saudis, was managed by the Saudi equivalent of the US Army Corps of Engineers in cooperation with US planners. The Saudis, Laffey said, “have designed this facility in cooperation with our own security experts and have incorporated our suggested design requirements.”

In a supreme irony, the complex was built by the giant contractor, Saudi bin Laden Group-owned by the same family that produced international terrorist Osama bin Laden, now an outcast in his homeland.

Laffey said all due precautions have been taken.

The Air Force, he said, has arranged for “two separate, thorough, and intensive security sweeps” prior to actual occupancy. One “complete search” will be conducted when the facility is inspected and another complete search after furniture is delivered and before troops move in.

All told, the 160-building compound has “the highest state-of-the-art security design,” Laffey said. “We believe this is the best security system to keep our people safe.”

Camel Spiders and “Groundhog Day”

Troops who balk at a difficult task are often bluntly told to “deal with it.” At P-SAB, they do. And the ways that troops cope are readily apparent. One sees nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic. Meticulous time management. Steely-eyed cynicism. Shoulder-slumping resignation. Escapism. And-in a few-even unremitting cheerfulness.

At P-SAB, it’s hot. The terrain is practically featureless. Natural vermin include scorpions and poisonous snakes. It stands a long 50 miles from Riyadh and much farther from anywhere else. P-SAB redefines the expression “middle of nowhere.”

In Riyadh, there is civilization and shopping. But with the terrorist threat so high, most of the troops stationed at Prince Sultan-mostly Air Force, with a few hundred Army, Navy, and British and French personnel-cannot leave the base.

Instead, they have resigned themselves to living in a 2.5-square-mile city of sand, in one of the 750 tents that dot the US section of this massive Saudi base. Here they stay for tours that last from 45 to 120 days. Forty-five supervisors and commanders spend a year at Prince Sultan, although each receives 30 days of leave during that period.

One airman likened the P-SAB experience to serving a sentence in a minimum security prison.

Many troops come here annually, some twice a year-and the plan to ease the deployment pace won’t be in place until January 2000.

For most, each day is the same-just like in the movie “Groundhog Day,” nearly everyone notes. They waken. They run laps. They walk to the showers and latrines. They eat. They catch a bus to work. They eat. They come “home.” They eat. They work out/swim/read/watch TV/go to a movie/chew the fat. They have a snack-even, perhaps, an alcohol-free beer, because alcoholic beverages are forbidden within the borders of Saudi Arabia, a strictly Islamic society.

They go to bed.

Stop the average troop on the “street” and ask the day. Often, one draws only a blank stare in return. “I’m not sure,” is a typical response.

Base officials have done their best to provide diversions, and there are plenty: fitness centers and organized sports areas, four swimming pools, a recreation center, free video rentals, fast-food vendors, biweekly movies, and monthly “birthday bashes” at which senior leaders ladle and serve dinner for the honorees. Airmen are allowed two 10-minute calls home a week. E-mail is available to everyone.

The accommodations in no way resemble regular military barracks, but living conditions could be worse, most airmen admit. Each tent has its own central air conditioning, heating unit, and wooden floor. Each has a refrigerator, TV with 10 cable channels, and a video player. Each resident has his own “space,” with a bed, wall locker, and nightstand. Command tents have their own telephones.

Now for the negatives.

After a typically hot day-daytime summer temperatures can reach 125 degrees-the tents don’t cool off until night falls. That’s tough for those working the overnight shifts who are then forced to try to sleep in broiling heat. The latrines and showers are in large tents and trailers that are in some cases several hundred feet from the troop tents.

Most of the year, shower water is heated by the sun, so it’s scalding hot during the day and cold by morning. The bathrooms stink perpetually. Chow hall food is not universally loved.

Heat stress is a common problem for newcomers unaccustomed to the temperature and dryness-and the need to drink more than two gallons of water daily. That’s bottled water only, used even when brushing one’s teeth. Any lapse in personal hygiene can bring about a quick case of diarrhea. Rashes are common. So are sports injuries. Lots of folks break their teeth on hard candy, a staple at work stations everywhere.

All this serves to make the days pass slowly. After a while, the annual, sometimes semiannual, visits to the desert start to become a blur.

The frequent and often lengthy deployments produce the No. 1 negative for those assigned to P-SAB: family separation.

The flying squadrons that enforce the UN-mandated no-fly zone over southern Iraq come to Prince Sultan for 45 days at a stretch. That’s well short of the 120 days most others spend here in the desert. On the other hand, the fliers come back every five months. Especially in demand are the crews of the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System radar aircraft and the supersecret RC-135 Rivet Joint electronic reconnaissance aircraft that come to P-SAB at least twice a year. Most of those who work with the RC-135, based at Offutt AFB, Neb., serve about 120 days a year in Saudi Arabia, but some pull as many as 180 days. One crew chief, TSgt. Ken Haggett, has been in the Middle East 792 days on a variety of Air Force missions since the Gulf War ended in 1991.

“It’s something you’ve got to deal with,” said Haggett, of Marblehead, Mass. “It depends on how strong your relationship is with your wife. You don’t have an option. You have to go.”

Two Rivet Joints remain at Prince Sultan at all times. In late 1998, the Rivet Joint fleet passed the milestone of 3,000 days of continuous deployment in the region, officials said.

Some airmen survive by immersing themselves in work, pulling six- and seven-day work weeks just to keep their minds occupied. That’s not always smart, though, one medical officer said.

“One of the biggest issues around here is fatigue,” said Maj. Jim Carroll, a physiologist from Langley attached to the P-SAB field hospital. Those who work nights, he maintained, are especially susceptible. “People who try to sleep during the day can’t sleep because of the heat, light, and noise,” he said. “They become dangerous to people around them.”

Even so, most airmen seem able to cope. Many immerse themselves in team sports, such as the spirited volleyball games frequently played under the lights.

Others lift weights in one of the fitness centers, swim, or run or glide on in-line roller skates around the tent city in 1.36-mile laps. They circle the tents at all hours–even, for some diehards, at midday, when just standing under the sun creates the sensation of being literally cooked.

Or, like enlisted leaders of Langley’s 27th Fighter Squadron, they spend their evenings gathered in the darkness outside their tents, seated around picnic tables or on “couches” fashioned from cots lashed together and hung from makeshift wood frames. They drink sodas and “near-beer,” smoke cigarettes, gripe about the desert mission, and trade tongue-in-cheek jibes.

The appearance around the tents of a camel spider–actually one of the large spider-like scorpion relatives known as solifugids, possessed with legendary quickness and aggressiveness–provides fresh grist for after-work chatter.

Everyone has a camel spider story. “We were riding along on a patrol, and a camel spider chased our car,” insisted A1C Miriam Lopez of Chicago, a member of the base’s security force. “We stepped on the gas. He kept up for a little while.” SSgt. Chuck Hawkins of Lakeland, Fla., a fellow security forces specialist, nodded assent. “They’re fast,” he said.

Insects like P-SAB. It offers the only shade within 50 miles.

Some airmen stay glued to the tube. SSgt. Jamie Fore of the 27th FS watches the quiz show “Jeopardy” every night. Televised sports are hugely popular. Chapel services are held nearly every night inside a large, well-appointed tent. The brokenhearted can find counseling there, as well.

Nearly every night, TSgt. Mike “Tiger” Smith strolls to the center of the tent city, electric guitar and miniature amplifier in hand. There, seated on the steps of a trailer, Smith plugs in and starts playing and singing for passersby. He specializes in popular song melodies with personalized lyrics. One favorite goes to the tune of the 1959 Ritchie Valens hit, “La Bamba.”

I wanna get out of P-SAB

I wanna get out of P-SAB

‘Cause if I don’t, I’m a-gonna go crazy.

Airmen said it’s tough feeling trapped in the desert, never leaving the base, living in a tent, and having a sense that there is absolutely no privacy.

“Last year, we pulled 90 days,” said A1C Terry Reed, a crew chief of the 71st Fighter Squadron based at Langley, referring to the length of a 1997 deployment. “I was about ready to kill the people I worked with.”

P-SAB is a place so terminally monotonous that one measure of quality of life is the type of latrine one uses and its proximity to one’s tent.

When USAF began seriously developing Prince Sultan after the Khobar Towers blast, latrines were open-bay models. Last year, the Air Force began replacing them with latrines in white metal trailers with separate stalls and doors for each commode. The improvement was such that they immediately earned the name “Cadillacs.”

They don’t smell much better than the old models. In fact, they’re worse, because no one uses the old models, creating more business for the Cadillacs than they can handle. No matter where one stands in P-SAB, a slight stench of sewage can be discerned.

At night, side streets are darkened, making flashlights essential equipment for most. Some find alternate ways to navigate. “One of my supervisors counts the number of steps from his tent to the showers,” said SrA. Cliff Vangieson, a finance clerk from Ramstein AB in Germany. “It’s exactly 100.”

Whether one counts steps, indulges in black humor, or reads War and Peace, exercising the mental muscle may be the key to maintaining sanity at P-SAB.

“You’ve got to keep your mind occupied,” said Maj. Cameron Burke, a Rockville, Md., native assigned to the AWACS squadron. “You have to set a goal–little goals from week to week–to help you get through.”

Fighting Frustration

The 27th FS came to Saudi Arabia in August knowing that if war broke out, less than three-quarters of its 18 F-15 fighters would be fit to fly into combat.

The reasons for the deficit represent a microcosm of the problems facing the Air Force today: aging fighters, shortages of spare parts, and a shrinking pool of experienced mechanics.

Many of the 27th’s technicians are leaving the Air Force to escape a seemingly continuous stream of overseas deployments on top of the normal time spent away from home for training.

Often, the overseas trips end up at hot, isolated P-SAB. The living conditions and separations are bad enough, but those problems are compounded by another: parts shortages that leave airmen questioning the nation’s commitment to their duty in the desert.

The 27th FS, for example, doesn’t have enough money for spare parts for its aging F-15Cs. To patch the problem, the 27th “cannibalizes” one or more fighters at a time, robbing parts from some to keep others flying.

“We have one-third of our aircraft broken at all times,” said Capt. Monty Deihl, the 27th’s maintenance officer. “We have wasted over 1,000 man-hours in five weeks moving spare parts, because we don’t have parts.”

The missing parts range from simple brakes to the “black boxes” that are at the fighter’s nerve center.

Additional money will not provide a quick fix. Said Deihl, “Even if they gave us all the money we needed for parts right now, it would be two to four years before we actually see the parts in the field.”

Forty percent of all sorties flown, Deihl said, require the movement of a part within or between aircraft. The shortages degrade the unit’s combat capabilities.

Lt. Col. Charles K. Shugg, commander of the 27th FS, was asked how many of his 18 F-15s could be launched into combat on a single day’s notice. He replied, “Probably 13 or so.” A year ago, he said, the answer would have been “14 or 15.”

If the unit had enough trained workers, more fighters would be available because cannibalizations could be performed more quickly, Deihl said. But the unit came to P-SAB with 50 fewer fighter maintenance workers than it is authorized to have–the product of declining retention.

The squadron was critically short of expert maintainers and had to make do with less experienced airmen.

“We should have about 25 percent at the apprentice level,” Deihl said. “However, we average 40 to 50 percent. So we’re short of manning in the first place, and then we’re short of skilled manning.”

“It puts the pressure on the younger guys,” said A1C Roosevelt Jones, a 22-year-old crew chief, “and they’re not ready to do the job.”

The crews are under pressure to produce combat-ready fighters for the daily no-fly missions. Amn. Phillip Hepfer, 19, said, “They expect to show it to us once, and we’re expected to know how to do it.”

Lt. Col. Jimmy Clark, the squadron operations officer, pointed out that the problem extends to fighter pilots. Over the past 18 months, he said, four of the 27th’s mid-career pilots–those with experience to lead four-aircraft units into combat–became eligible to separate. All did.

“That’s a zero retention rate,” said Clark. “The Air Force is expecting a 70 percent retention rate.”

Elsewhere, one finds similar problems. “I’ve lost six guys with 124 years of experience since January,” said MSgt. Tim Weathers, who operates refueling booms for the 6th Air Refueling Wing out of MacDill AFB, Fla. “They’ve replaced them with four guys with no experience.”

Many at Prince Sultan are perplexed at the nature of the American deployments to the Gulf. “We’re not seeing any finality to it,” said Capt. Craig Campbell, a 27th FS F-15 pilot from Thousand Oaks, Calif. “We’re soldiers. We’ll do what we’re told, but we won the war eight years ago. Nobody’s dying, but we’re slowly bleeding the Air Force to death.”

Out in the desert, on the front lines of the effort to keep an eye on Iraqi forces, the US military’s ongoing budget crunch is equally perplexing.

“No one wants to be the guy who can’t get the job done with less money,” said Capt. Mike Fontaine, an F-15 pilot with the 27th. “You see on CNN the news about record budget surpluses, and then you go out to your jet that doesn’t have any spare parts. And this is important to the country?”

At every turn during a trip to Prince Sultan, one sees members of the military working with efficiency and verve in a harsh, austere environment. They display both a sense of duty and a considerably wry outlook on life in the desert.

Inside the F-15 operations center, a sign on the wall proclaimed the 27th FS rotation to the desert to be the “Anthrax Tour ’98″/”Hurts So Good.” Everyone here has had at least their first round of anthrax inoculations. The initial round includes three shots. At least one of the three hurts-a lot.

“Maybe when the dorms are built, things will be a lot better,” observed crew chief Jones, referring to the oft-delayed completion of the Friendly Forces Housing Complex, where troops now living in tents were scheduled to move early in 1999. “But they’ve been telling us we’re going to move in for the past one-and-a-half years.”

William H. McMichael, the military reporter for the Newport News (Va.) Daily Press, recently spent six days at Prince Sultan AB in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This is his first article for Air Force Magazine.