Key point: President Trump has a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia's rulers.
On October 6, around fifty U.S. commandos in northeastern Syria tasked with hunting down ISIS forces were withdrawn from territory near the Turkish border controlled by the Kurdish-Arab SDF faction.
The U.S. withdrawal was a prerequisite for a Turkish attack against the SDF which subsequently took place. The remaining hundreds of U.S. forces elsewhere in northeastern Syria were endangered in the crossfire and had to be withdrawn a few days later.
The U.S. withdrawal was post-hoc justified on the basis that they were no longer needed in the Middle East and it was time to “bring the troops home.”
But in the weeks since, the United States has deployed over 3,000 more troops to the Middle East—including hundreds of National Guardsmen in Syria, and thousands of soldiers and airmen deployed to Saudi Arabia.
While a companion article looks at the deployment of a mechanized battalion to defend an oil field in southeastern Syria, this second part looks at the rapid buildup of U.S. forces in the wealthy Kingdom in response to intensifying clashes with Iran following the United State’s withdrawal from a nuclear deal with Tehran.
Return to the Kingdom
The deployments to Saudi Arabia marks a dramatic turn around from sixteen years earlier in 2003, when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld pulled out thousands of U.S. troops. Their presence had long been cited as a factor radicalizing Muslims across the planet who objected to the presence of foreign troops so close to the holy city of Mecca.
Apparently, these concerns have since faded, despite political headwinds from a U.S. Congress angered by Saudi Arabia’s grisly murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in its consulate in Istanbul.
The buildup has been prompted by Iranian harassment of shipping in the Persian Gulf, the shootdown of U.S. surveillance drone over the Persian Gulf in June, and a drone and missile attack on Saudi oil refineries in September that was almost certainly of Iranian origin but which Yemeni rebels took credit for.
First, following the loss of drones in June, that the Defense Department announced it was doubling troop deployment to the Kingdom from 500 to 1,000 personnel.
Then, after the oil refinery attacks, the United States dispatched 200 troops along with a battery of Patriot air-defense missiles and four AN/MPQ-64 Sentinel radar systems in an effort to patch the apparent holes in Saudi air defenses.
But while Patriots have been used to shoot down drones before, they’re not really optimized for engaging low-flying missiles and drones.
That’s not true of the handy towed Sentinels radars, which are useful for expanding radar coverage against threats only likely to be detected at short distances. The Sentinel provides 360 degree coverage within a twenty-five mile radius using a high-resolution X-Band radar. By integrating the radar coverage provided by the Sentinels, the Patriot batteries could cue their missiles to targets their organic radars can’t see yet, providing higher quality defensive umbrella against future low-altitude attacks.
This doesn’t address another problem: Patriot missiles that cost $2 to 3 million each are not a sustainable or efficient long-term solution to repelling drones that may cost as little as a few hundred or thousand dollars.
The Navy also dispatched the destroyer USS Nitze to the northern Persian Gulf. It disposes of a wide-area air-defense capability thanks to its Aegis combat systems and dozens of of SM-2, SM-3 and and RIM-162 Sea Sparrow missiles in its vertical launch cells.
October Surge in Prince Sultan Air Base
Then, on October 11, the United States announced it was deploying 3,000 more troops to Saudi Arabia concentrated around Prince Sultan airbase, including two batteries of Patriot missiles and one of the THAADs.
THAAD batteries are really designed for shooting down short-to-medium range ballistic missiles approaching from a known vector. Iran has a significant ballistic missile arsenal which it has deployed in at least four strikes in Iraq, Israel and Syria since 2017. However, ballistic missiles are too indiscrete on radar to be “deniable” weapons like low-flying drones and cruise missiles, and have not been used for attacks on Saudi Arabia.
At the same time, the Air Force deployed an Air Expeditionary Wing, which would initially support two attached fighter squadrons. This type of unit establishes a forward deployed headquarters and logistical base that would make it possible for additional squadrons to be rapidly concentrated in the region and receive continuous logistical support.
By the third week of October it was revealed the fighters units included the F-22 Raptor stealth fighters of the Virginia Air National Guard’s 149th Squadron/192nd Fighter Wing. Though capable of performing penetrating strike missions in defended airspace, the Raptor’s real strength lies in its unique air-to-air combat capabilities. The high-performance jet’s steep operating expenses can only really be justified when facing down a state-level opponent.
On October 25, Central Command also tweeted a video of a B-1 Lancer bomber landing at Saudi Arabia’s Prince Sultan airbase—possibly the first time the huge black aircraft have ever deployed in the country, as they have historically operated from Al Udeid airbase in Saudi Arabia’s tiny neighboring rival Qatar. Udeid is much closer to the “action” over the Persian Gulf—but possibly too close, as it lies within striking distance of many short-range Iranian weapons.
The “Bones” as they’re nicknamed can carry heavier bomb loads than a B-52 and travel at supersonic speeds and fly across vast distances. Their long endurance and heavy bomb loads have seen them fly numerous long-endurance missions hitting ISIS targets illuminated by ground forces. But they were used so extensively that their availability rates dropped to disastrous levels by 2018 and they were withdrawn from the action.
Though B-1’s are neither fast nor stealthy enough to safely penetrate defended airspace, they can lug munitions like the JASSM and JSOW guided missiles which can be fired from dozens, or hundreds of miles away. They are also suitable for maritime strike missions in the Persian Gulf.
Their presence in Saudi Arabia therefore was meant to signal U.S. support for Riyadh, and warn Tehran that a large-volume attack could be launched on short notice. But strangely, just a few days later the B-1s were reportedly withdrawn.
Overall, the new U.S. deployments to Saudi Arabia seem to fulfill three purposes: first they’re meant to reassure Riyadh that Washington will back it up against Iranian attacks, particularly by building defensive capabilities that might forestall a repeat of the oil field attacks in September.
Second, the United States has established preliminary capacity to promptly launch, sustain and scale up an aerial bombing campaign in Iran. Given the overt signaling from Central Command, this seems to be more out of an intention to deter Tehran, rather than the sort of buildup which would lead to a pre-planned attack.
Finally, the additional air defenses also conveniently reinforce the survivability of U.S. aircraft on at Prince Sultan airbase, which might otherwise be vulnerable to being hit on the ground by Iran’s growing ballistic and cruise missile arsenal and combat drones.
However, the new U.S. military deployments may also buttress the cynical (but arguably simplistic) perspective that U.S. interests in the Middle East have always primarily revolved around oil wealth and that the services of the U.S. troops are being extended as a courtesy to a government recently authorized to purchase $8.1 billion in U.S. arms despite opposition from Congress.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring. This article first appeared this month.