The 90s were a time of adjustment for the US military. Following the tense stability of the Cold War years, the branches had to contend with a high ops tempo at a time when the force was shrinking in both size and capabilities. In simple terms, the military was forced to do more with less. And with the Cold War now over, the military was being asked to perform more missions with a smaller force.
Also during the 90s, America’s presence in the Middle was expanding. Much of this was due to the continued saber rattling of Saddam Hussein. However, there was growing indications of other potential problems on the horizon. The rise of Osama Bin Laden was attracting the attention of US intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Iran, after a dormant period in the late 80s and early 90s, was beginning to make noise.
As the decade went on, the US military’s infrastructure in the Middle East expanded. In 1995, the US Navy recommissioned the 5th Fleet to handle operations in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea. Its headquarters was based in Bahrain. With the presence of a large number of US Navy warships in the region now a regular event, the creation of a numbered fleet and the building of support facilities was reasonable. The 5th Fleet has proven its value numerous times in the last twenty years.
From 1991 through 2001, the US conducted a number of reprisal strikes against Iraq. The reasons for the strikes were varied. They include Iraq’s failures to comply with UN Security Council resolutions, continuous violations of the No-Fly Zones, and even an attempted assassination of former President George H.W. Bush. The operations generally were made up exclusively of cruise missile attacks and airstrikes. One exception was Operation Vigilant Warrior in 1994. In early October of that year, Iraq began to mass forces in close proximity to the Kuwait border, the US responded by sending troops to the area. A brigade from the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division and elements of the 1st MEF deployed to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, met up with prepositioned equipment and deployed to the Kuwait/Iraq border. The effort was successful in deterring Iraq from moving forward with an operation against Kuwait. By the end of October, Iraqi forces had withdrawn from the border area and the crisis was defused.
Iraq was not the only threat to US military forces in the region. Terrorism was always a major concern. As the decade went on, the potential for terrorist attacks increased. Radicalism was spreading and fueling anti-American rhetoric and feeling across the region. It was only a matter of time until terrorists struck. In June 1996, it finally happened. Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, a USAF barracks, was bombed. Twenty US airmen were killed and over three hundred injured. Hezbollah was responsible for the attack. The attack led to increased security measures across the region and led US and Coalition forces to relocate to Prince Sultan Air Base, a secure and remote Royal Saudi Air Force base seventy miles south of Riyadh. PSAB, as the base is generally known to US airmen, became the centerpiece of US and allied air forces in the Middle East. Its importance rose in the subsequent years.
In October of 2000, terrorists struck again. This time the target was a US Navy warship docked in Aden, Yemen. A small craft loaded with explosives approached the port side of the USS Cole as it underwent refueling. The craft exploded, causing extensive damage to the ship and killing 17 US Sailors. This attack was carried out by Al Qaeda and served as a precursor to the more devastating attacks that were coming in September of 2001.
In the first decade of the 21st Century, US installations and forces in the Middle East were invaluable pieces of American foreign policy and war fighting efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Part 3 of this series will talk about this.