PRINCE SULTAN AIR BASE, Saudi Arabia (AP) –The U.S. Air Force is hunkering down behind 64 miles of 8-foot fence, tons of barbed wire and a long stretch of scorpion-and-snake desert to escape the threat of terrorism in Saudi Arabia.
Eight months after 19 of their comrades were killed in the bombing of high-rise apartments in eastern Saudi Arabia, more than 4,000 Air Force men and women are settled into a gritty, dusty city of 700 dun-colored tents where security may be tighter than at any military base in the world.
Even the latrines get “security” handling. Sewage tank trucks from outside are not allowed to penetrate the base perimeter, so on-base tankers must empty the latrines and transfer their contents to civilian trucks miles away at the fence.
Incoming fuel and water are handled the same way because of the fear of truck bombs, tying up dozens of trucks and scores of Air Force security police who escort them.
“We don’t do anything for convenience or efficiency,” base commander Brig. Gen. Daniel M. Dick said.
In fact, despite the cable TV and the Burger King trailer, the base operation could hardly be more inconvenient.
Airmen are assigned for short, three-month tours of hardship duty, depriving Dick of anything but a tiny cadre of experienced “Prince Sultan hands.” And then, about 10 percent of his personnel are dedicated full-time to security, a force multiplied by fake defense positions, dummy patrol vehicles and a platoon of bomb-sniffing dogs.
The cocoon is reassuring to many.
“I’m concerned, but more for my family than for myself. I see the security that’s here, but they don’t,” said Staff Sgt. John McCarthy, 27, of Elmira, N.Y.
McCarthy, on his fourth Saudi tour, thinks about terrorism every day. He was injured in last June’s blast at the Khobar Towers high rise.
“It was hard to explain to my 6-year-old boy why I was going back. All he knows is that ‘Daddy is going to Saudi again,'” McCarthy said.
The June bombing, evidently bent on driving the U.S. military from Saudi Arabia, remains unsolved. Within two months, the Air Force was mounting a 45-day emergency move in which 78 aircraft and 25,000 tons of equipment were consolidated here from two air bases — at Dhahran, near Khobar, and at the Saudi Capital, Riyadh.
The move cost the United States $150 million.
This air base covers one-tenth of the area of a barely developed 250-square-mile Saudi military site, 80 miles south of Riyadh. Near the edge of the forbidding Empty Quarter desert, the air-conditioned tents will be challenged by summer temperatures climbing to 118 degrees.
The F-15s, F-16s and other planes in Dick’s Air Wing, the 4404th Provisional, fly 200 sorties every day over southern Iraq, enforcing the “no-fly zone” ban on Iraqi war planes in the region.
But Dick, an energetic, compactly-built F-16 pilot, places another mission at the top of his agenda here.
“Force protection — it’s obviously ‘job one’ for us,” he said.
An initial Pentagon investigation of the Khobar blast suggested Dick’s predecessor had not given “force protection” sufficient priority. The attackers were able to park their bomb-laden truck too close to the air force quarters.
Here, the complex’s outer fence lies no closer than three miles to the inner perimeter encircling the American-manned air base.
In a guard tower overlooking that tabletop stretch of sand, Airman 1st Class Vince Flango told a reporter that after the desert sun drops, all he picks up with his night-vision equipment is mice and wild dogs scampering over the windswept landscape.