U.S. Continues Military Buildup in Saudi Arabia Amid Recent Tensions With Iran

The United States has begun building its military back up at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia, where the Americans deserted 16 years ago.

The move began last month, but will expedite in the coming weeks as Iran ramps up attacks on oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz and shot down an American drone earlier this summer.

The U.S. buildup includes the deployment of fighter jets and long-range Patriot missiles, according to NBC News. Though the aircraft will not arrive until August, the missiles have already arrived on the base and are expected to be operational within the next two weeks.

The Royal Saudi Air Force controls the facility located just south of the Saudi capital of Riyadh, and a few hundred U.S. servicemembers are already on site prepping for any full-scale operation. More than 500 servicemembers will occupy the base once full air squadrons have arrived.

Officials said the mission is primarily for defense — Patriot missiles for missile defense and fighter jets to defend troops on the ground — but the jets could also be deployed for offensive missions.

U.S. F-35 Fighter Jet
An F-35 fighter plane flies over the White House on June 12, 2019, in Washington DC. Photo by ERIC BARADAT/AFP/Getty Images

Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Earl Brown didn't elaborate Thursday on the Air Force base itself, but said it's a joint effort with allies in the region.

"U.S. Central Command continually works to manage our force posture in the region and will continue to do this in cooperation with our partners and allies in the region," Lt. Col. Earl Brown said.

The United States positioned military at Prince Sultan AFB in 1991 during the Gulf War, and remained there to police the "no-fly zone" over Iraq. The U.S. moved back to the base in 1996 after the Khobar Tower bombings that killed 19 service members and injured hundreds of others, and remained there until 2003 when Operation Iraqi Freedom began.

The United States remained there just a few months before turning the base over to Saudi Arabia.

Now with the U.S. taking back over this already-active base, Prince Sultan AFB will need several upgrades to accommodate the U.S. operation. These include improved roads and runways, updated base housing and a new medical center.

The new military buildup in Saudi Arabia comes during a "strategic standoff" with Iran as Tehran has increased tensions with the West.

On Friday, officials in Great Britain said that two vessels — one of them flying under the Liberian flag — were captured by Iranian forces in the Strait of Hormuz, a slither of passageway in which one-fifth of the world's oil supply travels daily.

"These seizures are unacceptable," said Great Britain Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt. "It is essential that freedom of navigation is maintained and that all ships can move safely and freely in the region."

Iran's Revolutionary Guard said Friday it had captured the vessels because of "non-compliance with international maritime laws and regulations." The vessels and their crews were taken to an undisclosed Iranian port, according to the Military Times.

The attacks in the Strait of Hormuz come on the heels of American officials saying the U.S. military used electronic jamming to down an Iranian aircraft, though Iran denied it happened. Despite Iran's denial, President Donald Trump on Friday said, "We shot it down."

National Security Adviser John Bolton reiterated the president's statement.

"There is no question this was an Iranian drone, and the USS Boxer took it out as the president announced yesterday because it posed a threat to the ship and its crew. It's entirely the right thing to do," Bolton said.

Tehran doubled down Friday, saying all of its drones had returned safely to base.

Iran shot down an unmanned, state-of-the-art U.S. drone one month ago, one week after the Islamic Republic caused explosions to Japanese and Norwegian oil tankers, both in the Strait of Hormuz, which connects the Gulf of Oman to the Persian Gulf.