The U.S. military command responsible for the Middle East and Iran is developing plans to open a new military testing facility in Saudi Arabia, according to three U.S. defense officials familiar with the plans.
The facility will test new technologies to combat the growing threat from unmanned drones, and it will develop and test integrated air and missile defense capabilities. Early planning by Central Command, or CENTCOM, includes calling the facility the Red Sands Integrated Experimentation Center, drawing a parallel to the White Sands Missile Range, the U.S. military testing facility for extended-range missiles in New Mexico.
While the location has not yet been finalized, the officials said Saudi Arabia makes the most sense because it has large open spaces owned by the government and the ability to test various methods of electronic warfare, like signal-jamming and directed energy, without interfering with nearby population centers.
“With the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as the center of gravity for many future regional security endeavors, this is an opportunity,” a U.S. defense official said.
The commander of CENTCOM, Army Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, proposed the idea in a meeting with a number of U.S. allies in the region last month. “There was overwhelming support,” said a U.S. official familiar with the discussions.
Planned for the testing site comes amid increasing security cooperation between Arab states and Israel against Iran, which has built up a formidable ballistic missile arsenal and drone fleet in recent years. Regional allies and the U.S. military have been alarmed at missile and drone attacks launched by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen targeting oil facilities and other infrastructure in Saudi Arabia. During President Joe Biden’s visit to the Middle East in July, U.S. officials touted the potential for regional governments to team up to bolster their missile defenses.
Expanding U.S. military cooperation with Saudi Arabia will likely prompt criticism from human rights groups and some lawmakers in Washington. The CIA concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the 2018 killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, and some members of Congress have argued that the U.S. should distance itself from the oil-rich kingdom and re-examine its relationship with Riyadh.
While there is no firm cost estimate yet, the officials said the U.S. would likely fund about 20% of the price tag and provide about 20% of the personnel, while allies would cover the rest, two U.S. defense officials said. A U.S. official said the idea “draws together many nations into pragmatic security arrangements” at a time when Kurilla has directed CENTCOM to shift the command’s focus from a large U.S. military footprint in the region to an emphasis on strengthening partnerships.
There is no firm timeline for when Red Sands could begin operations, but it is not likely before the end of 2022, the two U.S. defense officials said.
A spokesperson for CENTCOM declined to comment on specific details of the planning.
Kurilla recently completed an assessment of the CENTCOM region, which includes the Middle East, Iran and Afghanistan, based on his first 90 days in command. He traveled to 17 of the command’s 21 countries and presented his findings to Defense Department leadership in July.
With the Biden administration and the Pentagon increasingly focused on threats from Russia and China, CENTCOM is no longer the highest-priority military theater, and its leadership will likely have to fight for personnel and resources more than it has in the past. Partnering with regional allies allows the U.S. military to maintain operations with fewer troops.
Kurilla’s assessment, which he calls Partnering Over Posture, emphasizes growing intelligence capabilities, strengthening human intelligence networks and developing new and innovative technologies with allies. The command needs to lean more heavily on partnerships developed over the last two decades because the CENTCOM of the future will look much different than it has the past 20 years, he finds. The overall number of U.S. troops assigned to CENTCOM has decreased dramatically in the past two years, from more than 80,000 in 2020 to about 35,000 now.
Prioritizing partnerships simultaneously reassures allies of U.S. commitment to the region while combating the abandonment narrative that many allies in the region have believed as the U.S. has withdrawn troops and assets and tried to focus more on peer competitors rather than terrorist groups. Kurilla’s assessment warns that the U.S. cannot take its eyes off the region, however, because one successful attack could quickly change its priorities.
“We must ensure the region’s perpetual instability does not draw us into protracted conflicts with strategic bills we can no longer afford,” said a senior defense official familiar with the document.
Overall, Kurilla’s review does not determine that CENTCOM needs more U.S. troops, but he does recommend that the total number of troops assigned to the command not decrease.
The senior defense official said: “We do need a minimum force posture to do this. But we have to deal in reality. We have to acknowledge the national defense strategy focuses on Russia and China as the near peer competitors.” CENTCOM is more likely to be “an economy of force” going forward, the official said.
The CENTCOM area has been one of the most active and volatile regions for the U.S. military for the past two decades. It encompasses 21 countries covering more than 4.6 million miles and more than 560 million people, and Pentagon attempts to prioritize other theaters, particularly the Indo-Pacific region, have repeatedly been thwarted by threats from terrorist networks in the region.
Kurilla’s assessment also emphasizes the need for the command to focus on innovation in the future. Commercially available drones have become one of the region’s biggest threats, and a U.S. official said the proposed Red Sands testing facility will serve as an innovation lab to combat the threat from rockets and drones. The goal is to bring together partners to train on different systems that can be integrated to build defensive and offensive networks.