US trains on transfer of operations out of Qatar

The possibility of the United States moving operations from Al Udeid is likely to be a source of concern and disappointment for Qatar, which recently spent $1.8 billion to expand the base.
Saturday 05/10/2019
Away from base. F-22 Raptors taxis prepare to take off at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. (Reuters)
Away from base. F-22 Raptors taxis prepare to take off at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. (Reuters)

WASHINGTON - Washington’s test-transfer of US Air Force operations from Al Udeid Airbase in Qatar to Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina is part of a US effort to adjust to emerging threats and new military realities, analysts said.

For 24 hours in September, control of the operations was transferred from the Combined Air and Space Operations Centre (CAOC) at Al Udeid to Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina.

The United States’ move came after weeks of increased tensions between Washington and Tehran. The September 14 Saudi Aramco attack and June 20 Iranian downing of a US drone have raised concerns among US military officials about a possible Iranian strike on US interests in the region.

Officials said the remote-control drill had already been planned but new technology and recent attacks in the region led them to accelerate the schedule.

An estimated 11,000 US service personnel are stationed at Al Udeid, the largest US airbase in the Middle East since it began operating in 2002. It houses the CAOC and US Central Command staff. CAOC is one of the senior commands in the NATO air-defence system, providing control over airpower, including jets, bombers and unmanned aerial vehicles throughout the Middle East.

The shift-of-control operation was not publicly announced but officials said the temporary move was part of a long-term plan to conduct operations in the Middle East from remote locations. Full operations were returned to Al Udeid after 24 hours.

The Air Force is planning to operate remotely one full day a month and eight hours a day in the future, the Washington Post reported. Military officials told the Post the increase in remote operations means positions in the base would be transferred to the United States.

The possibility of the United States moving operations from Al Udeid is likely to be a source of concern and disappointment for Qatar, which recently spent $1.8 billion to expand the base.

Although Washington has not discussed plans to fully transfer operations from the base, Doha’s close ties to Iran have made that an option in some US military circles.

Some analysts said the move was not in reaction to tensions between Washington and Tehran. Becca Wasser, a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, said: “This was another move that had been in the works for some time. It’s not a reaction to the latest Iranian provocations but coming clean about it now is a clear message to Tehran.”

Last summer, retired US Air Force General Charles F. Wald, a former commander of US Central Command Air Forces, called for the airbase to be closed if Qatar did not sever its connections with Iran.

In an open letter to US President Donald Trump, Wald said: “In this current climate, where Iran is accused of attacking foreign oil tankers and US drones and has announced it’s accelerating work on its nuclear programme, Qatar must choose: It can keep its US airbase or its ties to Tehran.”

He added: “It is the very danger posed by Iran that leads me to call for the Al Udeid Air Base to be closed if Qatar doesn’t change its behaviour. It has shown support for Iran, which has been the world’s foremost abettor of state-sponsored terrorism and ill-will in the Middle East and the very one we are prepping to combat.”

The transition to more remote control of operations is a tactical move by the United States. If war broke out with Iran, Al Udeid base would be a likely target.

Douglas Barrie, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told the Post: “It doesn’t take a whole heap of imagination to look at it and think if push came to shove and it was a full-blown conflict, it would be one of the priority targets.”

Nicholas Heras, a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security, said: “Iran has made it no secret that it will directly attack US bases in that region in the event of a war.”

The tactical shift would lessen the effect of an attack on Al Udeid, which might be difficult to defend. US Air Force Major-General B. Chance Saltzman asserted that the airbase’s functions are “so essential that we can’t afford to have a single point of failure.”

The US military seems to think agility and adaptability are key notions in meeting any challenges, Byron Pompa, US Air Force Central Command operations director at Al Udeid, told the Post.

“In times like today,” he said, “we can’t have a tonne of permanent-fixture operating bases throughout the area of responsibility.”

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