The US Air Force Commander Center’s operation was moved from Qatar to South Carolina, after operating out of the Middle Eastern country for the last 13 years.
The Command Center was used to command fighter jets, bombers, unmanned aerial vehicles and other US Air Force assets from Northeast Africa, the Middle East to Southeast Asia.
On September 28th, the building of the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) in al Udeid Air Base, Qatar was vacated.
All flights and operations were controlled from Shaw Air Base in South Carolina, US. Over 300 planes were in the air when the shift happened in Syria, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf.
On the next day, the CAOC in Qatar regained control, but this marked the first-time operation was transferred to the US since the CAOC was initially established in Saudi Arabia during the 1991 Gulf War.
Air Force Commanders said that new technology allowed the shift and it was a long-standing ambition. But it surely comes by no accident, as it happens during renewed tensions in the Middle East, with both US and Saudi Arabia having a tough rhetoric on Iran. The Islamic Republic also leaves no quarter in its responses.
“The functions that the CAOC provides for air power are so critical and so essential that we can’t afford to have a single point of failure,” said Maj. Gen. Chance Saltzman.
Air Force officials said that the increased tensions in the Middle East and the incidents blamed on Iran added urgency to possibly moving command away from the region – especially if a war would be coming.
“Iran has indicated multiple times through multiple sources their intent to attack U.S. forces,” said Col. Frederick Coleman, commander of the 609th Air and Space Operations Center.
“Frankly, as the war against ISIS winds down and as we continue to work through a potential peace process in Afghanistan, the region is calming down and potentially more stable than it has been in decades,” he said. “Except for Iran.”
Analysts, quite obviously, said that if a conflict arises the command center would likely be targeted.
“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,” said Douglas Barrie, a senior fellow specializing in aerospace at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
Most notably, the base is defended by Patriot batteries and other missile defense systems, whose capabilities were clearly presented in defending Aramco’s oil infrastructure on September 14th.
According to Saltzman, the practicalities of missile defense made complete protection impossible.
“It’s really probably better to think about this as an immune system,” he said. “There’s going to be germs that get into the body. It’s about how fast and how resilient you can fight it off.”
By making the CAOC mobile, the US could respond to a potential attack much more quickly.
Byron Pompa, AFCENT operations director at Al Udeid, said moving facilities and equipment often could compensate for not having a huge footprint across the region.
“In times like today,” he said, “we can’t have a ton of permanent-fixture operating bases throughout the area of responsibility.”
“Our goal is deterrence,” Saltzman said, not conflict. But the lack of communication with Iran can make sending that message difficult. The U.S. has to use other measures, he said, including turning off radar from time to time or planning flight routes to make it clear it does not intend to attack.
The plan is to operate the CAOC remotely once per month, while it would remain in Qatar during the remainder of the time. The idea is to reach 8 hours of distanced operation every 24-hour period, either from South Carolina or elsewhere.
There were no plans to close al Udeid permanently. Some of the 800 positions are to be transferred to US in the future.
“The goodness here is now we’re saving taxpayer dollars that we’re giving back to America,” Coleman said. “And, you know, America’s sons and daughters aren’t abroad in the Middle East. They’re home.”
Qatar, in particular, has invested heavily on Al Udeid in recent years, spending as much as $1.8 billion to renovate the base, the largest in the region, capable of housing more than 10,000 U.S. troops. Thus, shifting focus away from it may seem as a sort of loss on investment on Qatar’s side.
This is actually a development that leads to the consideration that the US and its allies may, in fact, be considering the highly likeliness of a war in the Middle East against Iran, showing the urgency of this shift of command capability.
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