US forces monitor Middle Eastern skies at Qatar base during World Cup – Winnipeg Free Press

AL-UDEID AIR BASE, Qatar (AP) — As World Cup fans crowd stadiums across Qatar, about 8,000 U.S. troops stationed nearby watch the stormy Middle Eastern airspace from a major base managed by this energy-rich nation.

Built on a flat stretch of desert about 30 kilometers southwest of the Qatari capital Doha, Al-Udeid Air Base was once considered so sensitive that US military officers identified it as just some share “in Southwest Asia”.

Today, the sprawling hub is Qatar’s strategic gem, showcasing the close security partnership between the Gulf Arab emirate and the United States, which now views Doha as a major non-NATO ally. .

In this U.S. Air Force photo, an airman is seen at Al-Udeid Air Base, Qatar, August 24, 2022. As more than one million World Cup fans fill stadiums in cheering and carrying heady optimism through the streets of Doha, some 8,000 US troops are waging air wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and other Middle Eastern hotspots just miles away. (US Air Force/Airman 1st Class Brenden Beezley, via AP)

At the height of the US wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, more than 10,000 troops called out to the base and other sites in Qatar. That number has dropped by a fifth since the Biden administration began withdrawing some forces from the Middle East in preparation for so-called looming great power competitions with China and Russia.

But the Qataris have continued to pump money into the base – more than $8 billion since 2003. During a visit on Friday, Associated Press reporters saw a new barracks and dining hall as airmen were discussing further improvements along the way. And the airmen said the creation of a new task force focused on drones and other standard battlefield technologies at Al-Udeid shows Washington is here to stay, despite fears to the contrary.

“There’s a huge US Air Force commitment to this region,” US Air Force Lt. Col. Erin Brilla told the AP. “We remain as a lasting capacity.”

The birth and growth of Al-Udeid reflects the “eternal wars” that followed the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington by al-Qaeda. As Saudi Arabia demanded US forces leave the kingdom, Qatar offered Al-Udeid, built at an estimated initial cost of $1 billion.

Al-Udeid quickly became the forward headquarters of the US Army’s Central Command. Its Combined Air Operations Center oversees combat missions, surveillance flights and drones across the Middle East, North Africa and Asia.

While the “eternal wars” have ended, conflicts still rage in the region. As tensions with Iran run high, the United States and its allies are looking for ways to counter low-cost drones employed in the region by Tehran and its allied militias, such as Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

The new Air Force Task Force 99, newly stationed in Al-Udeid, is focused on countering them – or imposing the same “dilemmas” on militias that they do in the United States when they force their allies to fire a “million dollar missile against a $1,000 missile”. drone,” Brilla said.

This is a concrete example. The Saudi military repelled most Houthi barrages with its American-made Patriot surface-to-air missile system, typically firing two missiles at an incoming target. This has become expensive and inefficient, as each Patriot missile costs over $3 million and the kingdom’s supply is running out.

Task Force 99 follows a similar force in the US Navy’s 5th Fleet, which sends drones into Middle Eastern waters. Like the Navy, the Air Force wants to focus on widely available off-the-shelf technology that it could share with allied nations and not worry about losing, unlike the MQ-9 Reaper drones of 32 million who left Al-Udeid. in the old days.

For Qatar, hosting the base provides protection in a fractured region, allowing it to challenge its neighbors. Just two years ago, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain launched a boycott of Qatar, cutting trade and tourism ties. Iran, which shares a huge natural gas field with Qatar, lies just across the waters of the Persian Gulf.

As a shared hub for the Qatari Emiri Air Force, UK Royal Air Force and Central Command, the base has C-17 transporter parking lots and long runways to accommodate the heaviest bombers taking off in the desert heat up to 50 C. (122 F) in summer. It may look like a self-contained bubble, but with a Burger King, Pizza Hut and a gym.

Even so, World Cup fever seeps into the base – a rare dose of the outside world for American troops typically more engaged in far-flung wars than Qatar’s hijackings. Signs in Arabic promote the World Cup. US troops said they often traveled to the eight stadiums in and around Doha to cheer on the US national team when they had time, with one service member even gaining a reputation as a football fanatic. the World Cup after attending seven matches.

“I’m very excited to see us compete and put their hearts and souls into the field, just like our Airmen here who put their hearts and souls into the mission,” said U.S. Air Force Capt. Kayshel Trudell , which saw the United States beat Iran 1-0 earlier this week at the stadium, where members of the Air Force Band sang acoustic covers.

She also said she would be decked out in red, white and blue, cheering on the United States in their game against the Netherlands on Saturday – the country’s chance to reach the quarter-finals for the first time since 2002.

The FOX Sports Bar in Al-Udeid, the base’s main watering hole, is broadcasting the tournament, allowing soccer-loving troops to watch the games. FIFA authorized the Department of Defense’s US Forces Network to broadcast the matches.

“It’s an exciting time to be here in Qatar with the World Cup coming up,” Brilla said, adding that “almost all the TVs” in the command center are showing the games. She paused, apparently reflecting on the many screens tracing the sky. “Not those monitoring the aerial image, but the others.”


Follow Isabel DeBre on Twitter @IsabelDeBre


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