12/02 10:11 CST US forces monitor Mideast skies at Qatar base amid World Cup
US forces monitor Mideast skies at Qatar base amid World Cup
By ISABEL DEBRE and JON GAMBRELL
AL-UDEID AIR BASE, Qatar (AP) --- As World Cup fans throng stadiums across
Qatar, about 8,000 American troops stationed just nearby watch over the
airspace of the tumultuous Middle East from a major base run by this
Built on a flat stretch of desert about 20 miles (30 kilometers) southwest of
Qatari capital Doha, Al-Udeid Air Base once was considered so sensitive that
American military officers identified it as only being somewhere "in southwest
Today, the sprawling hub is Qatar's strategic gem, showcasing the Gulf Arab
emirate's tight security partnership with the United States, which now
considers Doha a major non-NATO ally.
At the height of U.S. wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, more than 10,000
troops called the base and other sites in Qatar home. That number has dropped
by a fifth since the Biden administration began drawing down some forces from
the Mideast in preparation for the so-called Great Powers competitions looming
with China and Russia.
But the Qataris have continued to pour money into the base --- more than $8
billion since 2003. On a visit Friday, Associated Press journalists saw a new
barracks and dining hall as airmen discussed other improvements on the way. And
airmen said the creation of a new task force focused on drones and other
off-the-shelf battlefield technology at Al-Udeid shows that Washington is there
to stay, despite fears to the contrary.
"There is a tremendous commitment from the U.S. Air Force to this region," U.S.
Air Force Lt. Col. Erin Brilla told the AP. "We are staying as an enduring
Al-Udeid's birth and growth mirrors the "forever wars" that followed the Sept.
11 attacks in New York and Washington by al-Qaida. As Saudi Arabia asked
American forces to leave the kingdom, Qatar offered Al-Udeid, built at an
estimated initial cost of $1 billion.
Al-Udeid soon became the forward headquarters of the U.S. military's Central
Command. Its Combined Air Operations Center oversees combat missions,
surveillance flights and drones across the Mideast, North Africa and Asia.
While the "forever wars" wound down, conflicts still rage across the region. As
tensions with Iran run high, the U.S. and its allies are looking for ways to
counter the low-cost drones employed in the region by Tehran and its militia
allies, like Yemen's Houthi rebels.
The Air Force's new Task Force 99, newly stationed al Al-Udeid, is focused on
countering them --- or imposing the same "dilemmas" on militias that they do on
the U.S. when they force allies to fire a "$1 million missile versus a $1,000
drone," Brilla said.
That's a real-world example. The Saudi military has fended off most of the
Houthis' barrages with its American-made Patriot surface-to-air missile system,
typically firing two missiles at an incoming target. That has become expensive
and inefficient, as each Patriot missile costs more than $3 million and the
kingdom's supply has run low.
Task Force 99 follows a similar force in the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, which
dispatches drones into Mideast waters. Like the Navy, the Air Force wants to
focus on widely available off-the-shelf technology it could share with allied
nations and not fret about losing, as opposed to the $32 million MQ-9 Reaper
drones that have flown out of Al-Udeid in the past.
For Qatar, hosting the base provides protection in a fractured region, allowing
it to defy its neighbors. Just two years ago, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab
Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain mounted a boycott on Qatar, severing trade and
travel links. Iran, which shares a huge natural gas field with Qatar, sits just
across the waters of the Persian Gulf.
As the shared hub for the Qatari Emiri Air Force, the U.K. Royal Air Force and
Central Command, the base boasts parking lots of C-17 transporters and the long
runways to accommodate the heaviest bombers taking off in the desert heat that
can reach 50 C (122 F) in the summer. It can feel like a self-contained bubble,
albeit one with a Burger King, a Pizza Hut and a gym.
Even so, World Cup fever is seeping onto the base --- a rare dose of the
outside world for the U.S. troops typically more engaged in faraway wars than
Qatar's diversions. Signs in Arabic promote the World Cup. American troops said
they often drive out to the eight stadiums in and around Doha to root for the
United States national team when they get the time, with one service member
even earning a reputation as a World Cup fanatic after attending seven matches.
"I am through and through very excited to see us compete and put their heart
and souls on the field, just like our airmen here putting their hearts and
souls into the mission," said U.S. Air Force Capt. Kayshel Trudell, who saw the
U.S. beat Iran 1-0 earlier this week at the stadium, where members of the Air
Force Band crooned acoustic covers.
She also said she'd be decked out in red, white and blue, cheering on the U.S.
at its match against the Netherlands on Saturday --- the country's chance to
reach the quarterfinals for the first time since 2002.
Al-Udeid's FOX Sports Bar, the base's main watering hole, broadcasts the
tournament, allowing troops passionate about soccer to follow the matches. FIFA
has granted permission to the Defense Department's American Forces Network to
air the matches.
"It's an exciting time to be here in Qatar with the World Cup right down the
road," Brilla said, adding that "just about every TV" in the command center
shows the matches. She paused, apparently reflecting on the many screens
tracking the sky. "Not the ones monitoring the air picture, but the others."
Follow Isabel DeBre and Jon Gambrell on Twitter at @IsabelDeBre and