As World Cup fans throng stadiums across Qatar, some 8,000 US troops stationed nearby monitor the turbulent Middle East airspace from a central base run by the energy-rich nation.
Al Udeed Air Base, built on a flat strip of desert about 20 miles (30 km) southwest of Qatar’s capital, Doha, was once considered so sensitive that US military officers only identified it as a place “in Southwest Asia.”
Today, the sprawling center is Qatar’s strategic jewel, showcasing the Arab emirate’s close Gulf security partnership with the United States, which now sees Doha as a major non-NATO ally.
At the height of the US wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, more than 10,000 troops called to the base and other sites in Qatar. That number has dropped by a fifth since the Biden administration began pulling some forces from the Middle East ahead of so-called looming great power contests 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, AP reporters saw a new cabin and dining room as flight crews discussed other improvements along the way. And airmen said the creation of a new task force focused on drones and other battlefield technologies in al-Odeid shows Washington is here to stay, despite fears to the contrary.
“There is a tremendous commitment of the U.S. Air Force to this region,” U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Erin Barilla told the AP. “We remain as an ongoing capability.”
Al-Odeed’s birth and growth mirror the “eternal wars” that followed the September 11 attacks by al-Qaeda in New York and Washington. While Saudi Arabia asked US forces to leave the kingdom, Qatar offered Al-Odeed, which was built at an estimated initial cost of $1 billion.
Al-Odeed soon became the forward headquarters of the US military’s Central Command. Its Integrated Air Operations Center oversees combat, surveillance and drone missions throughout the Middle East, North Africa and Asia.
While the “Eternal Wars” have ended, conflicts still rage across the region. As tensions with Iran rise, the US and its allies are looking for ways to counter the cheap drones employed in the region by Tehran and its militia allies, such as the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
The Air Force’s new Task Force 99, recently deployed to al-Odeed, is focused on fighting them — or imposing the same “dilemmas” on militias that they do on the U.S. when they force allies to fire a “million-dollar missile versus $1,000. A drone,” Barilla said.
This is a real world example. The Saudi military has repelled most Houthi barrages with the 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 more than $3 million and the kingdom’s supply has run out.
Task Force 99 follows a similar force in the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which launches drones into Middle Eastern waters. Like the Navy, the Air Force wants to focus on widely available off-the-shelf technology that it can share with allied nations and not worry about losing, unlike the $32 million MQ-9 Reaper drones that Al-Odeid has flown 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 embargoed Qatar, cutting off trade and travel ties. Iran, which shares a huge natural gas field with Qatar, sits just across the waters of the Persian Gulf.
As the joint hub of the Emirati Air Force of Qatar, the British Royal Air Force and Central Command, the base boasts C-17 carrier hangars and long runways to accommodate the heaviest bombers taking off in the desert heat that can reach 50 C (122 F) in summer. It can feel like a self-contained bubble, albeit one with a Burger King, Pizza Hut and gym.
Still, World Cup fever is seeping into the base — a rare dose of the outside world for U.S. troops who are usually involved in wars more distant than Qatar’s diversions. Signs in Arabic promote the World Cup. U.S. soldiers said they travel frequently to the eight stadiums in and around Doha to beat the Team USA when they have time, with one service member even gaining a reputation as a World Cup fanatic after participating in seven games.
“I’m very excited to see us compete and put their heart and soul on the field, just like our Airmen here put their heart and soul into the mission,” said U.S. Air Force Capt. Kischel Trudell, who watched the U.S. beat Iran 1-0 earlier This week at the stadium, where members of the air force band covered acoustic covers.
She also said she will wear the red, white and blue, cheering on the USA in its match against the Netherlands on Saturday – the country’s chance to reach the quarter-finals for the first time since 2002.
Al-Odeid’s FOX Sports Bar, the base’s main watering hole, is broadcasting the tournament, allowing soccer-loving soldiers to follow the games. FIFA granted permission to the Defense Department’s American Forces Network to broadcast the games.
“It’s an exciting time to be here in Qatar with the World Cup right down the road,” Barilla said, adding that “pretty much every television” in the command center is showing the games. She paused, apparently contemplating the many screens tracking the sky. “Not the ones following the air picture, but the others.”