AL UDEID AIR BASE, Qatar – For 13 years, the United States has used a single building in this tiny Gulf state to command fighter jets, bombers, drones and other Air Force assets in a region that stretches from Northeast Africa through the Middle East to South Asia.
And yet on Saturday, as 300 planes were up in the air in key areas such as Syria, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf, hundreds of seats at the combined air and space operations center at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar sat empty.
Instead, the air power of the United States and its allies was being controlled by teams at Shaw Air Base in South Carolina – more than 7,000 miles away. Though the move was temporary – Al Udeid took back control on Sunday after 24 hours – it was a significant tactical shift.
The unannounced operation, which The Washington Post was invited to observe, was the first time U.S. command and control had been moved out of the region since the center was established in Saudi Arabia during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
While Air Force commanders say moving functions to a different base was a long-held ambition enabled by new technology, it comes amid renewed tension with Iran, a country that lies a couple hundred miles across the Persian Gulf from Al Udeid.
“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, using an initialism for the center.
Air Force officials said recent incidents involving the Islamic Republic added helped add urgency to the project. Iran shot down a U.S. surveillance drone in June; this month, key oil facilities in Saudi Arabia suffered a devastating surprise attack with what appeared to be Iranian-supplied weapons.
“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 say that if a conflict with Iran were to break out, it’s likely the combined air and space operations center at Al Udeid could be targeted and there is little guarantee that it could be defended.
“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.
The bases’ defense systems, which include Patriot batteries and other high-end missile defense, are designed mostly to combat planes and ballistic missiles which come in fast and from a high altitude, rather than low-flying cruise missiles and drones like those believed to have been used in the attack on the Saudi oil facilities.
Saltzman said 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 command and control operations mobile, the United States could rebound from an attack far quicker. That flexibility would also make the building that houses them at Al Udeid a less valuable target, which would allow them to redeploy air defense systems to other critical infrastructure.
The operation to move the center was the culmination a number of measures that the United States has taken to broadcast to the region that its Air Force is not only the world’s strongest – it’s also agile.
These moves included deploying formidable fighters such as the F-35 from their home base at Al Dhafra in the United Arab Emirates to bases in Saudi Arabia and Qatar – movements that require considerable logistical coordination, given that support staff such as maintenance teams need to travel, too.
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 United States 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 aim now is to run the center remotely once a month and remain the rest of the time at Al Udeid. Commanders want to work up to a schedule in which the center is operated remotely for eight hours of every 24-hour period, either at Shaw or elsewhere.
Officials at Al Udeid said there was no plan to close the center permanently. They said some functions there could not be replicated remotely. But they plan to transfer some of the 800 positions to U.S. soil 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.”
For Gulf allies that have invested in facilities used by the U.S. in the region, the move might be worrying. 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.
But the combination of resurgent risks and new technology is leading the United States to reconsider how much of its operations need to be based abroad.
As Coleman led journalists on a tour of the cavernous site on Saturday, he joked about working from his iPad.
“Eventually, I’d like to be able to do this from Starbucks.”