Amn. Austin Collings, a fuels distribution specialist, connects a hose to a fuel hydrant on the flight line at Al Udeid AB, Qatar. Photo: MSgt. Phil Speck/ANG
PUTTING DOWN ROOTS
As the home to the largest expeditionary air wing in the world and the combined air operations center directing air operations throughout the Middle East, this enormous, dusty base outside of Doha has housed tens of thousands of US airmen since it began hosting American operations in the 1990s. Now, the Qatari government is hoping to make the arrangement a little more permanent.
Qatar’s defense minister, Khalid bin Mohammed al-Attiyah, announced during a visit to Washington in late January that his country hoped to expand the base with 200 new homes for American troops and their families, new schools, and other support facilities.
As of February, a week after al-Attiyah’s initial announcement, 35 US troops had their families living with them in the country: A “small but growing number,” Col. Tom Bongiovi, commander of the 379th Mission Support Group, told Air Force Magazine.
The families live off base in a compound, with leased housing arranged by the US Army Corps of Engineers, and the children attend a private school or are homeschooled. Some of the spouses work on base, while others work in the local economy, Bongiovi said.
“It will very soon become a family-oriented place for our American friends there,” al-Attiyah said when announcing the facility improvements, according to Al Jazeera.
“We want more of the families to be stable and feel more comfortable in their stay.”
Qatar is a “unique, strategic location” in the CENTCOM area of responsibility, and “the Qatari military and government have been critical partners in the fight against ISIS and the Taliban with their support of Al Udeid Air Base,” Col. Jeffrey Schriener, acting 379th Air Expeditionary Wing commander added in an email.
“The dynamic growth of Doha and the surrounding area have made this an inviting place for our small number of command-sponsored families. We look forward to seeing continued development and opportunities as the run up to the World Cup continues,” he added.
The proposal from Qatar came as the country prepares to host the 2022 World Cup and about eight months after Saudi Arabia and several other Muslim countries in the region broke all diplomatic and commercial ties with the Gulf Cooperation Council Country, cutting off air, sea, and land connections to Qatar.
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In April, al-Attiyah visited Washington again and met with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. An official statement released from the Pentagon after the meeting said the two leaders discussed “mutual security interests, including the campaign to defeat ISIS, support for the NATO mission in Afghanistan,” and improvements to Al Udeid.
The move to build family housing and other facilities would not be the first time the Qatari government paid for permanent buildings for US use. The Qataris previously funded the construction of the US Central Command Forward headquarters building at a cost of $190 million and the Air Forces Central Command headquarters, Combined Air Operations Center, and the wing operations center at a cost of $255 million for all three. Qatar also funded the outside runway and parallel taxiway that enabled the 379 Air Expeditionary Wing’s ability to operate the B-52 from Al Udeid.
The outside runway cost $467 million, while the parallel taxiway cost $143 million, according to information provided by an Air Force spokeswoman.
“The American taxpayer is getting a good deal here,” Bongiovi said.
Brig. Gen. Jason Armagost, commander of the 379th AEW, said it is “a time of opportunity,” though he stressed that the wing was still awaiting guidance on the matter.
“We’re always aiming at a more enduring presence to support the airmen,” he said, noting that six-month rotations are a challenge for continuity of engagements with the host country. Longer stays would help with that, he said, though there are many factors to consider.
The Air Force has struggled with some housing on the base in the past. In 2015 and 2016, many airmen came forward to complain about extensive mold in what officials said were temporary living facilities.
Air Force Surgeon General Lt. Gen. Mark A. Ediger told Air Force Magazine in 2016 the service was working to improve the maintenance of those facilities and to fix or replace buildings they would continue to use. He also noted that a construction project finished that year would allow 2,000 more troops to move out of temporary facilities and into permanent buildings that would be easier to maintain.
Armagost said the wing was “on top of” the challenges, but new permanent housing would help. The facilities with problems were not designed to be lived in in a sweltering, humid desert environment for 15 years, he said.
The base houses more than 10,000 US troops, and hosts the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing, the CAOC, the largest vehicle fleet in the Air Force, the largest blood transshipment center in the Department of Defense, and DOD’s largest fuel supply point.
Jennifer Hlad is a freelance journalist based in the Middle East and a former Air Force Magazine senior editor.