Hagel’s verbal assurances for continued U.S. presence in the Middle East come with action

Walter Pincus
Reporter December 11, 2013

Proof that U.S. forces will stay in the Middle East goes beyond Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s assurances at a conference Friday in Bahrain.

For example, Hagel spoke of an initiative with the Gulf Cooperation Council that involved “upgrading our regular air and air defense chiefs’ conference to include missile defense cooperation as a very distinct agenda item. We believe doing so will allow for continued progress in missile defense.”

What Hagel did not mention was the continued buildup of X-band radar in the area that enhances antimissile defense capabilities against Iran.

The first AN/TPY-2 radar went into a spot atop Mt. Keren in Israel’s Negev Desert, where a discreet U.S. military installation is operated by about 150 U.S. service members and contractors. Tehran is about 1,000 miles to the northeast, but the radar is “so sensitive it can spot a softball tossed in the air from 2,900 miles away,” Time magazine reported in 2012.

Another AN/TPY-2 radar is deployed at Turkey’s Kurecik air force base, which is 240 miles from the Iranian border. It, too, is operated by about 150 U.S. military personnel and contractors.

More recently, the Wall Street Journal disclosed that a similar X-band radar is going to a secret site in Qatar, all but guaranteeing early warning for missiles launched from almost any part of Iran and aimed at the Middle East.

For years, Qatar has been the site of the Al Udeid air base, home to thousands of U.S. military personnel and a site from which U.S., British and Australian aircraft have engaged in the fighting in Afghanistan. It also has been the home of the Combined Air Operations Center as well as other centers needed for military activities today in Afghanistan. But COAC is built to continue into the future.

In a 2011 release, the Air Force Central Command described COAC as “the most advanced operations center in history.” Hundreds of active and reserve personnel work “satellite communications, imagery analysis, network design, computer programming, radio systems, systems administration and many other fields” in a setting that “resembles the set of a futuristic movie,” the release noted.

On Tuesday, Hagel visited the Qatar facility and said, “There is no facility like this truly in the world with the technology, the expertise, the leadership, all integrated into almost 30 nations’ capacities.” The facility can track up to 50 close air support flights a day taking place over Afghanistan and process surveillance imagery from satellites and aircraft.

There are other sites in the area, built up over the past decade, that are being made permanent. Take Al Dhafra air base, operated by the United Arab Emirates Air Force and located 20 miles south of Abu Dhabi. Stanley Consultants disclosed in a news release that it had been hired by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers “to design an Air Defense Site and Cantonment Area to replace an existing temporary camp and provide force protection to USAF (U.S. Air Force) personnel.” The project is to include “housing, dining, recreation, administrative, medical, fire, communications, security, post office . . . and morale facilities.” That sounds permanent to me.

Stanley Consultants said the Al Dhafra base housed the Air Force’s 380th Air Expeditionary Wing.

The 380th Air Expeditionary Wing’s Web site does not disclose its overseas location. It refers only to being located “at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia.”

Just what it is doing is also not described on the unit’s Web site, although there are some hints. The site shows KC-10 fuel tankers that handle refueling of fighter and early-warning aircraft. It also shows a video of U-2 Dragon Lady surveillance aircraft coming in for a landing and describes the flight as “the final combat mission for Major Patrick Hudson.”

In his Friday speech, Hagel said, “the U.S. military is building new strategic agility . . . in the Middle East,” a phrase I took to mean enhancing programs and facilities that proved useful for the Iraq and Afghan wars and would provide the security necessary for any future fighting.

Hagel talked of more than 35,000 military personnel in the area representing a ground, air and naval presence, including 10,000 forward-employed Army personnel.

What he didn’t expand on was his mention of “heavy armor, artillery, and attack helicopters to serve as a theater reserve and a bulwark against aggression.”

An example of that is the pre-positioning of military equipment in area countries. The so-called Army Proposition Stocks program for the Southwest Asia area, which includes the Middle East, is referred to as APS-5. For the most part, its most publicized elements involve equipment stored in Kuwait and Qatar.

Such stocks include equipment for standard brigade combat teams plus ammunition and watercraft. The stockpile is designed so that early-arriving forces can match up with what’s there for training exercises or immediate contingency challenges. Bases such as those in Kuwait include training areas and firing ranges as well as equipment.

They continue to be expanded. Last May, a pre-solicitation from the Corps of Engineers called for the construction of APS-5 warehouses in Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, that would cost between $25 million and $100 million. On Oct. 4, the Corps of Engineers issued another pre-solicitation notice, this time for building an APS-5 power plant costing between $5 million and $10 million at the same Kuwait camp.

Some of the largest pre-positioned stocks are located in Israel, where up to $1.2 billion in surplus U.S. military equipment — including missiles, armored vehicles and artillery ammunition — has been accumulated at several locations under special legislation that permitted up to that amount for use by the United States or Israel.

Last Friday, while in Bahrain and aboard the reconfigured ship the USS Ponce, Hagel tried to address claims that the United States was retreating from the Middle East.

“I will assure our partners that we’re not going anywhere,” he said.

The complete military record supports that statement.

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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