By Bradley Graham
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 17, 2005
BAGRAM, Afghanistan -- The Soviets built a runway here more than 20 years ago to land fighter jets. The Americans, having pretty much worn that one out with their jumbo cargo planes, are building a new, longer strip meant to withstand the U.S. military's heaviest loads.
The construction, at the four-year mark in America's military presence in Afghanistan, isn't stopping there. Plans call for expanded ramps for fighter jets and helicopters, multiple ammunition storage bunkers and a six-story control tower, for a total bill exceeding $96 million.
An even more expensive airfield renovation is underway in Iraq at the Balad air base, a hub for U.S. military logistics, where for $124 million the Air Force is building additional ramp space for cargo planes and helicopters.
And farther south, in Qatar, a state-of-the-art, 104,000-square-foot air operations center for monitoring U.S. aircraft in the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa is taking shape in the form of a giant concrete bunker. The $500 million price tag includes a set of support facilities that would be the envy of any air force.
All in all, the U.S. military has more than $1.2 billion in projects either underway or planned in the Central Command region -- an expansion plan that U.S. commanders say is necessary both to sustain operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and to provide for a long-term presence in the area.
But the building boom has raised questions, particularly in view of expectations that fewer U.S. troops will be engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan starting next year.
"With all this construction, how long are we going to be here?" an Air Force captain asked Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, the Central Command's top officer, as the general toured a line of A-10 attack jets here this week. In the distance, 12-wheel dump trucks hauled loads of dirt and phalanxes of bulldozers pushed fresh earth to make way for the new runway.
"I don't know myself," Abizaid replied. He noted that the base could end up being turned over to the Afghans. But U.S. combat operations may be required "for quite a while," he added, "so making it right to start with is not a bad investment."
U.S. military commanders anticipate that reductions in ground forces in the region will not necessarily mean reductions in air power -- or at least not as quickly.
In Afghanistan, where plans call for NATO troops to supplant some U.S. soldiers, possibly by next year, U.S. aircraft will still be needed to provide cover, officers said. In Iraq, where homegrown forces are the key to withdrawing U.S. troops, development of an Iraqi air force lags well behind formation of the new army.
"As the ground force shrinks, we'll need the air to be able to put a presence in parts of the country where we don't have soldiers, to keep eyes out where we don't have soldiers on the ground," said Lt. Gen. Walter E. Buchanan III, who oversees Central Command's air operations.
At its peak strength in the region during the "shock and awe" phase of the invasion of Iraq, the U.S. Air Force operated from about three dozen bases. Some were in Central Asian countries that previously had been closed to U.S. military aircraft, others in Middle Eastern countries that expanded the number of airfields available for U.S. flights.
In the past two years, the number of bases in the region used by U.S. military planes has dropped by more than half, to about 16, as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have evolved into grinding ground campaigns against elusive insurgents.
But U.S. aircraft still fly often -- an average of 170 sorties a day last month for strike, airlift, refueling and surveillance missions over Iraq, and 65 a day over Afghanistan, according to Central Command figures. And combat planes frequently are being used in nontraditional ways -- for instance, to scout for suspicious activity or to ferry supplies to reduce the load for more vulnerable ground convoys.
Here at Bagram, about 40 miles north of Kabul, concrete slabs on the runway surface have literally been crumbling under the weight of heavy transport aircraft. Repair teams attempt to patch cracks as many as six times a day. But U.S. commanders ultimately concluded that it would be easier and cheaper to build a new 11,800-foot runway.
The project is due for completion in March, and the timing has proven fortuitous. Last month, the government of Uzbekistan ordered the United States to stop flying out of Karshi-Khanabad air base, known as K2, which had become a vital logistics hub for U.S. military and humanitarian operations in Afghanistan. While the Pentagon has shifted the C-130 transport planes once stationed in Uzbekistan to Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan, plans call for at least some of those planes to move eventually to Bagram, enhancing its growing role as a major air logistics center.
The efforts at Bagram, along with a $34 million runway improvement project at Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, are being driven by the military mission in Afghanistan, according to Buchanan and other senior commanders.
But other major airfield expansion work in the region, notably at al-Udeid air base in Qatar and al-Dhafra in the United Arab Emirates, is related not to any specific conflict but rather is meant to establish these locations as "enduring bases" for U.S. military aircraft, Buchanan said. The expectation is that these bases will remain available for U.S. use for at least another decade or two.
"In a number of cases, we're asking host countries to contribute, and in most cases they are," said Col. Josuelito Worrell, who manages Air Force construction in the Central Command region. For example, a substantial share of the bill for the new operations center and aircraft support facilities at al-Udeid is being funded by the Qatari government, U.S. officers said.