This remote military base on the edge of the deep emptiness of the Arabian desert is probably the best place in the world to see the new high-tech, post-Sept. 11 American way of warfare.
The base, stretching across the flat, gravelly wasteland 70 miles southeast of Riyadh, the capital, was added to a just-begun Saudi installation after the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in northeastern Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 Air Force personnel and wounded hundreds more. Since then, the Air Force has shifted almost all its personnel in Saudi Arabia into this hermetically sealed enclave of low buildings, guard towers and checkpoints.
Consistent with the way the U.S. armed forces fight nowadays, the focus is air power. No military has ever placed so much emphasis on aerial combat, with some experts -- particularly Air Force generals -- arguing that, in a historic reversal, U.S. ground forces now support air forces.
But while Prince Sultan Air Base has its complement of warplanes -- F-15 fighters, EA-6B Prowler electronic jammers, KC-135 aerial refueling tanker planes, AWACS command-and-control aircraft -- the star of the operation is not the aircraft. Rather, it is the world's most sophisticated air command post, a Combined Air Operations Center, a drab, squat building whose electronics process multiple streams of intelligence -- from satellites, U-2 and Predator reconnaissance aircraft, and civilian experts at the CIA and other agencies.
The data are quickly boiled down to targeting information that is transmitted into the cockpits of aircraft high over Afghanistan or Iraq's two "no-fly" zones. The air operations center would be coordinating the entire air assault in a war with Iraq.
"It is the key to how the Air Force operates today," said retired Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney.
The Combined Air Operations Center sits in the desert in regal isolation from the rest of the base. From the outside, it has the flimsy look of a commercial chicken coop.
The Air Force would not permit a reporter to go inside. But officers who have used the center say its primary advantage is that it can handle a tidal wave of information. The Air Force measures data flow in "T-1" lines -- a line capable of handling about 24 channels, each of which can carry 64,000 bits of data per second. The 1991 Persian Gulf War air operations center had the equivalent of slightly more than one T-1 line, said one official. The center here has the equivalent of about 100.
"When you go in there, it looks like a movie made out of a Tom Clancy novel, with whole walls of moving pictures," said Brig. Gen. Dale C. Waters, commander of the 363rd Air Expeditionary Wing here.
The center will make a huge difference if there is a war with Iraq, one retired Air Force general said, noting that it would be the first time that the U.S. military has had such a command facility up and running at the outset of a war. Consumers of the center's product agree. The improvement in how the U.S. military plans, executes and coordinates an attack is extraordinary, say those involved.
"Everything is digitized," said Capt. John Rhone, a weapons controller in an AWACS command-and-control aircraft.
Just a few years ago, Rhone said, he would painstakingly receive targeting information by radio. Now it is transmitted into a computer aboard his aircraft. It is similar to the difference between getting a description of a photograph over the phone and seeing the image in an e-mail.
However, all those capabilities raise some concerns. For example, retired Air Force Gen. Charles Horner, who commanded U.S. air operations during the Gulf War, said he was concerned that the ability of senior commanders to pull in data from everywhere could over-centralize control of air combat operations and lead to micromanagement. Those technological advances, he concluded, may have led to "steps backward in command of forces."
Lt. Col. Matt Molloy, commander of the F-15 fighter squadron here, agreed, saying there is sometimes "a little tug of war" between pilots and the people in the center "about how much direction you want to take."
But the dominant view in the Air Force is that the high-tech air operations center is here to stay as the controlling element in the way the U.S. fights. "They're the quarterback of the war," said Lt. Col. Michael Benson, commander of the AWACS command-and-control squadron here. "Not only do they plan, they manage the execution."
There is something mirage-like about Prince Sultan Air Base. The U.S. operation was not here a few years ago, and it may not be a few years hence. Such policy considerations are not the domain of most Air Force personnel here, however. Capt. Shawn Coco, 33, an F-15 pilot from Baton Rouge, La., described his typical workday, which revolves around five-hour-missions into the Container, as pilots call the no-fly zone over southern Iraq: "Forty-five minutes to Iraq, hit the tanker [for refueling], go into the Container, then go back to the tanker, go back in, and you're done."
At night, he plays sports, watches movies and studies for his master's degree. Except for missions in the air, he has never been off the base. In fact, U.S. policy is that no one leaves the base to go elsewhere in Saudi Arabia, except on official business, and even then only with approval from headquarters.
It is almost as difficult for an outsider to gain access to the U.S. operation, which requires approval from a number of Saudi and U.S. military officials.
When they finish their duties for the day -- or for the night, when no-fly-zone missions are often conducted -- the 4,000 U.S. personnel here ride several miles across the red sands to the big rectangular compound where they live, which is sealed off from the rest of the base by multiple checkpoints and barbed wire fences.
"It's not too different from a college dorm," said Maj. Chuck Anthony, a spokesman here. But officials know what it looks like, with the two-story, sand-colored living quarters surrounded by a ring of tall guard towers.
"The fact of the matter is that people at Prince Sultan are actually living in a prison," Gen. Chuck Wald, a former commander of U.S. air forces in the region, once said at an Air Force gathering.
"I call it a nice secure home away from home," said Benson, the AWACS commander.
Inside the fence, it is an odd little American wonderland. It feels as if it were run by a particularly watchful but benevolent prison authority. Lunch on Sunday at Camel Lot, one of the facility's two mess halls, was beef stroganoff or baked chicken, with sandwiches, soup and a salad bar, all served under a large-screen TV displaying CNN.
William Jackson, a civilian video teleconferencing specialist from Knoxville, Tenn., ate outside at the base Burger King.
Across the way, four movies were showing under a large rubberized tent -- "The Sum of All Fears," "Mr. Deeds," "Insomnia," and "The Bourne Identity." Nearby is a library and a pool, the latter closed during the brief period of the Saudi winter when it is too cool to swim comfortably, but a welcome relief when summer temperatures reach 120 degrees.
Master Sgt. Rocky Shaffer, of Salt Lake City, chose to play billiards with Staff Sgt. Anne Goede from Manteca, Calif., while country music played on a jukebox. Outside, a jogging track encircles the entire facility. On the southern side, there is nothing on the horizon but horizon. Maps indicate that there is only one road for several hundred miles to the south.
Despite the amenities, troops seem eager to head home. Their sentiments are expressed at the Halloween-like Boot Hill, a mock graveyard built up over the past five years in the desert behind an aviation fuel storage area. A picket fence encircles more than 200 pairs of boots slung over the grave sites. A sign warns that Air Force personnel should not look back after burying their boots or they will be doomed to return for another tour of duty here.