Gulf War II’s nerve centre

IRAQ: THE LOOMING WAR

MILITARY PREPARATIONS

Come war, the shots are going to be called from here.

The United States has built itself an outpost that will be able to track every missile, every aircraft, every military unit on land, air and sea, be it its own or the enemy’s, when war against Mr Saddam Hussein breaks out.

The area of coverage of this Persian Gulf nerve centre at Camp Al Saliyah is massive. It can oversee operations from as far as the Horn of Africa to Afghanistan working out of 27 nondescript warehouses – each the size of a football field.

The spokesman for the Command Centre, Major Rumy Nielson-Green, told The Straits Times: ‘We are the eyes and ears of the entire theatre of operations and will be providing valuable information to our commander if there is war.’

One of these buildings houses the Joint Operations Centre where high-speed data links and banks of computers and giant multi-plasma monitors will come to life in the event of a war with Iraq.

This is also where US Army General Tommy Franks, with the help of 50 battle strategists, will fight the war from, when President George W. Bush gives the go-ahead.

But only months ago, Camp Al Saliyah was just a military depot for US operations in the Gulf, a base for its armoured vehicles.

Last September, against a backdrop of Mr Bush’s determination to oust Mr Saddam from power, Washington began converting the warehouses in Camp Al Saliyah into a high-tech home away from home for the US Central Command based in Tampa, Florida.

Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld flew into Doha in December to formalise a deal with the Qatari government. It was clear the place had been transformed. The tanks and heavy armour had gone and in its stead were state-of-the-art computers to simulate complex battles.

Yet, Doha was not the first choice for the US military nerve centre.

That honour goes to Saudi Arabia’s Riyadh, where the Americans had set up a command headquarters that controlled coalition military operations in the 1991 Gulf War.

But the US was forced to look elsewhere after the Saudis said their base could only be used for military operations against Iraq which had the United Nations’ approval.

Doha seized the opportunity. For several years it had been trying to force a strategic alliance with Washington. It had seen what had happened to Kuwait and knew what Iraq was capable of.

Viewing the US as its main protector in a volatile region, the tiny sheikhdom forked out more than US$1 billion (S$1.7 billion) to build the Al Udeid air base to attract American forces to Qatar.

The US used that air base to launch air strikes against Afghanistan last year, and has been developing the infrastructure there ever since.

The 4,500-m-long runway at the air base is the longest in the Gulf region and will be a prized asset in an Iraqi war. The F15-E Strike Eagles, fighters capable of air-to-air and air-to-ground combat, share runway space with massive mid-air refuelling tankers – the Strato tankers and the KC-10A Extenders. Also ominously present at the base are F-16s and the F117-A Stealth fighter-bombers.

Since the start of operations in Afghanistan, the US has built new runways and parking ramps at Al Udeid and fortified hangars to protect American warplanes from bombing raids. A tent city to house several thousand soldiers has been erected and bunkers for bombs and other ordnance built.

Some 4,000 US troops are currently stationed in Qatar. The command mission has about 1,000 people, but officials have said this can double with the onset of war.

Much of the focus over the last month here had been on fine-tuning coordination.

With some 300,000 US air, land and sea forces in the Persian Gulf to coordinate, there is no taking chances.

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