I still remember my first phone call to the US Air Force’s Combined Air and Space Operations Center (CAOC) back in 2006. It’s not an easy place to reach.
First you had to dial a lengthy international phone number then enter a separate 10-digit exchange. The quality of the call varied each time and there was about a two-second delay, so you would spend a lot time talking over each other. “Can you … No, it’s OK, you go ahead.”
I wanted to set up a call with the director of the CAOC, a high-tech facility filled with rows of computer stations, each one with between two and six screens. Think of NASA’s mission control, just with more screens at each station. In the front of the room, four mammoth screens were projected onto the wall.
Here the Air Force and airmen from partner nations monitor and control US and NATO air operations over Afghanistan and the rest of the Middle East. When I called for the first time in 2006, the CAOC was focusing heavily on Iraq and Afghanistan.
An energetic captain on the other end of the phone helped me set up an interview with the colonel in charge of the place. Toward the end of the interview, I recall asking, “so where are you guys?” There was silence. Then after a few seconds the captain replied: “We’re at the CAOC in Southwest Asia.”
“Are you in Iraq,” I asked. Through the phone I could sense the smirk on his face when he simply replied, “Southwest Asia.”
After getting off the phone, I went to my editor, who explained how the military has ground rules for identifying the location of certain installations. The majority of these sites were in combat zones. Basically if you don’t agree with the rules, or break the rules, you don’t get access.
Over the next several months, the captain set up more than a dozen interviews. I received weekly updates from commanders about operations and broke a fair number of stories. I quickly caught on that they were located in Qatar at Al Udeid Air Base, which is west of Doha, but still couldn’t disclose the location as part of the rules.
I never quite understood this. When you call the base phone number it says: “You have reached Al Udeid Air Base, please enter your …”
In time, I learned that the decision not to disclose the location of the CAOC had nothing to do with the Air Force, but more “the host nation,” as the defense officials like to say. While it is not difficult to find out information about the base, heck it has a Wikipedia page, the Qataris did not want to broadcast the fact that thousands of American airmen and dozens of military aircraft were based in the country, even though the US has been operating there since 2003.
Up until a few years ago, the Air Force’s promotion announcements referenced “Al Udeid,” before being replaced with “Southwest Asia.”
In November 2007, I would have my opportunity to visit the Al Udeid and see the impressive CAOC facility in person. I met several folks I had interviewed over the years and finally had the ability to paint a better picture for readers about what exactly went on within the command center, which at the time resided in a khaki-colored warehouse surrounded by concrete walls and barricades. (A new, more sophisticated CAOC facility was under construction when I was there.) But the same rules applied. I couldn’t print my location. I even had to sign papers that said I would not disclose the base’s location. My datelines from the stories I filed, read: “AN AIR BASE, Southwest Asia.”
Now let’s jump to December 2013. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, on traveling around the Middle East, stopped at Al Udied, as other secretaries have over the years. But this time was different. There were open references to the base in transcripts and official DoD photos.
So, fast forward to today when I received a press release from US Air Forces Central Command. The dateline, “AL UDIED AIR BASE, Qatar.” The Air Force has also quietly posted some pictures from of airmen working at the base with open references to their location in recent weeks.
It’s taken close to 10 years, but the thin veil that has covered Al Udeid is finally off.
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