Air attacks on the self-styled ISIS—strikes that have weakened and stalled the terrorist group’s gains of last year, when it took cities and captured large stocks of weapons—are not purely a US- or NATO ally-only affair. The air forces of Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are playing a big role in the anti-ISIS campaign.
This coalition effort took on great urgency last year, when ISIS rampaged through Iraq and Syria, routing the Iraqi army, surging into Iraqi Kurdistan, and nearly taking the city of Irbil, threatening Baghdad itself.
Seven months into Operation Inherent Resolve, the broad coalition of allies striking ISIS targets from the air includes several Persian Gulf allies that were previously severely publicity-shy. It highlights the long program of low profile training, personnel exchanges, liaison programs, and capacity building activities with the US that helped these military forces get combat-ready.
The participation of Gulf Cooperation Council state air arms in the OIR campaign is a “very significant” development for US military-to-military relationships in the Gulf region, said USAF Lt. Gen. David L. Goldfein at an Air Force Association breakfast last September. Goldfein, now the director of the Joint Staff, previously served as the commander of US Air Forces Central Command from August 2011 to July 2013, where he oversaw the expansion of training and liaison programs with GCC countries as well as other Arab states in the region. Many of these states are now engaged in OIR operations and “making a difference, against a threat that’s an existential threat to them,” Goldfein said.
An Open SecretThe sea change in the relationship of the US with the GCC militaries is evident by the open acknowledgement of the latter’s combat role. For decades, the US has cultivated alliances with the Gulf States and supported them with large numbers of troops across the region. Until recently, though, these relationships were treated delicately due to the sensitivities of the Arab monarchs who rule over these countries.
The presence of large numbers of US troops in the countries of the GCC was long treated as an open secret. Throughout the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, for example, Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar hosted thousands of USAF airmen of the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing, along with a combined air and space operations center. Only in December 2013, following the renewal of the US-Qatar defense cooperation agreement, did the Pentagon lift restrictions on identifying the exact location of these forces. Previously DOD would say simply that the CAOC and 379th were located in “Southwest Asia.”
A senior defense official, visiting Qatar with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel at the time, said the change acknowledged the base’s role in regional security and was part of an effort to raise the visibility of US-Qatari cooperation. Both nations, the official said, wanted to “reassure our allies and our partners.”
The interest of GCC states in showing their collective muscle increased last year, as ISIS burst into a regional threat, startling America’s Arab allies. Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal, after the first wave of strikes on Syria, said his country and its neighbors face a “very dangerous situation where terrorist cells have turned into armies” girding for war from Syria and Iraq to Yemen and as far as Libya. “Faced with these dangerous facts, today we are required to take serious policy decisions to confront this vicious attack with full force,” he said.
The Gulf states, as a result, came together in a coalition unprecedented since Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Goldfein, speaking just after the first waves of OIR strikes in Syria, said the coalition’s first test in combat was a “pretty successful event.” While US warplanes had struck ISIS targets in Iraq since early August, it was the campaign’s expansion into Syria that marked a critical moment for the coalition.
On Sept. 23, the first night of air strikes against ISIS targets in Syria, several Arab allies flew combat missions deep into ISIS-controlled territory. Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates all struck targets on their own or supported the operations.
Unusually, the countries proclaimed their involvement. The Royal Jordanian Air Force declared its F-16s had “bombed and destroyed a number of selected targets used by terrorist groups to dispatch their members for terrorist attacks” and said Jordan would continue to take “decisive measures” against ISIS. Bahrain announced its fighters had struck “selected targets of terrorist groups and organizations and destroyed them,” and the UAE also reported its air forces launched coordinated strikes.
According to senior OSD and USAF officials who have worked closely with these states in the last several years, the assertive policy is neither accidental nor insignificant.
“We have robust relationships with our Arab allies, particularly the Gulf states,” Elissa Slotkin said in December during her Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing for the post of assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs.
The OIR campaign is a “real proof of concept of the work that we’ve done with the Gulf states in particular to build up their capabilities,” Slotkin said. Along with flying combat missions and performing activities such as targeting for strikes, she noted GCC air arms are performing other functions “that we do and that they’re doing in our stead.” These countries believe there is a “real threat” from ISIS and an unstable Syria. “We work very closely with those states to try and counter it … and get them engaged.”
Jordan On The Front LinesSeveral Gulf states, such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, have long-standing military ties with the US, largely stemming from Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Since 2001, though, this cooperation has broadened, as GCC governments agreed to host both air and naval assets, as well as thousands of US troops, to support operations first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. GCC countries also modernized their militaries, adding advanced assets such as UAE’s Block 60 F-16s—the most sophisticated version of the fighter on the market—and Patriot air defense missiles. The growing influence and military power of Iran helped propel this modernization, as well as joint efforts between the US and its Gulf allies to make their forces more interoperable.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE, for example, have participated several times in USAF’s Red Flag exercise. In the aftermath of the US drawdown from Iraq, US Central Command expanded Exercise Eager Lion—an annual multinational, multiservice training event hosted by Jordan. It has become the premier combined arms exercise in theater.
Jordan, slated to become a member of the GCC, is on the front lines of OIR. Bases in Jordan where USAF aircrews have trained extensively are just a short flight away from the Syrian border and ISIS targets. Jordan has played a heavy role in OIR strikes and has paid a heavy price: a Royal Jordanian Air Force F-16 flying a mission near Raqqa, Syria, crashed on Dec. 24 and the pilot—Lt. Moaz al-Kasasbeh—was captured by ISIS and burned alive on Jan. 3. The killing of Kasasbeh sparked an angry response from Jordan and its Gulf allies—with Jordanian leaders vowing an “earth-shattering” response. The RJAF, in the days following ISIS’ announcement of Kasasbeh’s killing, launched Operation Martyr Muath— carrying out some 56 air strikes in just five days, many against “targets of gravity” in and around Raqqa, according to the country’s air force chief, Lt. Gen. Mansour Jbour. The UAE deployed six of its Block 60 F-16s to a Jordanian air base in early February as well, along with mobility and air refueling assets, escalating its contribution to the anti-ISIS fight.
The closeness of large military airfields in Gulf countries to ISIS targets is another reason the air campaign is succeeding. Besides Al Udeid in Qatar, the coalition operates from a host of other bases in the Gulf region—many of them remaining officially unnamed by DOD. Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE have all served as staging areas for strikes by both US and coalition aircraft.
Some construction has been necessary to handle the surge of people, equipment, and missions. At the 386th Air Expeditionary Wing (located in a still-undisclosed Gulf nation) late last year, USAF airmen helped construct living accommodations. Also, they expanded areas for mission planning as OIR grew. This was needed to aid Gulf allies and others in accessing a “combined coalition network” to get planning documents and information necessary to build air tasking orders. Airmen helped complete a facility for coalition members to plan missions independently at the base. “Our partners bring a lot to the fight,” said Capt. Peter O’Neill. Without the planning facility “they would not be able to fly any of the sorties or perform any of the missions.”
The importance of coalition air campaign basics, such as information sharing, intelligence gathering, air battle management, and other tasks, is at the heart of many capacity building efforts by AFCENT. Perhaps the nerve center of these efforts is the AFCENT Air Warfare Center in the UAE, based at Al Dhafra and other satellite locations throughout the country. The result of a 2006 bilateral agreement between the US and the UAE, the facility—known colloquially as the Gulf Air Warfare Center—has grown into one of the most significant centers for capacity building in the Middle East, according to Col. Mark E. Blomme, the center’s commander. With OIR’s success, AFCENT officials are openly touting the center’s work in these areas for the first time.
The AWC resembles the model USAF has constructed at the Air Warfare Center and Weapons School at Nellis AFB, Nev. At the center, both AFCENT and the UAE Air Force and Air Defense Force maintain a staff of subject matter experts who conduct both academics and integrated training operations for “regionally focused” air and missile defense missions. Representatives from other non-GCC allies, such as France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, also participate in the center’s efforts. About 2,000 people from 10 countries every year, most from Gulf states and the broader Middle East, train there.
The Air Force contributes under $10 million annually to support the AWC’s operations and programs, and the UAE provides most of the rest. The effect on capability across the region’s militaries, however, from readiness to combat tactics to leadership skills, has been transformative, Blomme and others say.
“Whereas many other [building partnership capacity] efforts tend to be bilateral in nature, the Air Warfare Center is focused on building GCC-wide capability and capacity,” Blomme said. These efforts have served as the “cornerstone of coalition air operations and regional missile defense.”
One of the core offerings at the center is the seven-week Advanced Tactical Leadership Course, held at the AWC’s Al Dhafra facilities. This program helps students develop mission commander skills in live-fly training, enabling pilots and aircrews to lead large coalition packages of aircraft in complex operations.
On the missile defense side, the AWC operates the Integrated Air and Missile Defense Center at Al Bateen AB, UAE. Instead of live operations, the IAMDC uses simulations and modeling and trains students to defend against both ballistic missile and cruise missile threats. The center supports several other programs as well, such as the joint terminal attack controller schoolhouse, combat search and rescue training, and academics, helping attendees “bridge the gap between pilot training and fighter training,” Blomme said.
Exchange programs and liaison training between AFCENT and GCC nations have expanded in the last several years as well. Efforts initiated by Goldfein and continued by his successor, USAF Lt. Gen. John W. Hesterman III, include providing an Air Defense Liaison Team and Intelligence Engagement Cell at Al Dhafra through the AWC. These help build command and control and intelligence sharing partnerships—both areas that have proved vital to the conduct of OIR.
Today, at the Al Udeid Air Base CAOC in Qatar, US airmen work with coalition counterparts from some 14 nations as they plan and execute OIR strikes. It’s the fruit of an effort by AFCENT’s security cooperation and plans office called the Gulf Cooperation Council Liaison Officer Program. Begun in 2013, it recruits around 15 officers (typically O-5s) for a four-month course in CAOC operations and regional air management.
The program has proved so successful that the most recent graduates immediately were sent back to the CAOC as liaison officers (LNOs) for their countries’ air forces, said Maj. Brian Hans, the AFCENT Coalition Coordination Cell deputy chief at Al Udeid.
“When [current] operations kicked off, we saw a few of the former students come back [to the CAOC]. ... These officers are at the captain, major, lieutenant colonel level, and they have a lot of experience working with the US,” he said. As a result, despite the regional politics, the coalition’s communication and coordination efforts have gone very well and Hans said the LNO program has been key to ensuring this.
Simultaneously, AFCENT sends USAF officers to the air operations centers of GCC states and regional partners—an initiative known as the Air Defense Liaison Team Program. Every GCC nation except Oman hosts ADLTs, and one stood up late last year in Iraq.
The ADLT program is just a few years old, begun with a full staff and concept of operations in 2012 during Goldfein’s tenure. The teams are the link between AFCENT’s air operations and the operations of partner nations in the region, serving as the combined force air component commander representative to the participants. The teams work issues such as access to airspace and diplomatic clearances for personnel and help them become knowledgeable with the country’s customs, laws, and political sensitivities. LNOs help determine what each country can contribute to any coalition operation or exercise and as such become versed in the country’s air assets and operational capability.
“We have a senior duty officer in each country, and they integrate in the air operations center of each nation,” said Maj. Trace Dotson, the AFCENT Air Defense Liaison Team chief. “We [build] a regular relationship with each nation, as well as work with the US Embassy and the leadership [of the host nation military] to keep the line of communications between them and the CAOC here at Al Udeid open,” he said.
The ADLTs serve as conduits for exercising and training requests as well. ADLTs develop objectives with each nation, communicate with AFCENT, and decide areas needing improvement—whether simple command and control drills, testing integrated air and missile defense plans, or performing large force aerial exercises with multiple threats. “Sometimes our stuff integrates well, sometimes it doesn’t,” Dotson said. “We have to work on that, be it missile defense or some other scenario.”
The GCC nations each have a different level of capability, and over time their participation has throttled up or down with the evolving regional political situation.
“It comes back to relationships ... and knowing how people work,” Dotson said. “Keeping that [political-military] relationship going, we always respect each other regardless of what happens.”
In the future, AFCENT officials say, both the US and its Gulf allies want to continue to work on information and intelligence sharing—a frequently tricky issue due to strict US guidelines regarding sharing some types of information with non-US entities.
Growing The GCC“This OIR coalition, I think has been an exercise in flexibility,” Hans said, noting that the level of classification for information exchange varies with each country, “but we have worked to find a common level.” Progress in information sharing also accompanies growth in foreign military sales to some key allies—such as Qatar, which signed an $11 billion arms agreement with the US last summer. The sale included modernized Patriot anti-missile batteries and AH-64 Apache attack helicopters.
“We’ve had longer [FMS] relationships with other countries,” Hans said, but there is a lot of new work in some places. Large weapon deals by countries such as the UAE and Qatar are driven by the GCC’s desire to expand its own interoperability and collective military strength. These goals were emphasized during the bloc’s annual meeting in December in Doha, Qatar. The GCC is also seeking to build its ties with NATO. While the GCC is not a formal military alliance, its members’ concerns about both external and internal threats are leading to breakthroughs in areas such as joint exercises and building joint military forces.
On AFCENT’s end, it is seeking to expand programs at the AWC. Though it’s now staffed with a joint cadre of experts from the Air Force and Army, Blomme noted, there are now “significant efforts” underway to get the Navy involved, to provide its ballistic missile defense and tactical air electronic warfare expertise. AFCENT and the UAE also seek to integrate the various training venues under the AWC, through a live-virtual-constructive environment, to aid distributed training operations for both US forces based in the region and GCC air and missile defense personnel.
Blomme said the campaign against ISIS shows the long-term payoff of the AWC’s initiatives in staff and officer exchanges.
On the first night of OIR’s Syria strikes, he said, the US strike commander and the flight lead for the UAE contingent worked to coordinate their target packages. Flying into combat, they already knew each other, having been classmates at the AWC several years earlier.
“Relationships pay huge dividends, but they take time to develop,” Blomme said. Though low profile, the strategic value of the center’s security assistance programs “cannot be overstated. … It has given nations in the region the confidence to participate in coalition operations in Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.” Blomme said he routinely receives feedback and comments from airmen who attend from GCC states, pointing out their that experiences in real-world operations have proved very similar to the training they received at AWC.
“It is common to witness participants from various nations reconnecting during Air Warfare Center events,” Blomme said, and these relationships prove resilient as they continue in their careers.
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