Recent Iranian success at striking military and civilian infrastructure targets in the Persian Gulf region have led the American military to practice switching operational control of military operations from bases located within range of Iranian missiles to bases in the United States that are out of harm's way.
U.S. Central Command, which controls U.S. forces in most of the Middle East and Central Asia, traditionally splits its headquarters and operations between a logistical and administrative base in Tampa, Florida, and its daily combat operations from a facility outside the Qatari capital of Doha.
On any given day in the region, as many as 300 U.S. warplanes are conducting operations in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and over allied bases in the Persian Gulf. These flights are usually controlled by a large regional command center at Al Udeid Air Base in the Qatari desert, but this weekend, as detailed in the Washington Post, command and control was temporarily switched to a never-before-used facility in South Carolina over the course of Saturday.
The current schedule plans for the facility to take full command of operations one day per month for now with an expansion to 8 hours a day in the future, according to officials who spoke with the Washington Post. This would allow the new facilities to prepare for the possibility of taking over many operations normally conducted by Al Udeid in the case of a regional war with Iran.
A NATO military attache assigned to the region confirmed the switch over, which U.S. officials said was designed to practice moving key command and control operations out of range of Iranians cruise missiles in the Gulf region, as pushed by last month's strike by an estimated 20 cruise missile on what was considered a heavily guarded oil facility in Saudi Arabia.
Army Staff Sgt. Raniel Nebrida, patriot missile operator and maintainer with Battery B, 1st Battalion, 43rd Air Defense Artillery Regiment, 69th Air Defense Artillery Brigade, secures the perimeter around amissile interceptor at Al Udied Air Base, Qatar on Oct. 14, 2016
(U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Matthew B. Fredericks)
"The command and control of that capability is a sitting duck for the Iranians"
"Iran being able to hit the oil facilities without being seen or intercepted reinforced what has always been a concern: The Americans have a huge amount of military capability in the gulf, but the command and control of that capability is a sitting duck for the Iranians in the case of a regional conflict," said the NATO officer who does not have permission from NATO or their government to discuss the matter with the press.
"The Abqaiq reinforced what many officials had been concerned about: That the US and Saudi defenses of these bases and oil fields were designed to stop large missiles and conventional airstrikes but cannot be trusted to completely prevent attacks by the style of cheap drones and cruise missiles used in that attacks," the NATO officer said.
Officials admitted the strike on Abqaiq helped drive the decision to decentralize the operations center, as did Iran's recent shootdown of an American drone over the Persian Gulf as well as repeated attempts by Iran's regional allies in Yemen, the Houthis, to strike Saudi and UAE airports and government facilities from the wide-open desert between Yemen and the Saudi capital of Riyadh.
Despite being one of the world's largest purchasers of military equipment and a key U.S. ally, the Saudi military has been heavily criticized of late for not only failing to prevent the strike on Abqaiq, which disrupted Saudi oil output for weeks, but also for its inability to make any progress in the war in Yemen, where lightly armed Yemeni troops regularly defeat the Saudis and their allies.
The Saudis suffered a major military defeat, with "thousands" of soldiers surrendered to the Houthis
On Sunday, this fear was reinforced as details of a major Saudi military defeat at the hands of the Yemen-based Houthis emerged. So far unconfirmed footage from a battle along the Saudi-Yemen border in August appeared to show hundreds of Saudi troops and their local allies defeated or captured, along with their weaponry.
While these reports and hours of video footage of the battle released on social media could not be confirmed, the NATO officer said that reports from inside the Saudi government supported that a major disaster had befallen the military over in Yemen.
"I don't know if the exact details and footage released so far is accurate, I really don't," said the officer. "But from the reaction of the Saudis I deal with here in Riyadh, it's clear that they've suffered a major defeat. It's just unclear the extent of the problem."
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