U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel visited the Combined Air and Space Operations Center in the tiny Persian Gulf nation of Qatar on Tuesday morning, the last leg of a tour that has also taken him to Bahrain, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
The “CAOC” as it’s known in Pentagonese, is a minimalist concrete bunker in the blasted desert south of Doha, the capital of this wealthy emirate that sits on a peninsula jutting off the coast of Saudi Arabia. Qatar is a close U.S. ally that is happy to host this high-tech command center. But they want to keep that fact on the down low, so U.S. officials like to pretend this outpost doesn’t really exist.
But it’s no secret that it does exist and that F-22 fighter planes are based there, so the Pentagon lifted the veil a bit Tuesday and let a gaggle of reporters walk through the facility with Hagel.
Inside the center’s bowels, soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines sat in a windowless room that evokes the Big Board of Dr. Strangelove. Despite the military’s preference for keeping the public in the dark about this place, personnel here are fiercely proud of what they do and were glad to show it off.
Big wall screens displayed precision maps of U.S. Central Command, which covers a broad swatch of the globe from Afghanistan to across the Middle East. From thousands of miles away, technicians track aircraft helping with the war in Afghanistan. They also keep an eye on any aerial movement over Syria, and are part of the effort to detect any potential missile launch from Iran — a prospect greatly feared among Gulf nations.
In fact, one reason Hagel is here is to highlight the fact that the U.S. has thousands of military personnel stationed in and around the Gulf. He repeatedly told local allies here that this presence is proof of U.S. commitment to the region. He also said they should not see U.S. talks with Iran as a sign that the U.S. is turning its back on its traditional allies here.
Hagel took his quick tour, and then went through a ritual he carried out several other times this week: chatting with the troops, answering their questions, cracking a few jokes. Then he handed out special coins marked with the Department of Defense inscription and stood for pictures with each and every one of the hundred or so servicemembers who had gathered.
Hagel thanked them for their service, and for working so far from home during the holidays. Then he got back in the E4-B, the specially equipped flying command post he uses to get around the world. He took off from the CAOC’s airstrip, and let this small piece of the Pentagon empire return to obscurity.