USAF and the Gulf

March 1, 2011

The Air Force today enjoys excellent relations with the air arms of Gulf Cooperation Council nations, with which it partnered 20 years ago to help reverse Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. These relationships have been critical in securing access and support for subsequent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Because it mentors and brokers a wide range of Gulf airpower associations, USAF has a relationship with the region’s Air Chiefs that can provide speedy red-tape cutting when crises erupt, access to air facilities, and myriad forms of cooperation.

The culture of the US Central Command region is “really … all about personal relationships,” said Lt. Gen. Gilmary Michael Hostage III, chief of US Air Forces Central Command. The Gulf Cooperation Council nations—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—have a framework for multilateral military cooperation.

An F-22 Raptor in 2009 maneuvers during a multinational exercise in the CENTCOM area of responsibility. In Southwest Asia, multilateral exercises are difficult to arrange, but vital. (USAF photo by SSgt. Michael B. Keller)

However, as a practical matter, most of their military activities are bilateral in nature. To organize activities such as multinational exercises, the US often plays the role of coordinator.

“In this region, multilateral is difficult,” Hostage observed.

In an interview, Hostage said he is traveling constantly to meet regional air and defense Chiefs, US ambassadors, and country teams—there are 20 nations in CENTCOM’s area of responsibility—”to develop a personal relationship so we can work regional issues and bilateral issues with them.” Those duties come on top of his responsibilities as the chief of air operations for Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation New Dawn in Iraq. About 65 percent of his time is spent managing the air war; the rest is partner relations.

In fact, it was partly because of the punishing pace of personal military visits with regional air leaders that Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, Air Force Chief of Staff, split the AFCENT commander job in two in 2009, when Hostage took over. Previously, the AFCENT boss was also dual-hatted as commander of 9th Air Force, but in order to allow the AFCENT commander enough time to concentrate on running the air war while keeping in close contact with regional allies, Schwartz split off the job of running Stateside 9th Air Force functions.

Once Mideast combat operations wind down, the plan is that the AFCENT air boss and 9th Air Force jobs will be reunited.

“There’s a long history … between the countries, and the different tribes that they’ve organized into the countries,” said Hostage. “There’s a lot of residual feeling that makes multilateral difficult. They very much prefer bilateral, both with each other and us.”

The collective willingness to engage bilaterally with the US “makes it a little easier to get the quasimultilateral efforts,” Hostage explained.

There are a number of exercises that AFCENT helps coordinate, but despite hopes in 1990-91 that the Desert Storm ad hoc coalition might lead to a more formal multilateral military air arrangement, such an organization is still elusive. In a variety of ways, the Air Force serves as a go-between, helping its Gulf air allies train and work together. One typical event is the Falcon Air Meet, held annually in Jordan. It illustrates, however, how “tricky” it can be to keep comity among the participants, Hostage said.

The air meet “initially was a competitive gathering,” Hostage explained, but “in this region … nobody’s willing to go back home and say they lost … to one of their Gulf neighbors. That’s kind of painful.” Because the number of participants was dwindling, “this year [2010] we adjusted the format a bit to be more of a learning exercise.”

The training topic chosen was close air support, and there was good participation by many nations, some from out of the area. Although there were no actual troops on the ground, and Hostage said it was not meant to simulate any particular real-world conflict, procedures for coordinating with ground-based tactical controllers and other techniques were explained and practiced.

“We pretty much figured the idea of a learning exercise will tend to bring more participants. And they still have a competitive element; people have a chance to show how good they are,” Hostage noted.

Very Sensitive Nations

In regional exercises, the participants “fly missions with each other, units fly together, they talk tactics together, they mission-plan together. So there is interchange.” However, there are not yet any permanent, formal network links between the nations, and the pace of expanding to larger exercises is slow.

About four times a year, regional air forces come together for Iron Falcon,

USAF Lt. Gen. Michael Hostage (l), head of AFCENT, and Jordanian Prince Faisal bin Al Hussein observe a live fire demonstration during Falcon Air Meet 2010 at a Jordanian air base. The annual exercise was adjusted in 2010 to be a learning exercise, in part to discourage competitiveness and encourage participation. (USAF photo by Alan Black)

geared toward providing junior pilots with experience in leading mission packages and large operations.

“This is not a weapons school,” Hostage noted, “and it’s not a basic-level exercise. It’s specifically focused on helping a four-ship flight lead become a mission commander, able to lead a large mission package, and it’s getting him up to the level of coordination it takes to do a multicapability mission,” coordinating electronic support, strikers, etc., “in a coherent fashion.”

Another annual exercise is Eagle Resolve, which Hostage said centers on “consequence management”: helping partner countries prepare “to deal with a crisis or an emerging crisis” stemming from a natural disaster or massive attack. Partner countries take turns hosting the event and choosing a particular aspect of the theme that they would like to explore.

There are no vestiges left of the old Operation Southern Watch arrangements in which US fighters, stationed in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and other regional countries would patrol the airspace of Iraq. All the GCC countries and France and Britain still have representatives at Hostage’s combined air and space operations center (CAOC), however.

Gulf partner countries don’t contribute forces to US and coalition combat or support operations in Afghanistan or Iraq, but they do permit the US to use a variety of bases and infrastructure in the region. Hostage said he is not at liberty to discuss the various contributions the partners make—even to the point of being unable to name the location of his forward headquarters in the region, which is otherwise an open secret.

“The nations are very sensitive to being portrayed as aiding or hindering anything that’s going on,” he said. However, relationships with the Gulf nations are good and “to varying degrees, … they are supportive.”

His chief rule is not to endanger the relationships, achieved through years of building trust and familiarity. No military requirement is allowed to trump that rule, Hostage said.

“I tell them all the time, the relationship we have is far more important to me than some particular operational need, so if there’s something I’m asking that’s going to cause you a problem, tell me, and I’ll find a different way to do what I need to do.”

The benefits of such an approach are many. Hostage said he can pick up a phone and call a friend in charge of another air force and smooth over problems far faster than would be possible if he had to “send a diplomatic note and wait and see if the embassy can get permission for me to talk to the Air Chief.” Likewise, regional Air Chiefs can call him up “and in 30 minutes, I can hop on a plane [and] be down there in an hour-and-a-half, in his office, and we can work out some issue or problem.”

Ten years ago, the GCC countries were planning to pursue a number of joint air functions, to include a regional, non-US-led combined air and space operations center, a joint fighter weapons school, and even a shared airlift capability, similar to NATO’s fleet of joint AWACS aircraft. None of those initiatives has reached fruition yet, Hostage said.

“There is no regional CAOC, other than mine,” he said, but he hastened to add that each nation has its own AOCs “that are modeled very similar to the way ours is constructed,” and each manages its own air defense.

L-r: Two F-16s, one belonging to USAF’s 20th Fighter Wing and one from the Jordanian Air Force, a US Navy F/A-18 Hornet, and a Pakistani Mirage fly in formation over Wadi Rum during Falcon Air Meet 2010, which focused on close air support. (USAF photo by TSgt. Wolfram M. Stumpf)

Scarfing Up Airlift

“We have some pretty robust interchanges with them, showing them how we organize, what a CAOC does, how we organize the command and control of air, and we’re making significant progress with them in that regard.”

For now, the US is helping to manage the “seams” between those areas of air sovereignty, but Hostage believes that, in time, the countries will manage the seams themselves.

A near-term goal is the development of an integrated air and missile defense network in the region.

“Right now, I’m kind of the nucleus of the integrated air and missile defense,” according to Hostage. “And I’m happy to be that, because I’ve got a lot of stuff to protect,” while working with GCC countries to “make a collective attempt to [develop] that integrated air capability.”

A facility to host the integrated air and missile defense is being built in the UAE now, and “we’re starting to work on a schedule for … hosting some workshops and exercises with our regional partners.” Officials are not yet prepared to discuss a timetable for standing up the capability.

The joint airlift function fell by the wayside when countries began pursuing their own airlift fleets.

“It would seem to make sense that somewhere down the road,” the GCC countries might pursue a coordinated airlift organization, Hostage said, but for now the countries are looking at their own airlift requirements.

“The Arab culture is very much about helping the poor,” Hostage explained, “and there’s a strong urge on the part of the different GCC nations to reach out and help somebody [who’s] in distress,” such as the victims of the Pacific tsunami or the earthquake in Haiti.

“The lack of organic lift has frustrated this,” because in the immediate aftermath of a crisis, available commercial airlift is “scarfed up” by aid organizations and other countries, so the Gulf nations “have a hard time competing” to hire those assets.

Qatar bought two C-17s in 2009 and has made some “dramatic efforts” responding to the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, Hostage said. “It’s gotten the interest of a lot of other regional partners, who say, ‘Hey, maybe we need our own organic airlift to send aid elsewhere.’ “

Kuwait has made a request to purchase a C-17, as well.

AFCENT is not involved in the provision of weapon systems or even basic military training to Gulf region countries. Those tasks fall under the Defense Security Cooperation Agency. AFCENT’s function is to facilitate operational military air cooperation among the nations.

USAF Lt. Col. David Meyer (standing) briefs Jordanian fighter pilots at Mwaffaq Salti AB, Jordan, during a Falcon Air Meet. (USAF photo by TSgt. Caycee Cook)

A Steady Partnership

The Gulf nations are in the midst of a long program of modernizing their air equipment, a process exemplified by the recent announcement that Saudi Arabia will buy dozens of the most sophisticated F-15s and upgrade its older Eagles to the same standard. These would be added to the Saudi arsenal of Eurofighter Typhoons and Tornado fighter and attack aircraft.

Saudi Arabia is not alone in fielding aircraft that are, in many cases, among the most advanced versions of their type. The UAE fields the F-16E/F, the most sophisticated variation of the F-16, and better than that flown by the US itself. The UAE is thinking about upgrading its French-built Mirage 2000s to more sophisticated Rafale fighters.

Oman and Bahrain also fly the F-16. Kuwait operates F/A-18s.

Collectively, the Gulf nations will soon operate modern combat air forces far larger than USAF could ever deploy to the region, and by way of comparison, collectively rival the air arms of Britain and Japan.

Asked about the latest Saudi sale, Hostage said the US and Saudi Arabia “have had a very long and productive relationship … on the order of 30 to 40 years.” While the relationship has “waxed and waned in terms of strength or closeness, … it’s been a very steady relationship.” The new sale “I think will just strengthen” relations between the air forces, he said.

Hostage thinks the Saudis will phase out some of its older aircraft from its forces when the new machines arrive.

“I don’t think they can afford such a huge increase in size, or justify it, really,” if such a culling didn’t take place, he said.

Iran, the most belligerent state in the Middle East, has an assortment of older aircraft received from France, Russia, China, and even the US, dating back to the days of the Shah. Iran has indigenously upgraded many of these older fighters, which include US-made F-4s, F-5s, and F-14s, French Mirage F-1s, and Russian MiG-29s.

A C-17 from the 437th Airlift Wing at JB Charleston, S.C., overflies Egypt during Bright Star, a multinational airdrop exercise. The Pyramids of Giza are in the distance. (USAF photo by SSgt. Jacob N. Bailey)

According to various reports, mostly from Russian news services, Iran has been negotiating deals to buy new J-10 or F-1C fighters from China and Su-27 fighters from Russia.

Although AFCENT isn’t involved with the transfer of weapons to Gulf region countries, as an ally, the US does talk to GCC countries about their requirements and tries to help them find solutions that truly fit their needs.

For example, Hostage said, the Gulf nations have seen that USAF is “extremely effective” with the use of remotely piloted aircraft, and “all of our partners out here say, ‘Oh, I really want that.’ “

The infrastructure required to make an RPA capability successful “is huge, and not cheap,” Hostage said—a point he repeatedly stresses to the Gulf nations.

The satellite and processing, exploitation, and dissemination infrastructure needed for RPAs “is tremendous,” Hostage noted. The partners quickly realize the system is more than just buying a few RPAs. When they realize this, “it can be daunting.”

“They’re all very interested, and right now, they’re not there yet,” with regard to acquiring an RPA capability on the order of a Global Hawk or Reaper, either as individual nations or as a group.

Hostage said that in talking with allies about their hardware needs, “what I harp on all the time is, you start with your requirement. You say, ‘What is the problem I’m trying to solve,’ [then] look for a system that will answer those questions.”

Too many times, he said, “people want to buy the system and then say, ‘How can I use this?’ And it rarely is the right system if they just buy the first shiny thing they see.”

Although the US routes many aircraft through the Middle East every day, it is the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), and not the US or any military organization, that controls Gulf airspace.

“I obviously fly airplanes in it just like any other nation does. We file flight plans internationally, and then we abide by those flight plans,” Hostage said. The US can also fly through the area under rules of “due regard,” in which it simply looks out for and avoids other air traffic.

But the Persian Gulf is a relatively small body of water, and many nations surround its periphery, so the only “international airspace” is “really a strip down the middle of it,” Hostage noted.

A Qatar Air Force C-17 taxis for a test flight in 2009 in Long Beach, Calif. Qatar bought two C-17s and used them to offer aid to Haiti and Chile after massive earthquakes. (Photo by Kevin Whitehead/Jetwash Images)

NATO Model Does Not Apply

For combat or combat-support missions, ICAO flight plans take USAF aircraft to the frontier of Iraq or Afghanistan, at which point, “they come under my control,” Hostage said.

Iraq was the threat that brought the other Gulf nations together; indeed, it was fear of being drawn into the Iran-Iraq war that led the GCC to be formed in 1981.

Now that Saddam is gone, however, Hostage said the GCC countries seem to be looking forward to welcoming Iraq into multilateral air exercises once it is equipped to do so.

Although Iraq only has some trainer, surveillance, and cargo aircraft, it has been approved to buy F-16 fighters, which will allow it to perform its own air sovereignty mission in a few years. However, “right now, there’s not much of an Iraqi Air Force to partner with,” Hostage observed.

Iran has not necessarily taken Iraq’s place as the feared regional hegemon binding the Gulf nations and the US together, Hostage said. “I would not say that there is any particular adversary or threat out there to hold them together. What binds them together is their history, their geographic proximity, and centuries of relationships.”

The NATO model, Hostage said, “doesn’t really apply. … I would say [the United States is] probably a unifying element drawing them together, more so than a particular adversary.” The presence of the US, he allowed, is “certainly a catalyst” for cooperation.

Jordanian (l) and United Arab Emirates (r) F-16s fly in formation during a multinational exercise in Southwest Asia. The UAE is a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council. (USAF photo by SSgt. Michael B. Keller)

Even if the US didn’t have a presence in the Gulf, the regional nations would likely “make efforts to work together,” but it would be more bilateral. The US, he said, provides an impetus for multilateral exercises because it simply can’t afford to conduct duplicative exercises separately with each nation—and the GCC states know that.

However, regarding Iran, “just like everybody else in this region, we pay attention” to what it’s doing, Hostage said. While some analysts—notably Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies—believe that Iran’s non-nuclear military capability is remaining fairly static, “I think you’ll find there are opinions that go in opposite directions from his,” both up and down, Hostage noted.

“Nobody really knows except the Iranians, and they’re not going to tell us.”

The best approach, Hostage said, is probably the one he’s taking: “We’re hoping for the best, planning for the worst.”