The monthslong Saudi-led blockade against the tiny Gulf emirate of Qatar has not impacted the American forces stationed there, a top US Air Force general told Al-Monitor today.
Located just south of the capital Doha, al-Udeid airbase hosts more than 10,000 US troops. It’s been a major hub for the US Air Force in the Gulf for 15 years and is the only American runway in the Gulf long enough to allow US B-52 bombers to target Islamic State (IS) militants in Iraq and Syria.
“No impact,” Gen. Robin Rand, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, told Al-Monitor when asked about the blockade's effect of the blockade on US operations. “In fact, we’re flying more sorties per week now than we were before the embargo.”
The Air Force first deployed B-52 bombers to al-Udeid in April 2016 in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, a US-backed effort to eliminate IS safe havens. First introduced in the 1950s, the Boeing-made strategic bomber gives US forces the ability to attack targets deep inside Iraq and Syria. Before the United States started using al-Udeid in 2001, the military stationed B-52s in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and flew occasional missions from a Navy facility at Diego Garcia, an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
Rand said three B-52 squadrons operating on six-month rotations since 2016 have flown an increasing number of bombing missions against the militant group. The US-led coalition in Iraq and Syria conducted more than 5,000 strikes on IS targets in August, a record for the three-year mission.
Typically, the Air Force stations one bomber squadron at al-Udeid that includes six B-52 aircraft. The 185,000-pound plane can hold around 70,000 pounds of weapons, such as mines, missiles and the US military’s strongest bunker-busting bombs.
Rand’s comments at the Air Force Association’s annual conference come as the Pentagon has pushed to maintain US-Qatar military relations throughout the embargo. In June, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Qatar had a "strategic" role to play against IS, despite persistent criticism from Gulf countries that Doha supports Islamist groups and is too cozy with Iran. Qatar recently put more than $5 billion into upgrading facilities at al-Udeid.
When asked how a continued embargo could impact US bombing missions in the long term, Rand played down any immediate concerns.
“Obviously, if we weren’t working out of al-Udeid there would be a little bit of a transition," he said. "But we’re not being told to prepare for that.”