Defence Business: View from Canberra - Home away from home | ADM Mar 2009
A Special Correspondent
Since 2003, Australia has maintained three significant bases in the Persian Gulf region but these will soon become one.
Two AP-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft and 170 personnel operate from Al-Minhad air base in Dubai, three C-130 Hercules transport and 160 personnel operate from the US Al-Udeid air base in Qatar and the Force Level Logistics Asset (FLLA) with 110 personnel operates from the major US facility at Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait.
None of these are top secret and there is much information out there.
The website www.globalsecurity.org features detailed but dated descriptions of US Middle East facilities, along with satellite imagery.
But agreements with the host nation mean that in each case, the Australian government undertakes never to acknowledge that Aussies operate from their bases.
In some cases agreements even stipulate that it never be acknowledged that there is such an agreement.
Through a process now well under way, these will be amalgamated into one facility based in Dubai.
Already the Australian region headquarters with around 70 personnel including the commander Major General Mark Kelly has relocated there from Baghdad.
Construction is proceeding on a new facility.
This is set to be a done deal by mid-year. Quite likely the upcoming Defence White Paper will spell out the complete rationale, without mentioning any particular nations.
Both economics and changed strategic realities make the case compelling.
On one estimate, the RAAF could save well over 1,000 C-130 flying hours a year from this change.
That's around 10 per cent of the entire 24 aircraft C-130 fleet flying hours allocation for a year, with potential savings on operating costs and maintenance running to many millions.
The saving comes because there will be no need to fly into Iraq as often.
Where once Iraq was the main event, it is now a sideshow, with the Australian presence there down to around 120 - the Security Detachment (SECDET) with 80 personnel and some 40 staff officers embedded within coalition headquarters.
Under the new status of forces agreement between Iraq and Australia, the embedded personnel can stay on to July, with the prospect that a handful of specialists may remain after that date. SECDET operates under a diplomatic convention which allows a nation to provide security for their diplomats and mission.
Afghanistan is now the main event with the Hercs routinely flying into Kabul, Kandahar and Tarin Kowt.
But getting there is a roundabout route because Iran bars coalition overflights.
The way in is out the Gulf then up across Pakistan.
That would in theory make Qatar the best base for Afghanistan operations but the reality is that most flights heading for Afghanistan must go via Kuwait to collect personnel and particularly their weaponry.
And that's because of a whole range of new restrictions imposed by the Qatari government on movements of foreign aircraft, their crews and cargo.
These are comparatively recent and have been described by one defence official as a "complete embuggerance".
This most often manifests as a rigorous application of local immigration law with the consequence that crews, non-complying through no fault of their own, have been technically deported from Qatar.
Quite why this has occurred remains a mystery to Australian officials charged with smoothing the way and sorting out the messes.
Australia has no official diplomatic presence in Qatar (the mission for the United Arab Emirates in Abu Dhabi handles Qatar).
Neither does Qatar have an embassy in Australia and on one theory, relations could be enhanced through boosting the diplomatic ties.
However, the US and UK have embassies in Qatar and both also experience aggravation.
Qatar's strategic outlook appears to have undergone a shift.
The US abandoned its Saudi bases and moved onto Qatar in the lead-up to the Iraq conflict, with Central Command (CENTCOM) running the war from Camp As-Saliyah outside the capital Doha.
Iraq no longer poses any threat.
Relations between the US and Iran are hardly warm, with much speculation in the latter stages of the Bush administration that the US could launch a pre-emptive strike - with much of that coming from Al-Udeid.
The base is currently home to a wing of B1-B Lancer bombers which conduct operations over Afghanistan.
Qatar, its capital and oil and gas facilities are all within easy range of Iranian missiles, as Iran's mullahs have emphatically reminded Qatar's Emir - apparently along with more direct threats about what could happen if so much as one US bomb from Qatar lands on Iranian soil.
But having signed a 99-year lease and invested heavily in building up a base ideally sited for operations over Iraq and Afghanistan and for needling the Iranians, Uncle Sam is uninclined to move on.
It may be that the new US administration can ease tensions with Iran and Qatar but for Australia, there'll be no turning back.
Dubai is regarded as wholly welcoming with warm relations at all levels.
For personnel, the place is perhaps the most western flavoured of any Arabian city.
On the other hand, the no consuming booze on Australian Middle East bases rule will apply there.
That could not be done at Al-Udeid because US facilities included a thriving bar allowed to serve three drinks per person per night.
In Dubai, Australia will share the base with the Brits and Canadians, firm allies and good friends but not possessing the awesome resources which makes co-locating with the US such an agreeable experience.
This also applies to FLLA in Kuwait, established as a staging post for Iraq, so that troops could acclimatise, undertake final medical checks and zero their weapons on the way in.
FLLA handled mail, leave and resupply for those in Iraq while outgoing troops stayed there for three days, undergoing medical check and the psychological debrief and handing in kit before heading home.
With number in Iraq down to low triple figures, there's simply no continuing need for FLLA in its present form.
In tough economic times, this significant rationalisation of facilities appears to be irresistible.