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US air force temporarily shifts Qatar command centre to South Carolina

Although staff at al-Udeid base say move was enabled by new technology, it comes amid renewed tension with nearby Iran
The al-Udeid air base is the largest in the Middle East region, capable of housing more than 10,000 US troops (USAF)

The US air force temporarily moved control of its Middle East command centre from Qatar to South Carolina on Saturday, in a move which gave an indication of its future plans for the region.

As the Combined Air and Space Operations Centre at al-Udeid airbase in Qatar sat empty, operations were being controlled by teams at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina. 

The air base is the largest in the Middle East region, capable of housing more than 10,000 US troops.

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Although the move was only temporary, with al-Udeid taking back control on Sunday after 24 hours, it appears to indicate a significant tactical shift in US thinking.

While air force personnel said moving functions to a different base had been a long-harboured ambition enabled by new technology, the move comes amid renewed tension with Iran, which lies around 300km to the northeast.

The unannounced operation was the first time US command and control had been moved out of the region since the centre was established in Saudi Arabia during the 1991 First Gulf War.

Air force personnel told the Washington Post that recent incidents involving Iran - including the shooting down of a US drone in June and the attack on Saudi oil facilities this month with what the US said appeared to be Iranian-supplied weapons - had added urgency to the project.

If conflict with Iran were to occur, the base in Qatar would be a prime target for Iran.

The US air force aims to run the centre remotely once a month and remain the rest of the time at al-Udeid. 

Eventually, commanders want to work up to a schedule in which the centre is operated remotely for eight hours of every 24-hour period, either at Shaw or elsewhere.

Hundreds of positions to move to US

Officials at al-Udeid told the Washington Post there were no plans to close the centre permanently as some functions there could not be replicated remotely. 

However, they plan to transfer some of the 800 positions to the US in the future.

For US allies in the region that have heavily invested in facilities used by the US in the region, the plans may be worrying. 

In recent years, Qatar, for example, has spent as much as $1.8bn renovating the al-Udeid base.

However, the mixture of possible risks and new technology is leading Washington to reconsider how much of its operations need to be based abroad.