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Qatar base becomes U.S. military hub

Al Udeid Air Base in the Oatari desert

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AL UDEID AIR BASE, Qatar (CNN) -- With the continuing U.S. presence in Afghanistan and the growing threat of war with Iraq, a tiny corner of the Qatari desert has become a transport hub for Operation Enduring Freedom.

CNN was granted unprecedented access to the Al Udeid Air Base, which was top secret just a few months ago.

The base, which acts as a depot for U.S. military hardware and boasts one of the longest runways in the Persian Gulf at 12,500 feet, is a strategically important facility whose importance would grow if the United States and Iraq went to war

One of the roles of the base is midair refueling. Al Udeid is currently home to about two dozen aircraft refuelers, from the KC-10 Extender to the KC-135 Stratotankers.

The tankers operate on a 24-hour schedule, meaning at least one plane is in the air at any given time to provide refueling support for U.S. and coalition aircraft.

"We refuel everything in the Air Force inventory. Also sister-service aircraft, Navy, Marine Corps, and several foreign countries have aircraft out here that we have been refueling," said Lt. Col. Tim Doty, a KC-10 pilot.

Keeping aircraft in the air round the clock means the flight line works nonstop to keep the planes in a constant state of readiness.

There are about 2,000 U.S. Air Force servicemen and women deployed at Al Udeid, all engaged in a new kind of war for the U.S. military.

"In wars in the past we had a defined enemy, we knew who the enemy was, we knew what they look like, we knew how they operate. And this is a war where you're constantly on guard, vigilance is the word of the day," said Col. Timothy Scott, wing commander.

The first line of security against that threat is the base's force protection troops.

Their job, according to Airman 1st Class Andrew Zimmerman, can be defined quite simply -- "keeping the bad guys out, making sure our people are safe."

After recent attacks on U.S. military personnel in Kuwait, the force protection troops understand how real the threat is.

"At any minute, some crazy man that doesn't like us could come through this gate and try to run me over. A bomb could drop or someone could get an itch and decide they don't like Americans and come over the fence-line and you just have to be ready for it," said Airman 1st Class Richard Manning.

That threat could only grow if war with Iraq happens, but Scott said his personnel are ready.

"I've got over 2,000 of the finest Americans you could ever hope to be commander of. They're absolutely all professionals and they're ready to go. Unfortunately this is what we're trained to do, we pray for peace but prepare for war. So if we have to go we're ready, willing and able," he said

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