BOISE – The U.S. Air Force may soon bring 170 members of Qatar’s air force to live on the Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho. They would be coming to learn to fly the newest model of the F-15 fighter jet modified specifically for the Persian Gulf state.
The Qatar trainees may be in for a culture shock should they find themselves in the city of Mountain Home. More than 90% of Qataris live in the capital of Doha, which is full of skyscrapers, luxury hotels and attractions, museums and world-class food.
The country is also incredibly flat and dry, with the majority of its land being desert. Qatar is one of just four areas in the world without a single forest. Not to mention the differing temperatures between Qatar and Idaho: Qatar averages 107 degrees in July and rarely gets below 50 degrees even in winter.
Surrounded on three sides by the Arabian Gulf, Qatar has skyrocketed to power in recent decades through its discovery of oil and natural gas. Holding 13% of the world’s oil reserves, it has become the richest country per capita in the world. Qatar’s 2.9 million residents are ruled by an absolute monarchy and live under a constitution based on Shariah law.
Just how the Qataris would fare in the quiet town with a population of 14,000 remains to be seen. But it wouldn’t be the first time the Mountain Home base trained foreign military aviators. Since 2009, Singapore military members have lived and trained there as part of an agreement with the United States.
“With Singapore, their ability to integrate with our local community has been phenomenal,” Lt. Col. Peter Yule, director of the Mountain Home Base Wing Integration Office, told the Idaho Statesman in a phone interview. “I would expect the same thing out of the Qatar program.”
The Qatar project dates to 2017 when the United States inked a $12 billion deal that provided Qatar “36 aircraft, their associated weapons systems, U.S.-based training, maintenance support equipment and logistics support,” according to the Air Force Times.
“The sale as a whole is obviously a big strategic advantage,” Yule said. “(It will) continue to increase capability of partner nations within the Middle East, a region of huge influence for the United States. So the more we can increase capability with our appropriations there, the less reliant we have to be on a large footprint by the United States military.”
Boeing, which manufactures the F-15, began delivering the jets to Qatar in October. The company designed the F-15QA fighter aircraft specifically for the deal. Prat Kumar, Boeing’s vice president of the F-15 program, described the aircraft in an August news release as having “more speed, range and payload than any fighter in the world,” with “fly-by-wire flight controls, an all-glass digital cockpit and contemporary sensors, radar and electronic warfare capabilities.”
Now Qatar is ready to begin plans for the U.S.-based training.
“The (Qatari air force) will send pilots and weapon system operators to the U.S., where the air crews will learn how to independently operate the F-15QA ahead of receiving their new aircraft,” Boeing’s predelivery training contract says, according to aviation news site FlightGlobal.
When deciding which U.S. base these Qatari air force members should be sent to for that training, officials narrowed their focus to Mountain Home.
Yule said Qatar military leaders wanted to train somewhere that had F-15E aircraft, which are similar to the ones Qatar will receive. Only two U.S. bases have them: Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina and Mountain Home Air Force Base. The Idaho base became the top choice, partly because it has more room to expand.
The project would include 300 total personnel, including the 170 Qatari trainees and 130 U.S. Air Force active-duty personnel and contractors.
New housing units and a dormitory would be built on the base for the Qatari forces. Yule said the buildings would likely include a two-story dormitory and 90 single-family units. Some Qatari trainees would be able to bring their families to live on base.
The training program would last 10 years with the possibility of Qatar extending it, according to the contract. And it wouldn’t be cheap: The costs have not been set yet, but Yule said officials are “currently talking in the hundreds of millions of dollars.”
“It’s a large project, between all the different projects that have to happen: building them a new operations facility, a new hangar and maintenance facility, obviously the housing, and then just to expand the footprint,” Yule said. “There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes for taking care of those airplanes and just about every manner of that – between metals work, an engine shop, you name it – all of those have to expand. So we’re kind of still in the process of getting a monetary value.”
Mountain Home Air Force Base would also extend its land contract with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management if the Qatar program moves forward. In 1998, Congress passed a law allowing the Department of Defense to appropriate public land for up to 25 years if it is needed for high-hazard training by the military. Under that law, the Mountain Home base reserved 11,816 acres of nearby BLM land.
The contract is set to expire in 2023, at which time the land would be given back to the Bureau of Land Management. However, if Qatar air force trainees come, the land contract would be extended.
An environmental analysis is underway to study what effects the project would have on the Mountain Home area. The analysis is expected to be completed at the end of February. The secretary of the Air Force will then decide whether Mountain Home would be a good fit for the project. The decision will likely come two or three months later.
According to Yule, Qatar is hoping to begin sending personnel by the end of 2023 or early 2024 if the Mountain Home location is approved.
The study looks at the project’s potential impact on airspace use and management, noise, land use and visual resources, air quality, geology and soils, water resources, biological resources, cultural resources, hazardous materials and wastes, safety, socioeconomics and environmental justice.
Preliminary findings from a draft of the report written in October found that the program would have no significant impacts. It found the program would have minor short-term adverse impacts on water quality, minor long-term impacts on surface water, and a minor short-term increase in soil erosion and deterioration of vegetation and wildlife habitats. It would also have minor long-term benefits on land use and visual resources and short-term beneficial effects on local socioeconomics.
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