The Pentagon chose to place the new radar site in Qatar because it is home to the largest U.S. military air base in the region, Al Udeid Air Base, analysts say. More than 8,000 troops are stationed there and at another U.S. base in Qatar.
Qatari officials in Washington and Doha didn’t respond to requests for comment. Qatar has taken on roles in conflicts in Libya and Syria, winning U.S. praise. Qatar guards a more neutral stance when it comes to Iran, maintaining close relations with Tehran, which shares ownership with Doha of the region’s largest natural gas field.
The radar base in Qatar is slated to house a powerful AN/TPY-2 radar, also known as an X-Band radar, and supplement two similar arrays already in place in Israel’s Negev Desert and in central Turkey, officials said. Together, the three radar sites form an arc that U.S. officials say can detect missile launches from northern, western and southern Iran.
Those sites will enable U.S. officials and allied militaries to track missiles launched from deep inside Iran, which has an arsenal of missiles capable of reaching Israel and parts of Europe. Intelligence agencies believe Iran could have a ballistic missile as early as 2015 that could threaten the U.S.
The radar installations in turn are being linked to missile-interceptor batteries throughout the region and to U.S. ships with high-altitude interceptor rockets. The X-Band radar provides images that can be used to pinpoint rockets in flight.
Officials said the U.S. military’s Central Command, which is overseeing the buildup to counter Iran, also wants to deploy the Army’s first Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile-interceptor system, known as a THAAD, to the region in the coming months, possibly in the United Arab Emirates.
The THAAD has its own radar, so deploying it separately from the X-Bands provides even more coverage and increases the system’s accuracy, officials said.
The X-Band radar and the THAAD will provide an “extra layer of defense,” supplementing Patriot batteries that are used to counter lower-altitude rockets, said Riki Ellison, chairman of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, which supports developing and deploying the systems.
“There’s an effort to get it up and running as soon as possible,” a senior U.S. defense official said. “But it’s not like there’s some rush to be ready for imminent conflict.”
The Pentagon has been trying for years to develop an X-Band site in the Gulf. The effort has been complicated by disagreements between Arab states reluctant to pool intelligence and other missile-defense resources to create a regional umbrella against Iranian rockets.
Construction of the radar base was due to be completed this month in a remote area, according to Pentagon documents. The documents, dated May 10, didn’t disclose the name of the country or the region where the X-Band base was being built.
Officials said the location of the new site in Qatar was being kept secret because of the sensitivity surrounding any U.S. military deployments in the emirate.