Airmen connect a fuel host to a U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft at Doha Air Base, Qatar, Jan. 21, 2021.

Airmen connect a fuel host to a U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft at Doha Air Base, Qatar, Jan. 21, 2021. U.S. Air National Guard / Staff Sgt. Jordan Martin

For Now, ‘Over the Horizon’ Protection for Afghanistan Will Fly From Existing Hubs, Acting Air Force Secretary Says

Service wants $10 billion for South Asia and Middle East operations as Pentagon develops long-term plan for Afghanistan support.

The “over the horizon” strike capabilities the United States is counting on to conduct counterterrorism operations and defend its interests in Afghanistan as troops withdraw will come from existing bases in the region, at least for now, acting Air Force Secretary John Roth told lawmakers Tuesday. 

The Air Force is seeking about $10 billion in the 2022 budget to fund those operations and maintain its footprint to provide the over-the-horizon protection, Roth said. In previous budget cycles, the funds would have likely been added into the overseas contingency operations account, but the Defense Department ended the use of OCO funds this year. 

“We have funded as best we knew,” based on the information they had at the time, Roth said. 

“There is an enduring presence we still have in the CENTCOM AOR,” Roth said. “And so we have budgeted about $10 billion there. We have a series of air bases. They will stay for the time being. That's where your over-the-horizon capability will come from.” 

The Air Force keeps a substantial number of fighter, tanker, surveillance, and bomber aircraft at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait’s Ali Al Salem and Ahmad al-Jaber air bases. 

Pentagon leaders have been mum on where they will move the approximately 3,500 troops being withdrawn from Afghanistan, and how they will deliver air strikes, air cover, or other assistance to suppress terrorist groups and protect the limited number of U.S. government civilians who will remain in the country. 

At a Center for a New American Security event Tuesday, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks said that the United States would also provide “over the horizon” support to the Afghan security forces, but that the final shape for all of that support was still being planned. 

“We are working through all of that right now,” Hicks said. “We have to take into account regional aspects and allied approaches. We will have, over the course of this summer, proposals to give to the president in terms of what that over-the-horizon capability should be.” 

“It’s for counterterrorism. It’s not an over-the-horizon capability to do all things, to operate, as the United States was operating in Afghanistan.”