[News] America's secret empire of drone bases

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Tue Oct 25 18:55:16 EDT 2011


America's secret empire of drone bases
By Nick Turse
Oct 26, 2011

They increasingly dot the planet. There's a facility outside Las 
Vegas where "pilots" work in climate-controlled trailers, another at 
a dusty camp in Africa formerly used by the French Foreign Legion, a 
third at a big air base in Afghanistan where Air Force personnel sit 
in front of multiple computer screens, and a fourth at an air base in 
the United Arab Emirates that almost no one talks about.

And that leaves at least 56 more such facilities to mention in an 
expanding American empire of unmanned drone bases being set up 
worldwide. Despite frequent news reports on the drone

assassination campaign launched in support of America's ever-widening 
undeclared wars and a spate of stories on drone bases in Africa and 
the Middle East, most of these facilities have remained unnoted, 
uncounted, and remarkably anonymous - until now.

Run by the military, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and their 
proxies, these bases - some little more than desolate airstrips, 
others sophisticated command and control centers filled with computer 
screens and high-tech electronic equipment are the backbone of a new 
American robotic way of war. They are also the latest development in 
a long-evolving saga of American power projection abroad - in this 
case, remote-controlled strikes anywhere on the planet with a minimal 
foreign "footprint" and little accountability.

Using military documents, press accounts, and other open source 
information, an in-depth analysis by TomDispatch has identified at 
least 60 bases integral to US military and CIA drone operations. 
There may, however, be more, since a cloak of secrecy about drone 
warfare leaves the full size and scope of these bases distinctly in 
the shadows.

A galaxy of bases
Over the past decade, the American use of unmanned aerial vehicles 
(UAVs) and unmanned aerial systems (UAS) has expanded exponentially, 
as has media coverage of their use. On September 21, the Wall Street 
Journal reported that the military has deployed missile-armed MQ-9 
Reaper drones on the "island nation of Seychelles to intensify 
attacks on al Qaeda affiliates, particularly in Somalia".

A day earlier, a Washington Post piece also mentioned the same base 
on the tiny Indian Ocean archipelago, as well as one in the African 
nation of Djibouti, another under construction in Ethiopia, and a 
secret CIA airstrip being built for drones in an unnamed Middle 
Eastern country. (Some suspect it's Saudi Arabia.)

Post journalists Greg Miller and Craig Whitlock reported that the 
"Obama administration is assembling a constellation of secret drone 
bases for counter-terrorism operations in the Horn of Africa and the 
Arabian Peninsula as part of a newly aggressive campaign to attack 
al-Qaeda affiliates in Somalia and Yemen." Within days, the Post also 
reported that a drone from the new CIA base in that unidentified 
Middle Eastern country had carried out the assassination of radical 
al-Qaeda preacher and American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen.

With the killing of al-Awlaki, the Barack Obama administration has 
expanded its armed drone campaign to no fewer than six countries, 
though the CIA, which killed al-Awlaki, refuses to officially 
acknowledge its drone assassination program. The air force is less 
coy about its drone operations, yet there are many aspects of those, 
too, that remain in the shadows. Air force spokesman Lieutenant 
Colonel John Haynes recently told TomDispatch, "For operational 
security reasons, we do not discuss worldwide operating locations of 
Remotely Piloted Aircraft, to include numbers of locations around the world."

Still, those 60 military and CIA bases worldwide, directly connected 
to the drone program, tell us much about America's war-making future. 
 From command and control and piloting to maintenance and arming, 
these facilities perform key functions that allow drone campaigns to 
continue expanding, as they have for more than a decade.

Other bases are already under construction or in the planning stages. 
When presented with our list of air force sites within America's 
galaxy of drone bases, Haynes responded, "I have nothing further to 
add to what I've already said."

Even in the face of government secrecy, however, much can be 
discovered. Here, then, for the record is a TomDispatch accounting of 
America's drone bases in the United States and around the world.

The near abroad
News reports have frequently focused on Creech Air Force Base outside 
Las Vegas as ground zero in America's military drone campaign. 
Sitting in darkened, air-conditioned rooms 7,500 miles from 
Afghanistan, drone pilots dressed in flight suits remotely control 
MQ-9 Reapers and their progenitors, the less heavily-armed MQ-1 Predators.

Beside them, sensor operators manipulate the TV camera, infrared 
camera, and other high-tech sensors on board the plane. Their faces 
are lit up by digital displays showing video feeds from the battle 
zone. By squeezing a trigger on a joystick, one of those air force 
"pilots" can loose a Hellfire missile on a person half a world away.

While Creech gets the lion's share of media attention - it even has 
its own drones on site - numerous other bases on US soil have played 
critical roles in America's drone wars. The same video-game-style 
warfare is carried out by US and British pilots not far away at 
Nevada's Nellis Air Force Base, the home of the Air Force's 2nd 
Special Operations Squadron (SOS).

According to a factsheet provided to TomDispatch by the air force, 
the 2nd SOS and its drone operators are scheduled to be relocated to 
the Air Force Special Operations Command at Hurlburt Field in Florida 
in the coming months.

Reapers or Predators are also being flown from Davis-Monthan Air 
Force Base in Arizona, Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, March Air 
Reserve Base in California, Springfield Air National Guard Base in 
Ohio, Cannon Air Force Base and Holloman Air Force Base in New 
Mexico, Ellington Airport in Houston, Texas, the Air National Guard 
base in Fargo, North Dakota, Ellsworth Air Force Base in South 
Dakota, and Hancock Field Air National Guard Base in Syracuse, New 
York. Recently, it was announced that Reapers flown by Hancock's 
pilots would begin taking off on training missions from the Army's 
Fort Drum, also in New York state.

Meanwhile, at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, according to a 
report by the New York Times, teams of camouflage-clad air force 
analysts sit in a secret intelligence and surveillance installation 
monitoring cell-phone intercepts, high-altitude photographs, and most 
notably, multiple screens of streaming live video from drones in Afghanistan.

They call it "Death TV" and are constantly instant-messaging with and 
talking to commanders on the ground in order to supply them with 
real-time intelligence on enemy troop movements. Air force analysts 
also closely monitor the battlefield from Air Force Special 
Operations Command in Florida and a facility in Terre Haute, Indiana.

CIA drone operators also reportedly pilot their aircraft from the 
agency's nearby Langley, Virginia headquarters. It was from here that 
analysts apparently watched footage of Osama bin Laden's compound in 
Pakistan, for example, thanks to video sent back by the RQ-170 
Sentinel, an advanced drone nicknamed the "Beast of Kandahar". 
According to air force documents, the Sentinel is flown from both 
Creech Air Force Base and Tonopah Test Range in Nevada.

Predators, Reapers and Sentinels are just part of the story. At Beale 
Air Force Base in California, Air Force personnel pilot the RQ-4 
Global Hawk, an unmanned drone used for long-range, high-altitude 
surveillance missions, some of them originating from Anderson Air 
Force Base in Guam (a staging ground for drone flights over Asia).

Other Global Hawks are stationed at Grand Forks Air Force Base in 
North Dakota, while the Aeronautical Systems Center at 
Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio manages the Global Hawk as 
well as the Predator and Reaper programs for the air force.

Other bases have been intimately involved in training drone 
operators, including Randolph Air Force Base in Texas and New 
Mexico's Kirtland Air Force Base, as is the army's Fort Huachuca in 
Arizona, which is home to "the world's largest UAV training center", 
according to a report by National Defense magazine.

There, hundreds of employees of defense giant General Dynamics train 
military personnel to fly smaller tactical drones like the Hunter and 
the Shadow. The physical testing of drones goes on at adjoining Libby 
Army Airfield and "two UAV runways located approximately four miles 
west of Libby", according to Global Security, an on-line 
clearinghouse for military information.

Additionally, small drone training for the army is carried out at 
Fort Benning in Georgia while at Fort Rucker, Alabama - "the home of 
Army aviation" - the Unmanned Aircraft Systems program coordinates 
doctrine, strategy, and concepts pertaining to UAVs.

Recently, Fort Benning also saw the early testing of true robotic 
drones - which fly without human guidance or a hand on any joystick. 
This, wrote the Washington Post, is considered the next step toward a 
future in which drones will "hunt, identify, and kill the enemy based 
on calculations made by software, not decisions made by humans".

The army has also carried out UAV training exercises at Dugway 
Proving Ground in Utah and, earlier this year, the navy launched its 
X-47B, a next-generation semi-autonomous stealth drone, on its first 
flight at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

That flying robot - designed to operate from the decks of aircraft 
carriers - has since been sent on to Maryland's Naval Air Station 
Patuxent River for further testing. At nearby Webster Field, the navy 
worked out kinks in its Fire Scout pilotless helicopter, which has 
also been tested at Fort Rucker and Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona, 
as well as Florida's Mayport Naval Station and Jacksonville Naval Air Station.

The latter base was also where the Navy's Broad Area Maritime 
Surveillance (BAMS) unmanned aerial system was developed. It is now 
based there and at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in Washington state.

Foreign jewels in the crown
The navy is actively looking for a suitable site in the Western 
Pacific for a BAMS base, and is currently in talks with several 
Persian Gulf states about a site in the Middle East. It already has 
Global Hawks perched at its base in Sigonella, Italy.

The air force is now negotiating with Turkey to relocate some of the 
Predator drones still operating in Iraq to the giant air base at 
Incirlik next year. Many different UAVs have been based in Iraq since 
the American invasion of that country, including small tactical 
models like the Raven-B that troops launched by hand from Kirkuk 
Regional Air Base, Shadow UAVs that flew from Forward Operating Base 
Normandy in Baqubah province, Predators operating out of Balad Air 
Base, miniature Desert Hawk drones launched from Tallil Air Base, and 
Scan Eagles based at al-Asad Air Base.

Elsewhere in the Greater Middle East, according to Aviation Week, the 
military is launching Global Hawks from al-Dhafra Air Base in the 
United Arab Emirates, piloted by personnel stationed at Naval Air 
Station Patuxent River in Maryland, to track "shipping traffic in the 
Persian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz, and Arabian Sea".

There are unconfirmed reports that the CIA may be operating drones 
from the Emirates as well. In the past, other UAVs have apparently 
been flown from Kuwait's Ali al-Salem Air Base and al-Jaber Air Base, 
as well as Seeb Air Base in Oman.

At Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar, the air force runs an air operations 
command and control facility, critical to the drone wars in 
Afghanistan and Pakistan. The new secret CIA base on the Arabian 
Peninsula, used to assassinate Anwar al-Awlaki, may or may not be the 
airstrip in Saudi Arabia whose existence a senior US military 
official recently confirmed to Fox News. In the past, the CIA has 
also operated UAVs out of Tuzel, Uzbekistan.

In neighboring Afghanistan, drones fly from many bases including 
Jalalabad Air Base, Kandahar Air Field, the air base at Bagram, Camp 
Leatherneck, Camp Dwyer, Combat Outpost Payne, Forward Operating Base 
(FOB) Edinburgh and FOB Delaram II, to name a few. Afghan bases are, 
however, more than just locations where drones take off and land.

It is a common misconception that US-based operators are the only 
ones who "fly" America's armed drones. In fact, in and around 
America's war zones, UAVs begin and end their flights under the 
control of local "pilots".

Take Afghanistan's massive Bagram Air Base. After performing 
preflight checks alongside a technician who focuses on the drone's 
sensors, a local airman sits in front of a Dell computer tower and 
multiple monitors, two keyboards, a joystick, a throttle, a 
rollerball, a mouse and various switches, overseeing the plane's 
takeoff before handing it over to a stateside counterpart with a 
similar electronics set-up. After the mission is complete, the 
controls are transferred back to the local operators for the landing. 
Additionally, crews in Afghanistan perform general maintenance and 
repairs on the drones.

In the wake of a devastating suicide attack by an al-Qaeda double 
agent that killed CIA officers and contractors at Forward Operating 
Base Chapman in Afghanistan's eastern province of Khost in 2009, it 
came to light that the facility was heavily involved in target 
selection for drone strikes across the border in Pakistan. The drones 
themselves, as the Washington Post noted at the time, were "flown 
from separate bases in Afghanistan and Pakistan".

Both the air force and the CIA have conducted operations in Pakistani 
air space, with some missions originating in Afghanistan and others 
from inside Pakistan. In 2006, images of what appear to be Predator 
drones stationed at Shamsi Air Base in Pakistan's Balochistan 
province were found on Google Earth and later published.

In 2009, the New York Times reported that operatives from Xe 
Services, the company formerly known as Blackwater, had taken over 
the task of arming Predator drones at the CIA's "hidden bases in 
Pakistan and Afghanistan".

Following the May Navy SEAL raid into Pakistan that killed Bin Laden, 
that country's leaders reportedly ordered the United States to leave 
Shamsi. The Obama administration evidently refused and word leaked 
out, according to the Washington Post, that the base was actually 
owned and sublet to the US by the United Arab Emirates, which had 
built the airfield "as an arrival point for falconry and other 
hunting expeditions in Pakistan".

The US and Pakistani governments have since claimed that Shamsi is no 
longer being used for drone strikes. True or not, the US evidently 
also uses other Pakistani bases for its drones, including possibly 
PAF Base Shahbaz, located near the city of Jacocobad, and another 
base located near Ghazi.

The new scramble for Africa
Recently, the headline story, when it comes to the expansion of the 
empire of drone bases, has been Africa. For the past decade, the US 
military has been operating out of Camp Lemonier, a former French 
Foreign Legion base in the tiny African nation of Djibouti. Not long 
after the attacks of September 11, 2001, it became a base for 
Predator drones and has since been used to conduct missions over 
neighboring Somalia.

For some time, rumors have also been circulating about a secret 
American base in Ethiopia. Recently, a US official revealed to the 
Washington Post that discussions about a drone base there had been 
underway for up to four years, "but that plan was delayed because 
'the Ethiopians were not all that jazzed'." Now construction is 
evidently underway, if not complete.

Then there is that base on the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean. A 
small fleet of navy and air force drones began operating openly there 
in 2009 to track pirates in the region's waters. Classified 
diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks, however, reveal that those 
drones have also secretly been used to carry out missions in Somalia.

"Based in a hangar located about a quarter-mile from the main 
passenger terminal at the airport," the Post reports, the base 
consists of three or four "Reapers and about 100 U.S. military 
personnel and contractors, according to the cables."

The US has also recently sent four smaller tactical drones to the 
African nations of Uganda and Burundi for use by those countries' militaries.

New and old empires
Even if the Pentagon budget were to begin to shrink, expansion of 
America's empire of drone bases is a sure thing in the years to come. 
Drones are now the bedrock of Washington's future military planning 
and - with counterinsurgency out of favor - the preferred way of 
carrying out wars abroad.

During the eight years of George W Bush's presidency, as the US was 
building up its drone fleets, the country launched wars in 
Afghanistan and Iraq, and carried out limited strikes in Yemen, 
Pakistan and Somalia, using drones in at least four of those countries.

In less than three years under Obama, the US has launched drone 
strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. It 
maintains that it has carte blanche to kill suspected enemies in any 
nation (or at least any nation in the global south).

According to a report by the Congressional Budget Office published 
earlier this year, "the Department of Defense plans to purchase about 
730 new medium-sized and large unmanned aircraft systems" over the 
next decade. In practical terms, this means more drones like the Reaper.

Military officials told the Wall Street Journal that the Reaper "can 
fly 1,150 miles [1,850 kilometers] from base, conduct missions, and 
return home ... [T]he time a drone can stay aloft depends on how 
heavily armed it is." According to a drone operator training document 
obtained by TomDispatch, at maximum payload, meaning with 3,750 
pounds worth of Hellfire missiles and GBU-12 or GBU-30 bombs on 
board, the Reaper can remain aloft for 16 to 20 hours.

Even a glance at a world map tells you that, if the US is to carry 
out ever more drone strikes across the developing world, it will need 
more bases for its future UAVs. As an unnamed senior military 
official pointed out to a Washington Post reporter, speaking of all 
those new drone bases clustered around the Somali and Yemeni war 
zones, "If you look at it geographically, it makes sense - you get 
out a ruler and draw the distances [drones] can fly and where they 
take off from."

Earlier this year, an analysis by TomDispatch determined that there 
are more than 1,000 US military bases scattered across the globe - a 
shadowy base-world providing plenty of existing sites that can, and 
no doubt will, host drones. But facilities selected for a pre-drone 
world may not always prove optimal locations for America's current 
and future undeclared wars and assassination campaigns. So further 
expansion in Africa, the Middle East and Asia is a likelihood.

What are the air force's plans in this regard? Lieutenant Haynes was 
typically circumspect, saying, "We are constantly evaluating 
potential operating locations based on evolving mission needs." If 
the past decade is any indication, those "needs" will only continue to grow.

Nick Turse is a historian, essayist, and investigative journalist. 
The associate editor of TomDispatch.com and a senior editor at 
Alternet.org, his latest book is 
Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan (Verso Books). This article 
marks another of Turse's joint Alternet/TomDispatch investigative 
reports on US national security policy and the American empire.

(Copyright 2011 Nick Turse.)

(Used by permission <http://www.tomdispatch.com/>Tomdispatch)

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