America's Secret Empire of Drone Bases
> Nick Turse
October 17, 2011
They increasingly dot the planet. There's a facility outside Las Vegas where
"pilots" work in
t/> 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
Uncovering the true size and scope of the global war being fought by the
Pentagon's secret "shadow warriors."
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, 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 U.S. 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 last 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 21st, the Wall Street Journal
tml> 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
ory.html> reported that the "Obama administration is assembling a
constellation of secret drone bases for counterterrorism 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
-hit-for-new-drone-base/2011/09/30/gIQASF4eAL_blog.html> 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 Obama Administration has expanded its
armed drone campaign to no fewer than six countries, though the CIA, which
killed al-Awlaki, refuses to officially
ar/> 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 that, "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, Lieutenant Colonel 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 U.S. soil have played critical roles
in America's drone wars. The same video-game-style warfare is carried out
by U.S 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
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
00711/> 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
m_source=feedburner> 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
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," <http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/facility/libby.htm
according to Global Security, an on-line clearinghouse for military
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,
s-automated-killing/2011/09/15/gIQAVy9mgK_story.html> 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 Airbase, 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
awks%20Survey%20Japan%20Earthquake%20Damage> 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
01-Jul-2011/CIA-shifts-drone-operations-to-Afghan-bases> 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.
-pakistan/> 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
eNum=-1> Saudi Arabia whose existence a senior U.S. 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 U.S.-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
0541.html> 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."
-pakistan/> 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
Following the May Navy SEAL raid into Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden,
that country's leaders reportedly ordered the United States to leave Shamsi.
The Obama administration evidently refused and word leaked out,
ts-from-base-in-pakistan/2011/07/01/AGpOiKuH_print.html> according to the
Washington Post, that the base was actually owned and sublet to the U.S. by
the United Arab Emirates, which had built the airfield "as an arrival point
for falconry and other hunting expeditions in Pakistan."
The U.S. and Pakistani governments have since
ts-from-base-in-pakistan/2011/07/01/AGpOiKuH_print.html> claimed that Shamsi
is no longer being used for drone strikes. True or not, the U.S. 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
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 last decade, the U.S. 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 U.S. 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, of course, 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 U.S. 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
_%27supercommittee%27_democrats_to_cut_entitlements> 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 U.S. 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
President Obama, the U.S. 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 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 Colonel John
Haynes was typically circumspect, saying, "We are constantly evaluating
potential operating locations based on evolving mission needs." If the last
decade is any indication, those "needs" will only continue to grow.
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Received on Mon Oct 17 2011 - 11:12:49 EDT