America’s Secret Empire of Drone Bases

Published on Peace, Earth and Justice News (first on Tom Dispatch), by Nick Turse, October 18, 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  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 … //

… 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 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.

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 The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan (Verso Books). This article marks another of Turse’s joint Alternet/TomDispatch investigative reports on U.S. national security policy and the American empire. (full long text).

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