by Joseph Trevithick, a freelance journalist and researcher. He is also a regular contributing writer at War is Boring and a Fellow at GlobalSecurity.org. This article was first published at War is Boring and re-published by David Axe’s permission — thank you!
“Any time, any place.” That’s the official motto of U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC). And there’s no better demonstration of this maxim than the command’s proven ability to set up a bare-bones drone base pretty much anywhere in the world — and super fast.
In 2013, the 3rd Special Operations Squadron (3rd SOS) quickly deployed — apparently to a country in Africa — a single MQ-1 Predator drone and the airmen to support it. Three weeks later, a tiny drone base was up and running. “The hangar[‘s] dirt foundation and temporary plywood taxiway enabled hangar use during concrete pouring,” explains an Air Force briefing dated March 20, 2013. “Ensured continuous operations despite loss of access to host nation hangar.” War is Boring obtained the unclassified and unredacted briefing through the Freedom of Information Act. The briefing does not specify the host country, nor does it state the drone’s mission.
As of May 2013, the Pentagon had positioned one Predator, along with a larger MQ-9 Reaper drone, at a small airstrip in Arba Minch, Ethiopia, according to briefings The Intercept released as part of its “Drone Papers” investigation.
The shots of “Camp Shughart” don’t seem to resemble recent satellite images of the Ethiopian base. But that doesn’t mean the 3rd SOS’s pop-up base wasn’t in East Africa or somewhere else nearby on the continent.
The facility’s aforementioned wooden pathway rested on top of four to six inches of sand and led to a hard mud ramp and into the single hangar, the briefing notes. The presentation also depicts tents, generators, fuel tanks and other supplies surrounding the hangar.
The operations tent contained a control station for a two-person drone crew — a pilot and a sensor operator. Typically, the drone pilots at a remote, forward base only launch and land the robot using line-of-sight radio. Operators at bases in the United States take over for most of the drone’s potentially daylong missions, controlling the pilotless warplane via satellite. The austere base’s ops tent also held a command center and a sleeping area. Some of the photographs show American troops and contractors playing football with local guards on what looks like arid, sub-Saharan terrain.
The “rapid reaction” concept took nearly eight years to refine, according to the 27th Special Operations Wing’s (27th SOW) official history for 2013. The 27th SOW oversees the 3rd SOS. “The package ‘provides Air Force Special Operations Command the only mobile, alert-type ISR in the world,'” the historians wrote, citing a conversation with one member of the 3rd SOS and using the acronym for “intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance” missions. “Planners designed it ‘to respond globally, in an extremely short time frame.'”
On Sept. 12, 2012, AFSOC put into practice the speedy-setup concept the 3rd SOS had helped to create. Militants had just attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. AFSOC sent a Predator to the U.S. Navy base in Sigonella, Italy. From there, the drone immediately began flying missions across the Mediterranean to Benghazi. The whole process took less than a day.
That’s fast. So fast, in fact, that it’s possible the Sigonella drone wasn’t just following the 3rd SOS’s playbook — it actually belonged to the squadron, whose members had already established themselves as rapid-deployment specialists. Sigonella is a big, modern facility. That surely helped AFSOC get its drone up and flying without delay that day in September 2012. It’s obviously much harder setting up an operation in a remote, undeveloped area. When AFSOC sent the 3rd SOS’s solitary Predator to Africa a few months after Benghazi, it expected the drone team would need seven weeks to get established on the ground. But the 3rd SOS’s airmen “moved in” in less than half that time. No doubt taking lessons from the Libya incident, the Pentagon appears to have attached the new facility to an existing airport or air base.
Over the span of 2013, the 3rd SOS flew at least three different Predators from three separate bases around the world. This combination of so-called “remote split operations” and small, quick deployments seems to have become the norm for both the Air Force and the U.S. Army.
In May 2014, the Pentagon sent around 80 airmen and contractors to Chad to manage another Predator hunting for the Nigerian terror group Boko Haram. The month before, the militants had kidnapped 280 girls from the town of Chibok.
More than a year later, Washington announced it had sent a similar detachment to Cameroon, again targeting the Nigerian group. As of February 2016, the Army — likely with help from private contractors — was still flying some of its Gray Eagle drones out of a small site attached to Cameroon’s Garoua International Airport.
When the Air Force finally shut down its Arba Minch site in January 2016 — a decision that the Pentagon described as “mutual” on the parts of the United States and Ethiopia — it might simply have shifted the facility’s two drones to another one of its small “instant” bases, possibly even the one the 3rd SOS set up in 2013 (see also Chris Biggers, “Repaving Begins at Niger’s Agadez Airport“, offiziere.ch, 14.01.2016). Or, airmen could have quickly established a brand-new site. These days, it’s just that easy for the Air Force to build a drone base.