America's secret empire of drone bases By Nick Turse
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
The 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.