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America’s Secret Empire of Drone Bases: Its Full Extent Revealed for the First Time

A ground-breaking investigation examines the most secret aspect of America's shadowy drone wars and maps out a world of hidden bases dotting the globe.

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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 drone 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’ own militaries.

New and Old Empires

Even if the Pentagon budget were to begin to shrink in the coming years, 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 (DoD) 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… the time a drone can stay aloft depends on how heavily armed it is.”   According to a drone operator training document obtained by AlterNet, 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.com determinedthat there are more than 1,000 U.S. military bases scattered across the globe -- a shadowy base-world that provides 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 likely.   

 
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