Drones Don’t Work Alone — U.S. Patrol Planes and Fighters Teamed Up With Robots Over East Africa
In November 2002, the U.S. Navy command ship USS Mount Whitney dropped anchor off the coast of Djibouti in the Horn of Africa. American troops set up shop at Camp Lemonnier, a then-bare-bones French outpost in Djibouti that, 13 years later, is the U.S. military’s main base for launching drone strikes on suspected militants in Somalia and Yemen.
But the drones don’t work alone. On Oct. 15, The Intercept published secret documents from a military leaker detailing the forces, processes and challenges of America’s East Africa drone war. One revelation is the extent to which manned patrol planes and fighters augmented the Predator and Reaper drones hunting Al Qaeda and Al Shabab terrorists from Djibouti.
The leaked documents, dated 2013, reveal for the first time the name of the drone unit — Task Force 48–4, implying that it drew officers from the United Kingdom-based 48th Fighter Wing, which normally operates F-15 fighters. “TF 48–4 is organized into two main branches: East Africa (EA) in Nairobi, Kenya and Arabian Peninsula (AP) in Sana’a, Yemen,” the secret briefings explain. “TF 48–4 forward support element is at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti.”
As of 2013, U.S. Air Force and Navy fixed-wing drones and manned planes flew out of three regional airfields including Camp Lemonnier plus airfields in Manda Bay, Kenya and Ethiopia’s Arba Minch, the briefings reveal, adding that Navy MQ-8 Fire Scout robot helicopters and small, catapult-launched Scan Eagle drones, apparently flying from surface warships, supplemented the land-based aircraft.
According to the leaked documents, as of 2013 aircraft at Djibouti included 10 MQ-9 Reapers, four MQ-1 Predators, six U-28 single-engine manned spy planes and eight F-15E fighters — all 28 belonging to the Air Force — plus two Navy P-3 patrol planes.
One each MQ-1 and MQ-9, operated by civilian contractors, flew from Arba Minch. Two “medium fixed-wing” manned planes operated out of Manda Bay.
The Arabian Peninsula ops required three surveillance “orbits” — in other words, three aircraft on station at all times, peering down with cameras and other sensors. There was a shortfall until June 2011. The East Africa ops needed two orbits, which the task force was finally able to supply starting in February 2012.
Long distances were an issue. Aircraft had to fly 500 kilometers to reach Yemen and a thousand kilometers to get to Somalia, limiting their time over the target area and increasing the number of planes necessary to keep one on station at all times.
The briefings delineate the relative strengths of the different aircraft. The P-3 with its four engines is fast but lacks endurance. A Predator is slow but can linger over a target for up to 12 hours. In general, manned planes are faster; robotic aircraft stay in the air longer.
If the drones and manned spy planes could gather enough information in conjunction with other intel assets, TF-48–4 could request permission from the White House for an air strike on a suspected terrorist. If the president approved a strike, the task force had 60 days to kill the suspect before being required to repeat the intel-gathering process.
Five different entities were required to approve all strikes, including the task force, the regional U.S. military commander, the local CIA chief and his or her boss plus the government hosting the attacking aircraft. “All must concur or no strike occurs,” the briefings note.
Of the task force’s aircraft, only the MQ-1s, MQ-9s and F-15s carry weapons. As of June 2012, according to the briefings, the Task Force had 20 active approvals for air strikes — 16 in Yemen and four in Somalia.