Here’s How U.S. Air Force Drones Snoop on Latin America
Global Hawks fly reconnaissance missions south of the border
Drones are only getting more and more ubiquitous, but large military-grade unmanned spies are still too expensive for most countries to fly.
Well aware of these issues, the U.S. Air Force is working to make its massive RQ-4 Global Hawks available to its allies in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to an official briefing we obtained via the Freedom of Information Act.
During the 2011 briefing, the flying branch explained that the RQ-4—which has a longer wingspan than a Boeing 737 airliner—is useful for finding drug fields and helping plan offensives against rebel groups.
The drones can also map rainforests threatened by illegal logging, survey damage after natural disasters and take part in other missions the Pentagon refers to as “defense support to civil authorities.”
We don’t know how frequently Latin American countries have taken advantage of these offers. The briefing doesn’t offer any examples of actual RQ-4 missions. “We are proud to share our [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] capabilities and imagery products with our partner nations,” the briefing stated.
But we do know the Air Force — and its Global Hawks — do a fair amount of aerial snooping in the region.
“Over 900 missions and 4,600 flight hours resulted in over 28,000 images, 2,000 signals intelligence reports and nearly 17,000 minutes of video,” U.S. Southern Command chief Gen. John Kelly explained to the House of Representatives in February 2014.
Between 2007 and 2012, the Air Force’s Global Hawks specifically flew missions — with colorful nicknames like Seminole Axe and Shark Axe — for SOUTHCOM, according to heavily redacted official histories we also obtained through FOIA.
To be sure, Latin American governments are aware of these missions in advance.
The American command that oversees operations in Central and South America “is willing to conduct permissive over-flight of participating countries at their invitation and with their full cooperation,” the 2011 briefing stated.
If a friendly government wants a Global Hawk in the sky, then it simply has to ask. The Pentagon and the State Department then pass these requests on to SOUTHCOM. But there’s a limited amount of time to get the flights approved.
After SOUTHCOM’s Joint Collection Management Board decides where to send the command’s drones and spy planes for any particular quarter, a “customer” has a little more than a month to make their case.
The U.S. liaison officers “need valid imagery requirements from the PN early in the planning process,” the presentation stressed, using the acronym for “partner nation.”
Next, if American officials OK the proposal, the mission gets added to SOUTHCOM’s Joint Integrated Priority Collection List—the master list of spying targets.
The Air Force’s own headquarters for the region and 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base in California—which owns the RQ-4s—then get to work plotting out the actual flights.
After the drones finish up their missions, the flying branch can have the pictures ready for its friends in 10 days, the briefing stated. The presentation included a sample shot of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, home of Air Forces Southern.
But just because the Air Force wants to help out, doesn’t always mean it can. Ultimately, the “flights will be scheduled based upon partner nation requirements and aircraft availability,” the briefing explained.
So “all parties need a common understanding of Global Hawk collection capabilities,” the presentation stated. Unlike the smaller Predators and Reapers, the RQ-4s can’t record real-time video footage of a target area.
As a result, the drone’s “sensors [are] not ideal for real time surveillance of moving targets,” the briefing noted. The Global Hawk “is best employed against point targets.”
Even then, the unmanned aircraft’s cameras can have issues in bad weather. At least four years ago, not all of the RQ-4s had infrared cameras to cut through clouds and smoke.
With these various restrictions, “feedback from the customer is critical,” the briefing declared. “When a requirement is satisfied we need to know. If a requirement is not satisfied we need to know.”
In other words, there’s no need to waste time getting more images of the exact same thing. Even more importantly, if Global Hawks can’t get the job done, the Air Force might have another kind of aerial spy to offer — such as the RC-135V/W Rivet Joint.
The RQ-4 can still travel for quite a distance. With a maximum range of more than 12,000 miles, the Global Hawk can fly straight from Beale all the way to countries such as Colombia or Peru and back without difficulty.
Even better, the drones can easily fly these sorties from a largely unpublicized constellation of American bases across Latin America and the Caribbean.
After Washington returned the Panama Canal to Panamanian control in 1999, the Pentagon shifted operations to so-called “forward operating locations” in El Salvador and the Netherlands Antilles.
American planes regularly fly out of Comalapa Air Base in El Salvador and the tiny island of Curacao.
“Global Hawk aircraft will remain in approved [or international] airspace during transit to and from” their targets, the briefing added.
We know the Pentagon already used Global Hawks during natural disasters in the continental U.S. and the Caribbean. In fact, the drone’s first ever mission in this capacity was to snap photos of raging wildfires in California in October 2007.
Three years later, RQ-4s helped chart the devastation in Haiti following the country’s catastrophic 7.0-magnitude earthquake. In both instances, the Air Force also sent U-2 spy planes — with their powerful optical bar cameras — to help.
Now with new concerns about Middle Eastern terrorist groups finding their way into South and Central America and the Caribbean, regional interest in Global Hawks and other spy planes has probably only increased.
“I remain concerned, however, that U.S. Southern Command’s limited intelligence assets may prevent full awareness of the activities of Iranian and terrorist support networks in the region,” Kelly noted to legislators.
“The bright shining object right now [is] Islamic terrorism and extremism,” the general reiterated during a press conference on March 12. So, “depending on what country it is, we share a great deal of either intelligence or information.”
Which means that — for now — the Global Hawk is likely sticking around south of the border.